Prof. Dirk Messner is the President of the Federal Environment Agency (UBA) and former director of the German Development Institute (DIE) and Institute for Environment and Human Security at the United Nations University (UNU-EHS). He also co-chairs advisory councils such as the Sustainable Development Solutions Network Germany.
In our GPI Interview, Dirk Messner talks about expectations of a new German government, the need for a European climate minister, and why climate protection and economic development have to go hand in hand.
While the next federal government is still underway, one thing is already clear: Climate protection will be a focal issue. Dirk Messner calls for more political courage to ignite wide-reaching changes of decarbonisation and defossilisation. We have no time left for selectivity. He suggests that under a climate-oriented chancellor and a scaled-up BMU, important legislation should need to be approved and certified of their compatibility with Germany’s climate goals.
In addition, Prof. Messner advocates for strengthening the external orientation of climate policy in Germany and Europe towards a Joint African-European Green Deal.
Read the full translation of the German interview here:
GPI: Mr Messner, the election results have shown that climate protection is an important issue for people in Germany. We will have a new federal government including the Greens, and all parties put climate change high on the agenda. What could a German climate policy under a new coalition look like and which measures are needed to achieve our targets?
Dirk Messner: We have ambitious goals. We want to reduce emissions in Germany by 65 percent and in Europe by 55 percent by 2030. We want to be carbon-neutral in Germany by 2045 and in Europe by 2050. These are enormous feats. At the Federal Environment Agency (UBA), we think that our goals should be even more ambitious. But the targets we have set are good. Now, we need to back them up with measures and ensure that they are achieved in all sectors, because we no longer have time for selectivity. We have waited too long to take decisive action and can no longer take a step forward with the energy transition and see how things progress, and then move on to the agricultural transition etc. We have to be quite ambitious in energy, in transport, in urban development, in agriculture, in industries, in all these areas. The challenge is to actively approach all sectors at the same time.
GPI: Which three points should the new government specifically include in its coalition agreement?
Dirk Messner: Before I say something about three measures, I will try to elaborate on what I have just tried to express. The crucial point is: We have to advance almost all our options in energy and transport towards decarbonisation and defossilisation. We really have to apply everything we know about green transition. This cannot be done with just two or three measures. In most areas, we have to approach the limits of what is possible for us. I will name two or three particularly important elements: We need to, of course, continue to expand renewable energies, by a factor of 2.5 to 3 times faster in the current decade than in the last. If we don’t get the renewable energies right, there will be no change in mobility either. We need renewable energy when it comes to transport systems. Renewable energy is definitely number one. Number two is: we need a mobility revolution. At the moment, we have well under a million electric vehicles on the road; in 2030 we’ll need around 15 million. In order to do that, we need the appropriate charging infrastructure. That’s a big leap forward in just a few years. At the UBA, we think that is only half the battle. The other half is that we invest in public transport, in railway infrastructures and in local public transport so that we move from individual to shared mobility. And with regard to urban development, it’s a matter of rapidly advancing the modernisation of buildings and roughly doubling what we’re doing at the moment. As you can see, we are talking about really big changes in all sectors. This needs political courage. We know how to do it. We can afford it. We just have to set it in motion. The demand in the population is that we urgently move forward. Now, we must actually take the necessary steps.
GPI: Taking steps is a good keyword. World leaders are meeting in Glasgow right now to discuss climate change. It has become clear that, similar to Covid-19, a global challenge like climate change can only be solved through collaboration. How can the new government find the right balance between national and international?
Dirk Messner: In Glasgow, one issue is how to get the most important emitters on the right track. That’s where things are a bit difficult. We were not particularly successful within the G20 last weekend. What came out of the meeting is rather vague. There are no breakthroughs at that front. That is one challenge: We need to motivate those who don’t yet want to move in a common direction within G20. I also have an overall concern which I call the “raised-ambition paradox”. I have just described that we are taking on quite a lot for Germany and Europe. If we implement what we have decided, it would be a huge change towards carbon neutrality which could be accelerated again in the 1940s if we make good use of the 1920s and 1930s now. But at the same time, I don’t see a comparable increase in ambition in terms of cooperation with developing countries. Not with the G20 countries, the big emitters, but with the large number of countries that are home to 50-60% of the world’s population. We are, by a long shot, not ambitious enough there. I would like to outline this in two sentences using the European Green Deal as an example: We have developed the European Green Deal with climate protection as utmost priority. We want to reduce emissions and promote circular economies. We want to import fewer resources and re-use and recycle. That is the right thing to do. But, of course, this will initially cause structural adjustment problems for a series of countries in Africa which primarily depend on resource and fossil energy exports. That is why we urgently need to talk to them, enter into dialogue, and build joint solutions. We are not doing that with enough ambition, and that’s what I am quite concerned about.
GPI: You have once again highlighted the duality of economic development and climate protection. This was also a huge topic at this year’s The Africa Roundtable: Climate protection must of course not come at the expense of economic development in Africa. How can climate protection and economic development be reconciled?
Dirk Messner: Here, I am basically optimistic. I will say some more about Africa in a moment, but first, let me talk about the issue of economic development and protecting the climate: In Germany, we have recently heard a whole series of statements from the business community calling on the newly constituted federal government to be very ambitious. I will give you three examples: The Federation of German Industries (BDI) has presented a roadmap for carbon neutrality that differs only slightly from the UBA’s roadmaps for defossilisation and carbon neutrality. This is an interesting alliance that, a few years ago, we wouldn’t have thought of. BDI is completely honest here and says that we have to approach these changes quite radically if we want to achieve our goals. A second example: The Foundation 2 Degrees, an association of companies in Germany that embraced climate protection at a very early stage. They have issued a joint declaration with 69 companies, including very important large firms, but also small family businesses, some energy-intensive and some less energy-intensive. This declaration calls for a consistent climate protection approach by the new federal government. That is wonderful. And then, I coordinated the book Germany’s New Agenda. We are writing as experts, but above all we have 30 to 40 business leaders on board who are showing how climate protection and climate goals can be achieved in their sector. This means that the contradiction between business and climate protection is gradually dissolving. But we have another problem in development cooperation and climate cooperation. Our narrative here in Europe is that climate protection and resource conservation are good for Africa, because in the long term it stabilises the living conditions in these countries and doesn’t overexploit, destroy, and burden their ecosystems. This argument is correct in the medium term. But in the short term, climate protection and thus fewer resource imports from Africa to Europe mean that these countries have to reorganise their economies. This we must keep in mind and support them. Otherwise, we are not doing our homework.
GPI: As we have just discussed, the political focus lies on climate protection right now. How much room is left for development and foreign policy? Don’t climate and development have to be thought of together from the outset?
Dirk Messner: I am strongly in favour of strengthening the external orientation of climate policy in Germany and Europe. After the departure of the Trump administration, we can now see that under Biden, climate protection has moved back up onto the political agenda in the US. With John Kerry, we have a kind of US climate minister of foreign affairs, whom I can only support in his initiatives. He has also become something of a world climate minister. In Germany and Europe, we don’t have people and institutions which are as involved internationally This is a great disadvantage because, as I have illustrated with the example of Africa or the cooperation with G20 and G7, we must pay much more attention to this external dimension of climate protection and channel more political capital there. That’s why I’m calling for the creation of corresponding positions in Germany and Europe, a kind of climate foreign minister. He or she could be based in the Federal Environment Ministry (BMU) and support these external activities at a high political level.
GPI: What priorities would you like to see the new German government set in German development cooperation?
Dirk Messner: We definitely need to go beyond climate protection. We need a counterpart to the European Green Deal. I am a big fan of the European Green Deal. You can criticise minor details, but overall, it is a very ambitious programme that Europe has set up for itself and that we have thankfully managed to get through the Covid-19 crisis. At the beginning of the pandemic, I was very worried that everything ‘green’ and ‘climate’ would be forgotten because it was all about growth, growth, and more growth. That’s what happened ten years ago during the international financial crisis. This time it hasn’t happened. The European Green Deal still stands and is being financed and advanced. That’s very important. But we now need a Joint European-African Green Deal. I have just indicated the reasons for this. We should quickly begin to expand European development cooperation in this direction. I would very much like to see that. And from the point of view of climate protection, we need major global initiatives in the forest sector, because time is running out. In Glasgow, a coalition has emerged that has taken up the cause of forest protection. That’s really good. We need such initiatives in many areas. We need initiatives to limit desertification. We need initiatives to stabilise the sink function of ecosystems. Everything we are doing so far is too small-scale; we have projects and individual initiatives, but if you look at the numbers we have to reach, it is not enough. That’s why we need global initiatives to protect ecosystems in different areas so that we can become climate resilient as a whole.
GPI: Does this warrant a climate ministry?
Dirk Messner: We certainly need a ministry that can deal with different dimensions of climate protection. I think that renewable energies should be included in the BMU. After all, they are a very important area of climate policy. I can also well imagine that urban development will be reintegrated into the ministry. It used to be part of the BMU and is currently in the Ministry of the Interior, where it is somewhat neglected. If energy and urban development were integrated into the BMU, we would have all central aspects of climate protection in one ministry. This could then be the core of the transformation process within the federal government. I can also imagine that, in the future, important legislation would have to be certified by the BMU to determine whether is compatible with the climate protection goals of the federal government.
GPI: An interesting idea. Thank you very much, Mr Messner, for your time and your thoughts. Now a general question: Have we forgotten something, or would you like to highlight another point?
Dirk Messner: We have talked a bit about a climate ministry; perhaps we could conclude by saying once again: All ministries must get on track, otherwise we won’t make it. For that, we need a cabinet that can move the whole thing forward.
GPI: You were talking about the climate ministry, but shouldn’t this be tackled in a much more inter-departmental and inter-ministerial way?
Dirk Messner: We need a climate ministry as the core of climate policy initiatives. But beyond that, climate protection must be advanced in all sectors. That’s why all ministries must shift their policies towards carbon neutrality. It needs to be a concern of the entire federal government. For this to succeed, we need a climate chancellor. I very much hope that Olaf Scholz will find this climate chancellor in himself and bring it forward. We need a chancellor who will advance and coordinate the ministries towards of carbon neutrality. For the last four years, the BMU has tried to advance the issue of neutrality. Nothing really progressed in the Ministry of the Interior and Building; and the Ministry of Transport tended to work in the other direction. That wasn’t going to make climate protection happen.
GPI: Then, let’s hope for better times and remain optimistic.
Dirk Messner: By all means.
GPI: Wonderful. Thank you very much again and we wish you successful negotiations next week in Glasgow!
Dirk Messner: Thank you! We are all doing our best and hope that something good will emerge.
Nora Kiefer, Project Management