The German Presidency of the EU Council: is climate protection still a priority?

, by Jérôme Flury, Théo Boucart, translated by Joanna Magill

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]

The German Presidency of the EU Council: is climate protection still a priority?

Thirteen years later, Germany regains the Presidency of the Council of the European Union for another semester (6 months). Although Angela Merkel is still Chancellor and Frank-Walter Steinmeier, former Federal Minister of Foreign Affairs, is still President of the Federal Republic of Germany, the challenges facing both Germany and the European Union have greatly changed during this period. Environmental and economic issues now find themselves amongst the top priorities.

“The starting point for our efforts” - Andreas Scheuer, Germany’s Federal Minister for Transport and Digital Networks, puts climate protection at the top of the agenda. The minister went even further, emphasising the common will of Germany, Portugal and Slovenia, the three states which are preparing to take over the presidency of the EU Council, so as to launch the innovative move towards sustainable mobility. This will notably involve improving the rail network within the Union.

The programme of the Council of the EU has been drawn up for the next eighteen months by the three countries that will hold the Presidency in succession. The issue of environmental transition features among the nine main points: “Building a green and climate-neutral Europe and achieve the 17 Sustainable Development Goals and the aims of Europe’s Green Deal.” Thus, the European Commission’s commitment to the ‘Green Deal’ remains on the agenda. “The fight against climate change and digital transformation remain at the top of the Germany’s presidential agenda”, writes the Federal Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

COVID-19 has disrupted plans

The pandemic could have changed this state of affairs within the European institutions. But on 4th June, Virginijus Sinkevicius, European Commissioner for the Environment, confirmed on Ouest-France that this wasn’t the case at all. “Our health depends largely on the health of nature. These issues should be treated with the same urgency as before.”

Vice-President Frans Timmermans also echoed this sentiment, reminding us on 17th June “The Green Deal remains our compass, nothing has changed.”. Less than a week later, on 23rd June, it was the turn of Tomislav Ćorić, Croatian Minister for Energy and the Environment, to declare that “public investments made with the aim of recovery after the pandemic must respect the Green Deal and not harm the environment.”

The EU Council’s own programme recognises that containing the pandemic is a “top priority” but states that “the return to the full functionality of European societies and economies” must be carried out, inter alia, “by promoting sustainable and inclusive growth, including the ecological transition.” And in one of its latest communicationss] Under Croatia’s presidency, on the 25 June, the Council of the European Union stressed “the crucial role of the energy sector in the EU’s economic recovery”, indicating the need of “ “to make the European economy greener, more circular and more digital.”

A chance to accelerate this transition

What is certain is that the transport sector, through which the spread of COVID-19 has accelerated, is undergoing a major crisis. The aeronautics sector is experiencing great difficulty and despite the announcements of economic aid made by national governments, notably in Germany and France, companies are asking the Union for help to achieve this green transition which promises to be complex. The same is true for the European automobile market, which is expected to experience an unprecedented 25% decline in 2020. In France, Emmanuel Macron announced investments of over 8 million euros to make the automobile industry “greener and more competitive”.

The pandemic may not have turned everything upside down, but our societies today are probably at a crossroads when it comes to deciding which recovery to adopt.

’Yale Environment’ magazine recently compared two options: the optimistic view, championed by Glen Peters, director of research at the Centre for International Climate Research in Oslo, Norway, predicts that “2020 could be the year in which world emissions reach their peak.” But the reality could be quite different.

A dethroned leader?

The climate priority particularly suits Germany, a country that has long been a true pioneer in the fight against climate change and energy transition at European level.

The results obtained by Germany in terms of greenhouse gas reduction and the development of renewable energies are also very positive, the country is the best in Europe for respecting of the Kyoto Protocol (% reduction in greenhouse gases to be found). Since the passing of the Renewable Energy Act (Erneuerbare Energien Gesetz) in 2000, Germany has considerably developed its renewable capacities (in 2019, Germany’s energy and electricity mix comprised 36% and 45% renewable sources respectively). As early as 2011, the Bundestag voted for the definitive closure of all nuclear power plants by 2022 (this closure was already decided under Gerhard Schröder’s social-ecological coalition).Last year, a committee charged with reflecting on the exit from coal set their deadline to 2038. If these plans are to be fully implemented, Germany will have to significantly expand its renewable capacities and its natural gas supply (especially from Siberia), which poses a problem of energy independence.

On the European stage, Berlin has also shown itself to be a driving force in various negotiations on the creation of an integrated climate and energy policy. Whether it be the climate and energy package of 2020, passed in 2008; the Energy Union of 2015 or the Green Deal last year, Germany has been pushing for a European environmental policy since the turn of the century.

Nevertheless, there are still grey areas. Germany is still one of the countries in Europe with the highest carbon footprint per capita (due to the industrial nature of its economy) and the decline of nuclear power has to some extent favoured coal (although renewables have been the big winners in this “Atomausstieg”. However, environmental problems are nevertheless very present in this densely populated country, where the Greens are regularly credited with more than 20% of the votes, behind the conservative CDU but ahead of the Social Democrats.

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