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On September 20th, more than 1.4 million people went on the streets in Germany to demand real climate action. My government’s response to these mass-demonstrations will go down as one of the worst political failures of this century. The last 12 months of German climate politics show exactly how little Merkel and her cabinet have understood when it comes to the climate crisis. And they also make clear that the German citizens are not backing down.
What is at stake became clear to me a year ago. In the summer of 2018, thousands of people gathered in the Hambacher Forest — a small piece of land near Cologne. While German politicians were discussing how much longer coal mines should be allowed to pollute our environment and contribute to the climate crisis, these people were eager to act on it. By building tree houses and organizing mass demonstrations they tried to protect the forest which is located directly at the edge of one of the biggest German coal mines. The message was clear: in order to limit the most catastrophic consequences of rising world temperatures, we can no longer mindlessly tear down villages and entire ecosystems for the expansion of coal mines. What they asked for was a phasing-out of coal that is in line with the Paris Agreement and would consequently protect the surroundings of the mine from being destroyed.
These weeks in the Hambacher Forest with tens of thousands of demonstrators showing up on several occasions and hundreds living in the forest during this period became one of the catalyzers for a nationwide climate movement. And it also meant that I was eager to get active, too. That is why in January, Luisa Neubauer and I wrote an open letter to the coal commission (the committee to decide on the phase-out date of German coal production) urging them to think about the consequences of their work. We knew that this decision had major implications not only on the biggest factor of GHG emissions in our country but also on global coal production. Since Germany is still the number one producer of coal, setting an ambitious date would have significantly increased the pressure on other countries.
“The eyes of future generations are upon you in this very moment: will your committee be part of decades of political decisions disrespecting the future of our planet, or will it finally rise to the occasion and provide us with a livable future? History will judge you. And we will be the witnesses.“
Here is an extract from our letter which we presented on the last day in front of the committee, mainly consisting of elder white men: „Most likely, there won’t be a similar opportunity to have such a far-reaching impact on climate change like this. Do not dare to miss this historic and unique chance. The eyes of future generations are upon you in this very moment: will your committee be part of decades of political decisions disrespecting the future of our planet, or will it finally rise to the occasion and provide us with a livable future? History will judge you. And we will be the witnesses.“
One day later, the commission, unfortunately, did not surprise us. Germany intends to run its coal mines until 2038 — at least eight years longer than compatible with the Paris Agreement. The first hugely missed opportunity in 2019.
In our letter, we were wrong on one point: there would be another chance to drastically reduce our GHG emissions. It took exactly eight months to put enough pressure on the German government to make them renew their climate promises. With thousands of young people marching in the streets every Friday since the end of 2018, Merkel’s cabinet had to justify completely missing the goals of the Paris Agreement. What had happened in those months?
Roughly four months after Greta Thunberg’s first school strike, the German FridaysForFuture movement was started and its demonstrations quickly attracted thousands of young people in locations all over the country. On each of the first two global strikes, around 300,000 demonstrators took to the streets to demand climate policies in line with the goal of limiting global warming to the threshold of 1.5 degrees Celsius. This finally put the spotlight on the country’s disastrous level of GHG emissions and the importance of hugely increasing the ambition to reduce them.
On September 20th, our German movement decided to call for all generations to accompany us on the streets. During nine months of school strikes, we realized that the pressure from the youth did not suffice. Under our hashtag for the day ‚#AlleFürsKlima‘ (#EverybodyForClimate), some of the biggest labour unions in our country, thousands of CEOs and dozens of NGOs followed our call. At the end of the day, 1.4 million people from all walks of society took to the streets in around 600 rallies making it one of the biggest demonstrations in the history of our country.
Since December, we have mobilized for Germany to comply with the 1.5-degree goal. Our movement’s six demands are therefore centred around this mark — meaning that we are continuing to strike for a price on carbon which represents the societal costs of pollution as well as an end to coal-subsidies and the phasing-out of coal by 2030. This should make our country become carbon-neutral by 2035 and run entirely on renewable energy by the same year.
The government’s own climate goals do not suffice since they are still based on the old 2-degree goal which was stated before the Paris Agreement. This meant that while Merkel’s cabinet promised to announce a new climate package for the day of our demonstrations it ruled out an adaption of these goals. So we already knew that the decisions of this day would not get us in line with our country’s pledges from Paris.
What came was even worse than that. Although some of the cabinet members promised to make an ambitious climate package a prerequisite for the future of the coalition, their decisions were a slap in the face of the 1.4 million demonstrators. Carbon pricing won’t start before 2021 and is ridiculously low (10 euros per ton CO2). We will not phase-out of coal before 2038. Fossil-fuel subsidies were not reconsidered and will probably even increase in the upcoming years. Our famous ‚Energiewende‘ (the transition to renewable energy) which was essentially stopped by Merkel’s cabinet in the last two legislature periods, will not be restarted. All in all, climate scientists tell us clearly: these decisions are a renunciation of the 1.5-degree goal. They even mean that the government’s own climate goals which are not in line with the Paris Agreement will be failed again. After not having been able to reach the reduction rates for 2020 already, this is a dead loss for our nation’s climate politics.
My personal conclusion is clear: if Merkel’s cabinet does not completely revise this ridiculous climate package, it has to step down. The upcoming weeks will be decisive in showing how unsatisfied the majority of our society is with disrespecting all of our pledges from the Paris Agreement. What we need is a complete transformation of our energy, transportation, and agriculture sectors. Since December, millions of Germans have participated in our strikes and our next global day of climate action on 29/11 is already being planned — how much longer can they ignore us?