Essence of berlin

Sustainability in Germany

Sam Bavin 10 mins
Sustainability in Germany

Germany is one of the world’s most sustainable industrial nations. 

This was the conclusion reached by a recent international comparative study conducted by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) – an intergovernmental body founded in 1961 to stimulate economic progress and world trade. Referring to the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set by the United Nations in 2015, 34 of the 37 OECD member states were assessed for the first time on a variety of factors ranging from environmental protection, economic growth, and quality of welfare systems. 

Germany ranked 6th on the OECD’s list, performing particularly well in the areas of growth, employment and social security.

A positive result in the context of the study, but just how sustainable is Germany? 


Germany’s National Sustainable Development Strategy


In 2002 the Federal Republic presented its national sustainable development strategy entitled: "Perspectives for Germany – Our Strategy for Sustainable Development". Measures outlined in the strategy were then adopted in 2010 and have been subject to periodical revision. In 2016, for example, the German government radically revised the strategy to align it with the 17 sustainable development goals to be achieved by 2030 that were adopted by the United Nations in September of 2015.

Currently Germany intends to cut its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 40% by the end of this year and by at least 80% by 2050 (compared to a 1990 baseline). Renewables are to account for 60% of the energy going into the grid by 2050, and in the coming years organic farming is to account  for one fifth of all agricultural production. Land consumption is to be limited to less than 30 hectares per day and with regard to healthcare, the percentage of smokers is to be reduced considerably by 2030 as well as the amount of nitrogen oxide and particulate pollution in the atmosphere. As of the 2016 revisions, sustainability in private consumption has been on the agenda too. The market share for certified fair trade and organic products is to rise to 34% by 2030. 


Successes and Failures


The measures seem to be working. As of 2019 Germany had managed to reduce its GHG emissions by 35.7%.

The greatest successes have come in the energy sector. Between 2018 and 2019 alone Germany reduced the amount of CO2 released into the atmosphere in energy production by 51 million tonnes – a roughly 16.5% drop in one year. In 2019 around 45% of energy produced came from renewable sources. Currently there are roughly 30,000 wind turbines in Germany, making the Federal Repbulic the third largest producer of wind power in the world. Wind power accounted for nearly 25% of all energy generated in the country last year – more than brown coal (19.9%), hard coal (9.5%), natural gas (10.5%), and nuclear power (13.8%). There are also over 1.5 million photovoltaic solar panel systems around the country, ranging from small rooftop installations to large utility-scale solar parks. In 2019 solar power accounted for around 9% of energy production. Biomass and hydroelectric also made significant contributions to the grid – roughly 9% and 4% respectively. Germany also plans to phase out electricity produced from nuclear power plants by 2022, and earlier this year the German cabinet adopted its coal exit law aiming to end coal-fired power generation in the country by 2038 at the very latest.

Despite these positive changes, Germany is still predominantly reliant on fossil fuels – with around 55% of energy generated in the Federal Republic coming from non-renewable sources. Germany’s reliance on brown coal – lignite – is particularly worrying. Lignite is considered to be the lowest rank of coal and ‘the dirtiest fossil fuel’. It is the coal most harmful to human health and its extraction is also extremely damaging to the environment. Despite Germany’s declaration that they are heading for a complete coal exit, mining company RWE (Europe’s largest CO2 emitter) has expanded two of Europe’s largest lignite mines – Garzweiler and Hambach – in recent years, destroying some of Germany’s oldest forests in the process. Vigorous protests against the Garzweiler and Hambach mines have become ritual in the Rhineland and their continued operation and expansion flies in the face of the Federal Republic's progressive rhetoric. 

Elsewhere, positive change has been registered in agriculture. Between 2018 and 2019 the sector saw a 2.3% reduction in its GHG emissions – mainly due to declining livestock numbers and a decline in mineral fertiliser sales. A report cautioned, however, that these reductions could have been in large part due to the consequences of extremely dry weather across the country. The same report concluded that increased frequency of sunny and windy weather conditions could also have been a significant contributor to the rise in wind and solar power yield. 

One area in which Germany was considered to be lacking in the survey conducted by the OECD was sustainable business and corporate responsibility. A prime example of this was the Volkswagen emissions scandal – ‘Dieselgate’. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a notice of violation of the US Clean Air Act to the German car manufacturing giant in September of 2015. The EPA found that Volkswagen had intentionally programmed turbocharged direct injection diesel engines to activate their emissions controls only during laboratory emissions testing which caused the vehicles' nitrogen oxide output to meet US standards during regulatory testing, but emit up to 40 times more nitrogen oxides in real-world driving. Volkswagen deployed this software in about 11 million cars worldwide in model years 2009 through 2015. 

It was a huge embarrassment, as historically German governments have been significant supporters of the automotive industry. The following year, as part of the revisions made to Germany’s sustainability strategy in accordance with UN climate goals, measures were introduced to encourage corporate responsibility and accountability in Germany. Despite this, emissions from the transport and automotive industries have been rising. Gas consumption increased in Germany from 2018 to 2019, and the total number of motor vehicles in circulation also rose by 1.6% in the same period. What’s more, recent events in the form of the global Covid-19 pandemic appear to have placed economic concerns before environmental ones. Both the automotive industry and Lufthansa, Germany’s flagship airline, received huge bailouts from the German state – with none of the state aid coming with green or environmental stipulations. The lack of a sustainable mandate in the bailouts dashed the hopes of those who had hoped for a greener restructuring of these polluting industries in the wake of coronavirus. 


Looking to the Future


Evidently there is still work to be done. Considering, though, that Germany is one of the world’s foremost industrial nations and that the German economy is primarily geared toward production and export (Germany is one of the largest exporters globally), the strides the Federal Republic has made with regards to reducing its GHG emissions, incentivising sustainable practice, and planning for a post-carbon future have been significant. 

What is heartening, also, is that it appears that there is intent to go even further. The German Council for Sustainable Development (RNE) – the board appointed by the German government to advise upon and guide green policy – has advocated that sustainability be taken up as a national goal in the German constitution. The move, the council believe, would send a “clear and important political signal to the international community – after all, a global transformation will only be possible if all nations consistently implement the UN Sustainable Development Goals within their borders and in collaboration with other countries.”

As of yet, the Bundestag has not amended the constitution as the RNE have suggested, but, based upon progressive policies implemented by the Federal Republic in the past two decades, there is hope that sustainability will be legally mandated in Germany in the near future. 




German Council for Sustainable Development 

German Federal Government 

Deutsche Welle 


Header image © ‘Andreas’ via Flickr