BERLIN (REUTERS, NYTIMES) – Germany must update its climate law by the end of next year to set out how it will bring carbon emissions down to almost zero by 2050, its top court ruled on Thursday (April 29), siding with a young woman who argued that rising sea levels would engulf her family farm.
The court concluded that a law passed in 2019 had failed to make sufficient provision for cuts beyond 2030, casting a shadow over a signature achievement of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s final term in office.
“The challenged provisions do violate the freedoms of the complainants, some of whom are still very young,” the court said in a statement. “The provisions irreversibly offload major emission reduction burdens onto periods after 2030.”
Ministers said they would draw up the necessary legislation soon, with Economy Minister Peter Altmaier promising proposals next week.
Among the plaintiffs was Ms Sophie Backsen, 22, daughter of a farming family on the North Sea island of Pellworm, who fears that rising sea levels would engulf her low-lying island, leaving her with no inheritance.
“We are super happy with the court’s decision,” she told a news conference. “Effective climate protection has to be implemented now and not in 10 years’ time, when it’ll be too late.”
The law commits Germany to ensuring that by 2030, carbon dioxide emissions should be at least 55 per cent lower than in 1990, and that almost no carbon dioxide be emitted by 2050.
The challenge was backed by environmental groups including Greenpeace and the Fridays for Future movement inspired by Swedish activist Greta Thunberg.
“The court has handed down a major and significant ruling,” said Mr Altmaier in a tweet. “It is epoch-making for climate protection and the rights of young people. And it creates certainty for the economy.”
The ruling was stark in the obligations it imposed on the government, said Ms Roda Verheyen, a lawyer for the plaintiffs.
“The court focuses on the civil liberties of future generations, saying those rights are being infringed already today,” she said. “This isn’t vague, but a very clear decision about fundamental rights.”
The ruling could also have political repercussions before an election in September that may see the environmentalist Greens participate in government.
Mr Markus Soeder, premier of the southern state of Bavaria, said the ruling offered an opportunity that his conservative bloc should embrace.
“Don’t duck away from this, but tackle it now,” he said, adding that the conservatives should set the pace on the issue.
In 2019, the Dutch Supreme Court also imposed tougher climate change regulation on its government, saying it had done too little to protect the low-lying country’s citizens from threats to their “lives and well-being”.
The 2019 German law included a raft of measures such as a US$60 billion (S$79.6 billion) spending package, a fee system for carbon emissions, and taxes to make flying more expensive.
But the law only stipulated how reductions should be reached over the coming decade. Decisions about how and how much to reduce carbon emissions between 2031 and 2050 were left open, to be decided in 2025.
In their suit, the climate activists had charged that by failing to lay out a long-term strategy with clear targets for reductions through when Germany aims to be carbon-neutral, the government was effectively kicking the can down the road and risking the freedom of future generations, who would have to live with the consequences.
Young climate activists, nine of whom had challenged the law, welcomed the decision to side with their concerns that the failure to pass stringent-enough legislation today will endanger their lives when they reach adulthood.
The nine youth who were among those who brought the case ranged in age from 15 to 24. Other activists also celebrated the court’s focus on the future as a watershed moment in the fight against climate change.
Mr Christoph Bals, executive director of the Germanwatch environmental group, said: “This ruling will be a key reference point for all climate lawsuits pending around the world.”