Climate Change and the Energy Transition

According to the terms of the Paris Agreement, the signatories commit to restricting global warming to “well below 2 °C”. Moreover, efforts are to be taken to keep warming to less than 1.5 °C in order to limit the negative effects of climate change. This translates to a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions that dwarfs all initiatives thus far. The energy transition in Germany stands for just such a major industrial and societal transformation.

Limiting global warming by transforming the energy system

The challenge of climate change

The dangerous effects of climate change have the potential to shape the worldwide community more strongly than any other influence. The so-called 1.5- or 2-degree target is an important consensus. If this limit is exceeded, the probability is considered too high that climate change will become self-reinforcing and irreversible, among other things because permafrost will thaw and the salinity of the oceans will decrease. Uninhibited climate change could cause millions of people to lose the basis for their livelihood. Displacement, violent conflict and exodus would result. Species of all kinds of plants and animals would be threatened with extinction – even more so than is the case today.

Measures against climate change

As of October 2017, 167 of 197 signatory parties (196 nations and the EU) had ratified the Paris Agreement.

The Paris Agreement requires every signatory nation to make a declaration of what it intends to do to combat climate change. These so-called Intended Nationally Determined Contributions – or INDCs – comprise a broad range of highly specific measures. Nepal, for instance, intends to fight deforestation. Chile has promised to expand the use of solar and wind power. Whether or not the voluntary commitment approach of the Paris Agreement will take hold and eventually prove effective remains to be seen.

As a group, the EU has committed to achieving a 40 per cent reduction of greenhouse gases by 2030 as compared to 1990 and Germany intends to achieve the 40 per cent mark by the year 2020. Every five years, the signatories to the Paris Agreement must present new ambitious targets to the United Nations. This is urgently needed, as even if they are implemented – which is questionable – the INDCs in their present form are likely to miss the 2 °C goal. The Paris Agreement also stipulates that developing countries are to be supported in their efforts to adjust to climate change. Industrialised countries have committed to providing funds of 100 billion US dollars annually from 2020 for this purpose. Moreover, the financial markets are to be redesigned such that they aid in achieving climate targets. The answer to how is being developed by the German Council for Sustainable Development (RNE), for instance, with its Hub for Sustainable Finance.

Germany’s climate targets

In order to reach the climate targets, significant reductions in emissions are required from more than just the energy sector. Rather, these are also needed in agriculture, industry, transport and the building sector. Germany has set itself the goal of reducing emissions by 2020 by 40 per cent compared to 1990, by 2030 at least 55 per cent, by 2040 at least 70 per cent and by the year 2050 by 80 to 95 per cent.

That said, actual emissions have in the meantime been trending in a different direction. In 2016 they rose again and the reduction came to 27.6 per cent.


Major challenges include energy sufficiency with regard to electricity, expanding the grid, storing energy, eliminating coal-powered energy production, and transformations of mobility and agriculture. For the German Council for Sustainable Development (RNE), the social aspects of the energy transition and fairness of distribution are important as well. Thus, the Council also concerned itself with the idea of transferring the costs of the German Renewable Energy Sources Act (EEG) incurred thus far to an old debt fund in order to facilitate long-term sustainable financing of the energy system. The main philosophy behind the Council’s work is to view sustainability as part of a larger context – the energy transition is one component of a more general transformation.