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Hendricks: "Nothing less than transforming our society"

Porträtbild von Barbara Hendricks
In dem englischsprachigen Interview spricht Bundesumweltministerin Barbara Hendricks unter anderem über Deutschlands Energietransformation und wie diese die Gesellschaft grundlegend verändern wird.

Ms. Hendricks, a four-year term as Germany's environment minister is approaching its end. What do you consider your greatest achievements in climate policy during this time, both internationally and at home?

In international climate policy, we have successfully given a lot of impetus for reaching the Paris Climate Agreement. In the follow-up to Paris, at the COP in Marrakesh, we managed to get the so-called NDC-Partnership off the ground together with Morocco. This project is running quite well and a couple of industrialised countries have joined ranks with us. Together, we seek to assist countries of the global south to implement their own NDCs. That is a very important intermediate result and I think we've made a lot of progress on it. Also, we are going to prepare the upcoming COP – as the technical host, the presidency is with Fiji, as you know. At the climate conference in Bonn we want to highlight the vulnerable role of island nations to the world and I think we're well on our way to prepare a good COP.

As far as national climate policy is concerned, I must emphasise that Germany as the first country in the world came up with a Climate Action Plan, in November 2016 at the conference in Morocco. The plan clearly outlines our 2050 goals and says what we will have to do by 2030 to achieve them. It is a clear decision to organise life and work in Germany in a practically greenhouse gas neutral way by 2050.

And is there anything that you regret or would have liked to do better during your term?

Of course. You always have to deal with diverging interests that are weighed differently by different parts of the government. As environment minister, you have more far-reaching ambitions in climate protection than, for example, the Transport ministry. However, I'm satisfied that the entire government agreed on setting emissions reduction aims for 2030 in all sectors, including industry, agriculture and transport. This is binding for other parts of the government and for all sectors – for the first time ever, which is a great success. But it also means that we can't put the entire burden on the energy industry. The other sectors need be held accountable as well. So far in agriculture and transport, sadly, almost nothing has happened yet.

Climate protection has been a stated aim by both governing parties already in the coalition agreement in 2013. Why then did it take until late 2016 to agree on a Climate Action Plan?

We wanted our Climate Action Plan to be developed in the light of the Paris Agreement. As the Paris Agreement turned out to be far more ambitious than many people expected, this approach was actually quite helpful in our negotiations with the other ministries. But nevertheless, we still had to surmount some reservations.

Do you think these frictions could resurface once it comes to implementation?

Yes, without a doubt. We talk about nothing less than transforming our society and, evidently, this is going to be a big challenge.

Which sectors do you think are going to be especially affected by and reluctant to change?

A lot will have to be done in the transport sector, since there has been no CO2 reduction since 1990 whatsoever. Things look similar in the agricultural sector – but in this sector emissions can't be reduced entirely. If we say that Germany will have to 'largely' be greenhouse gas neutral by 2050, we mean that some agricultural emissions will remain. But all other sectors will have to be truly greenhouse gas neutral by then.

Let's look at the energy sector again: What holds Germany to back to at least devise a concrete plan for exiting coal-fired power production?

Our Climate Action Plan does say that we need to come up with a plan for – or a path towards – phasing out coal. It doesn't come as a surprise that this will still take some time but we have to describe how we intend to do it. That's what you have to do if you have a however distant goal. But the reason why this hasn't happened yet is that we still need a debate within our society how that goal can be reached. This debate has to include everyone, workers, local business and others involved in regions where coal mining plays a key role, such as in Lusatia, so they can adapt appropriately. And of course energy security is a factor as well. We're exiting nuclear energy by 2022 and have to ensure that this works out too. It is clear that there will be no coal-fired power production in 2050, our target year for climate neutrality. Today, I can't say how much in advance we will reach that point, but the sooner we start to work out the necessary steps the better.

Which steps would that be?

Well, first we have to provide planning security for everyone involved, for investors, companies and workers. Second, we have to build up alternative energy sources, both to achieve a secure supply and to employ those people that formerly worked in the coal industry. We can't just make a tabula rasa and leave a barren land behind, that's no proper transformation. Transformation has to be informed by a public debate and seek to leave nobody behind. You know, we have to be careful not to make climate protection an elite project. We still have a very high degree of public support for it in Germany but we can't risk that people start thinking 'They don't care about me'. The Commission for Structural Change that starts its work next year is supposed to advance this debate.

So first steps for a coal exit are actually already being taken?

We're making gradual progress, some lignite plants are already designated to be put into a capacity reserve. But we've decided against announcing when exactly the last plant will go off the grid, but rather want to outline how it can be done. That's more important than saying, for instance, we'll be out by 2030, like the Green Party does. They don't explain how they want to get there.

Change of topic: The diesel summit is supposed to achieve that Germany's carmakers abide by environmental standards and regain the customers' trust. Do you think it can deliver that?

It can help to put them back on track. A first step will be updating the vehicles' software, which ultimately will lead to improved air quality. But this can only be a first step. What has to follow is deciding on clear guidelines how cars that already are on the road can be retrofitted beyond software updates, meaning mechanical changes. For that, we need clear commitments by the companies how they intend to do that. And it must be made clear that customers can't be the ones footing the bill. This is important to regain the industry's reputation. But apart from that, I think we as a government have to improve and build up state control institutions as well as help to reduce air pollution in cities by electrifying our public transport fleet. The government will have to assume its responsibility here.

Is the government ready to exert pressure on the carmakers?

Yes, we will for sure come up with tighter requirements.

What can government do to reduce emissions in the transport sector so that it no longer depends on the car companies' goodwill?

We'll definitely have to improve public transportation schemes. In the cities, we have to step up connection intervals while the countryside needs to become better connected to the cities. This is a task that especially concerns Germany's federal states. It would not only improve our climate efforts but could also help to curb development imbalances between cities and the countryside. But this is going to be a task that cannot be solved within two or three years' time.

31.07.2017 | Medienbeitrag Klimaschutz | Clean Energy Wire