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HEAL in Germany: How the German climate plan can benefit health

The German government has adopted a climate action plan which details reduction targets for six sectors until 2030 as well as economy-wide reduction targets until 2030, 2040 and 2050. Transforming the energy, transport and buildings sectors to meet their respective targets is destined to bring significant improvements in air quality over the next decades, thus benefiting public health.

After several months of intense negotiations between different ministries and the two coalition parties, the German government adopted a climate action plan 2050 on 14 November 2016. It was thus published at the start of the second week of climate negotiations at COP22 in Marrakesh where parties were debating the implementation of the 2015 Paris Agreement to limit global warming to well below 2°C temperature rise.

The plan is one of the first long-term climate plans to be adopted by a government, and has earned the German government both praise and criticism. While it could reap substantial health co-benefits, the magnitude of these is still largely uncertain.

Months before a draft strategy became a contentious issue for the government, a lengthy consultation process with various stakeholders, among them representatives of regions and municipalities, concluded with a catalogue of proposed measures for the agriculture, transport, energy, buildings, industry and land use sectors as well as overarching measures. Example ideas for measures include a new building renovation strategy, a programme for the sustainable use of biomass and biogas, and measures to increase cycling and public transport as well as to reduce animal farming.

Coal-phase out omitted from climate plan

Among the most debated proposals was a coal phase-out plan, which is one element that has unfortunately been dropped from the final agreement. A coal phase-out in Germany, however, could improve air quality and avoid about 4,350 premature deaths every year, according to a recent analysis of emissions data by HEAL and other organizations. The climate plan features the goal to decarbonize the energy sector and to achieve an electricity generation that is chiefly based on renewable energy by 2050, which translates to a phase-out of coal within the same time frame.

Critics such as environmental organizations have highlighted that a coal phase-out in Germany needs to happen on a much faster timescale, that 2030 would be a more suitable phase-out date to stop using the most carbon intensive energy technology. The final plan now sets a greenhouse gas reduction target for the energy sector until 2030 at 61 percent below 1990 levels, which translates to roughly halving the current coal-based electricity generation capacity of Germany.

Not only does the German climate plan show a substantial diversion from recommendations for decarbonisation pathways in correspondence with the 2 degrees or 1.5 degrees’ target. An assessment of the likely greenhouse gas reduction that Germany will achieve by 2020 was published just a few days after the 2050 climate action plan by the ministry of environment, and the prognosis is that additional measures the government has initiated since 2014 will most likely lead to a 37 to 40% reduction, with 40% being consistent with the official climate target of the government.

Health co-benefits missing in climate plan

While there is still a substantial uncertainty whether Germany will reach its targets and thus keep up with its commitment to the 2 degrees’ target, there is still bigger uncertainty as for the co-benefits of all the additional and future methods for human health. While the ministry quantified many positive side effects of their 2020 climate action programme from 2014, health co-benefits have not been assessed. The long-term climate plan will also see a number of impact assessments, as its cost to the economy and society as such are a highly contentious issue. From a public health perspective, there can only be hope that also health co-benefits will be assessed systematically as part of these assessments in the future.

Originally posted on 19 December 2016

About HEAL

The Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL) is a leading European not-for-profit organisation addressing how the environment affects health in the European Union (EU). We demonstrate how policy changes can help protect health and enhance people’s quality of life. Read more »


HEAL has over 70 member organisations, representing health professionals, not-for-profit health insurers, doctors, nurses, cancer and asthma groups, citizens, women’s groups, youth groups, environmental NGOs, scientists and public health institutes. Members include international and Europe-wide organisations, as well as national and local groups. Read more »

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