Historic German court decision rules climate inaction violates rights of the young

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The highest court in Germany has ruled that the government’s climate policies are insufficient because they do not detail emissions reductions past 2030. This violates the freedoms of young people, as it potentially ‘backloads’ climate action onto future generations in addition to burdening them with the consequences of short term inaction.

Germany’s ‘Climate Action Law’ came into effect in late 2019, as part of a package of policy designed to reach the country’s 2030 climate targets. This is a 55% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, including sector-specific annual emissions budgets up to 2030.

However, “the provisions irreversibly offload major emission reduction burdens onto periods after 2030”, said Germany’s top court. “For this target to be reached, the reductions still necessary after 2030 will have to be achieved with ever greater speed and urgency. These future obligations to reduce emissions have an impact on practically every type of freedom because virtually all aspects of human life still involve the emission of greenhouse gases and are thus potentially threatened by drastic restrictions after 2030. Therefore, the legislator should have taken precautionary steps to mitigate these major burdens in order to safeguard the freedom guaranteed by fundamental rights”.

The decision is significant partly because it establishes a legal precedent for challenging unequal climate targets that underplay ambition in the short term and rely on significant future actions.

“We are already today suffering from the effects of climate change. Severe monsoon rains with landslides and floods are killing people and many have lost their belongings and houses. The only way we can help ourselves is by forcing those states to act that are heavily responsible for climate change,” said Yi Yi Prue, a Bangladeshi complainant in the case.

Climate Action Tracker, run by analytics firm Climate Analytics, rates Germany’s climate policies as ‘highly insufficient’, and aligned with, approximately, a 4 degree Celsius temperature rise. “The German government’s Climate Action Programme 2030, adopted in December 2019, does not contain enough policy measures to meet its own 2020 or 2030 emissions reduction targets, which themselves are outdated and insufficient”, said Climate Action Tracker. “The targets might be met only with the impact of COVID-19 under a worst-case scenario. The CAT rates Germany’s 55% emissions reduction target for 2030 (agreed in 2010) as “Highly Insufficient”, it needs to be strengthened to be compatible with the Paris Agreement”.


Germany’s renewable energy growth has stalled, due partly to the poor development of wind farms and transmission lines that ease their integration into the country’s grid. However, in 2020, this saw signs of reversal. Germany reached a ‘coal compromise’ in 2019 to fully phase-out coal by 2038, as long as affected regions received very large compensation payments. However, OECD countries must phase out coal by 2030 to align with 1.5C climate pathways. Ember Climate estimates that in 2030, under current plans, Germany will generate 30% of the EU’s total coal power, the largest share of any country followed by Poland, at 22%. These two countries alone will be burdened with half all EU power sector emissions in 2030.

The issue is relevant to Australia’s refusal to increase its ambition with regards to its 2030 Paris climate agreement targets, which are also not compatible with a 1.5C pathway, and also ‘backload’ mitigation efforts into later decades instead of ensuring rapid action in the short term.

A recent analysis from the Potsdam climate institute found that the EU could successfully phase out coal by 2030. “In our computer simulations of the new ambitious targets, this would mean that renewables would contribute almost three fourths of the power generation already in 2030 and we would reach zero emissions in the power sector as soon as by 2040. Once the change is initiated, it can gain speed in an unprecedented way”, said the researchers.

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