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German activists take government to court over climate policy
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German activists take government to court over climate policy

German climate activists are taking the government to court for “unconstitutional” climate policy, seeking to build on a landmark victory three years ago that they had hoped would force Europe’s biggest polluter to clean up quickly.

The activists argue that the new climate law is too weak, that a recent update makes it harder to enforce, and that inaction from the transport ministry, which has repeatedly failed to meet its emissions targets, will force tough measures on poor groups in the future.

“Our last win made it clear that we have a right to climate action,” said Luisa Neubauer, a climate activist and leading figure in the Fridays for Future school strike movement. “Yet three years later, the government is failing to take necessary action.”

Germany, a major carmaker that burns coal for one-quarter of its electricity, is on track to fall just short of its target to pump 65% fewer planet-heating pollutants into the air in 2030 than it did in 1990. Its top court ruled a previous version of its climate law partly unconstitutional in 2021 when Neubauer and other activists won a legal challenge.

Chided by the court and admonished by activists, the previous government updated the law to cut emissions faster and include targets for each sector. But this year – under pressure from the market-liberal Free Democrats party, a minor coalition partner that controls the transport and finance ministries – the current government scrapped the sectoral targets, watered down requirements for catch-up actions and reduced legal pressure to plan beyond 2030.

Liz Hicks, a law researcher at the University of Münster, said “conflicting visions” on climate action within the governing coalition had made it harder to enforce the 2021 ruling. “The [latest] amendment makes it more difficult to implement the targets in the Climate Protection Act, even if they exist on paper.”

The previous ruling deemed Germany’s old climate law unconstitutional because it violated “intertemporal freedoms” – pushing the burden of fast action on to future generations – but stopped short of saying the government had failed in its obligations so far.

Since then, Germany’s scientific watchdogs have repeatedly documented gaps between targets and actions in sectors of the economy such as transport and buildings. The Council of Experts on Climate Change, a body set up by the government after the climate law was first established, said that a transport ministry action plan to make up for its shortcomings in 2022 was too weak to even warrant a formal assessment.

The activists argue the government has “wastefully used up the carbon budget” in the three years since the last court ruling. They point to its rejection of cheap policies to cut pollution, such as putting a general speed limit on motorways, as missed opportunities.

Maxim Bönnemann, the editor-in-chief of Verfassungsblog, an academic publication about German constitutional law, said the constitutional complaint was trying to “give teeth” to the principle of intertemporal freedom. “Germany is unlikely to meet its climate targets for 2030, which means that young people will have to accept significant restrictions on their freedoms in the future if Germany does not make its climate policy more ambitious today.”

A spokesperson for the German climate and economy ministry said the federal government was “convinced” that the amendment to the law in April was constitutional. The spokesperson said it improved the evaluation of climate policy by introducing an annual forecast of emissions reductions, allowing for more reports by the Council of Experts on Climate Change, and required adjustments if targets were missed two years in a row.

“In addition, every new government must adopt a comprehensive climate protection programme within the first 12 months of its term in office,” the spokesperson said.

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The complaint, brought by Fridays for Future together with other environmental groups including Greenpeace and Germanwatch, also argues that people in rural areas and other socially disadvantaged groups will be hit hardest by tougher measures necessary to make up for a lack of action today.

“Today’s inactivity violates fundamental rights,” said Roda Verheyen, a lawyer for the activists. “We are running into a situation where freedom is just a question of the purse.”

The complaint cites the recent victory at the European court of human rights of 2,400 older Swiss women demanding Switzerland do its fair share to stop climate change because their demographic is more likely to die during heatwaves. The court ruled partly in their favour – finding that the Swiss government had violated their human rights with weak policy – but Swiss lawmakers rejected the ruling.

Neubauer said the situation in Germany was similar to that in many other liberal democracies and hoped that the case would close the gap between rhetoric and action across the board. “In theory, our governments applaud climate action. In practice, they keep delaying necessary measures to cut emissions – hence increasing the burden for the future.”

Source: theguardian.com