Court: Germany must share climate burden between young, old

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A coal-fired RWE power plant steams on a sunny day in Neurath, Germany, Thursday, April 29, 2021. Germany's top court ruled Thursday that the country's government has to set clear goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions after 2030, arguing that current legislation doesn't go far enough in ensuring that climate change is limited to acceptable levels. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)

BERLIN – In a ruling hailed as groundbreaking, Germany's top court said Thursday the government must set clear goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions after 2030, arguing that existing legislation risks placing too much of a burden for curbing climate change on younger generations.

The verdict was a victory for climate activists from Germany and elsewhere who — with the support of environmental groups — had filed four complaints to the Constitutional Court arguing that their rights were at risk by the lack of sufficient targets beyond the next decade.

Like other European Union countries, Germany aims to cut emissions 55% below 1990 levels by 2030. Legislation passed two years ago set specific targets for sectors such as heating and transport over that period, but not for the long-term goal of cutting emissions to “net zero” by 2050.

The 2019 regulations "irreversibly pushed a very high burden of emissions reduction into the period after 2030," judges said in their ruling.

The court backed the argument that the 2015 Paris climate accord's goal of keeping global warming well below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), ideally no more than 1.5 C (2.7 F), by the end of the century compared with pre-industrial times should be a benchmark for policymakers. It ordered the German government to come up with new targets from 2030 onward by the end of next year.

In a striking precedent, the court also acknowledged the idea that Germany has a finite emissions "budget” before the Paris goal becomes impossible. While it didn't specify what Germany's share of the global carbon budget is, scientists have said at current rates of emission it could be used up in less than a decade.

Lawyer Felix Ekardt, who brought one of the cases, called the verdict “groundbreaking” for Germany.

“Germany’s climate policy will need to be massively adjusted,” he told reporters.