In a decision considered historic, Germany’s highest court ruled that the costs of tackling climate change cannot be pushed onto the shoulders of future generations and that, therefore, the 2019 law on climate protection was partially unconstitutional.
In addition to the environmental issue, the ruling of the German Constitutional Court (Bundesverfassungsgericht) is important because it establishes that policies with long-term impacts cannot ignore these future costs, what has been called “intergenerational protection of the environment. freedom”.
The challenged law established reductions in emissions of greenhouse gases – substances that absorb some of the sun’s rays and redistribute that radiation back into the atmosphere, heating the planet. Among the main ones are carbon dioxide (CO2), produced by the combustion of fuels with gasoline and diesel, and methane, released in agricultural activities.
The commitment made in 2019 by the government of Prime Minister Angela Merkel is to reduce emissions recorded in 1990 by 55% and reach them zero by 2050 by 2030. But the law does not specify how it will reach the target from 2031.
It is “a too short-sighted distribution of freedom”, estimated the constitutional judges, according to which the contested law harms “the plaintiffs, some of whom are very young”.
“Virtually all freedoms are potentially affected by these future emission reduction obligations, as almost all areas of human life are associated with the emission of greenhouse gases and are therefore threatened by drastic restrictions after 2030”, said the magistrates.
Activities affected by emission reductions include transport, animal husbandry, agriculture, construction, energy production, forest management and industrial processes.
It is precisely because of the impact on the auto industry – one of the largest in Germany and under the responsibility of conservative ministers – that the Merkel government has not agreed to tighten emission reduction targets. during the debates on the 2019 law.
These more flexible plans, however, left most of the burden on generations to come, argued the Fridays for Future movement (Fridays for the Future, led by Greta Thunberg) and entities like Greenpeace and Friends of the United Nations. Land in Germany.
In its decision, the court relied on a constitutional article which states that “the state is also responsible for protecting the natural foundations of life for future generations”. The duty was included in the text in 1994, but it was the first time that it was levied in Germany.
In addition, the German judges made it clear that there is a scientific consensus that human actions cause climate change, reliable enough to be factored into their decisions.
“The German Constitutional Court has ruled that climate justice is a fundamental right. Inaction today must not undermine our freedom and our rights in the future, ”said Luisa Neubauer, one of the best-known members of the FfF, known as“ German Greta Thunberg ”, on a social network.
From a practical standpoint, the decision has little impact – the government has until the end of 2022 to present detailed emission reduction targets from 2031. Politically, however, it is a blow. for the Union (CDU-CSU), Merkel conservative party, which faces strong competition from the Greens in the campaign for the federal elections in September.
With the exception of the health crisis, the defense of the environment was mentioned as the main concern of the Germans in the last Eurobarometer survey and the subject, which will have a certain place in the electoral debates, is already appearing in the voting intentions. .
In last week’s polls, the candidate for Prime Minister of the Greens, Annalena Baerbock, leads numerically, with 25%. Conservative candidate Amir Laschet appears in a technical draw with 24%, but support for the Union has steadily declined since early February, while that of the Greens has only increased in the last 35 days.
Along with growing pressure for the succession of Merkel – who is leaving government after 16 years – the Supreme Court’s decision has also caused outbursts within the government bloc. Finance Minister Olaf Scholz, candidate for Prime Minister of the Social Democratic SPD, criticized the CDU for drafting a climate law with the shortcomings presented by the court.
Also from the SPD, Federal Environment Minister Svenja Schulze called the verdict “an exclamation point for climate protection”. The Social Democrats criticized the Economy Ministry (led by the CDU) for putting the brakes on environmental legislation.
Conservatives, for their part, often claim that Germany is responsible for around 2% of global carbon dioxide emissions and that tackling climate change requires coordinated global action, not just one country. The court said, however, that the national state was not exempt from liability.
Emissions reductions are needed to comply with the Paris Agreement, under which 195 countries pledged to implement programs to contain global warming to a maximum of 1.5 degrees Celsius above the average global temperature of the pre-industrial period.
The transformation of environmental protection in the case of justice has developed in Europe. In 2019, the Dutch Constitutional Court also imposed more drastic cuts in greenhouse gas emissions.
In September last year, six Portuguese children and young people filed a complaint against 33 countries before the European Court of Human Rights, accusing them of jeopardizing their future.
In France in February, the Paris administrative court ruled that the government was not doing enough to contain climate change.
Conversely, at the end of March, the European Court of Justice (CJEC) rejected the appeals brought by ten families demanding stricter climate objectives in the European Union. According to European judges, individuals cannot question EU laws for their collective effects.
In the same decision as Thursday (29), the German court did not approve another complaint from environmental activists in their action – that the government has failed in its duty to protect future generations from climate change.