“We will master this Herculean task” of moving to low carbon future, says German state minister ahead of COP21

Reading time: 6 minutes
9 September 2015

As part of The Climate Group’s countdown to Climate Week NYC, we discuss the critical role of sub-national action ahead of the global climate talks with Franz Untersteller, Minister of the Environment, Climate Protection and the Energy Sector for Germany’s third largest state, the Government of Baden-Württemberg. The Minister affirms that the state is set to “master this Herculean task” of transitioning to a low carbon future built on renewable energy because there are "huge economic benefits" in doing so.

For the past decade the world has seen Germany as a clear climate leader. Having driven solar power adoption worldwide it is now doing the same for energy storage; a critical area to get right if we are to scale up clean energy effectively.

But German states are where some of the most innovative and revolutionary low carbon action is happening. And leading the way is the State of Baden-Württemberg in South West Germany, a member of The Climate Group and one of Europe’s top technology and research hubs.

Building on its strong engineering, automotive and electronics markets – it hosts some of Germany’s major manufacturing companies including Bosch and Daimler – the state’s green jobs and clean tech markets have flourished in recent years, and today it acts as a model region for the world’s low carbon economy.

Franz Untersteller, Minister of the Environment, Climate Protection and the Energy Sector, Baden-Württemberg, explains that the government encourages and supports low carbon technology and innovation by keeping one eye on the future. “We are very proud to be one of the major high-tech regions in Europe and the world. To preserve this status, we will have to keep moving forward. One of the most pressing tasks for the state government is to help shape the process of change and drive it forward. Our political institutions must help as much as possible as we enter this new energy age. I am confident that the companies in Baden-Württemberg will be able to develop and market innovative solutions for energy efficiency and energy savings.”


The German state’s climate action efforts are bolder than many. It aims to reduce its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by around 25% by 2020 and 90% by 2050 compared to 1990 levels, and has enacted one of Germany’s first ‘climate protection’ bills, which translates goals into legally binding targets and anticipates almost complete decarbonization of Baden-Württemberg's energy sector by 2050.

Emissions from Baden-Württemberg can largely be attributed to its power, transportation and buildings sectors, the first of which is in the middle of a huge transition from dominant nuclear power to almost 100% renewables.

“In Germany we call this transformation of the energy sector the energy transition or ‘Energiewende’. We are turning away from fossil fuels and nuclear power and towards renewable forms of energy”, explains Minister Untersteller. “In Baden-Württemberg we express these goals with the formula “50-80-90”. By the year 2050, we want to use 50% less energy than in 2010, generate at least 80% of our energy from renewable sources, and reduce our greenhouse gas emissions to 90% of the 1990 level. We are taking this route because we will not be able to achieve our climate protection goals without decarbonizing the energy sector. I am well aware that these are ambitious targets. But I am convinced that we will master this Herculean task.”

The Minister adds: “We have waited far too long to phase out nuclear power. Cleaning up the waste it has left behind will be a burden for many generations to come. No one wants to live near this waste, but it has to go somewhere. There is a danger that the costs of dismantling nuclear power plants and storing the waste permanently will get out of control. In comparison with what we and future generations will have to pay for this, the cost of switching from our current energy systems to renewable forms of energy is small. But of course I am well aware that a competitive energy supply is essential in a highly industrialized country such as ours.”

Setting the bar high for other states that wish to follow in its footsteps toward a clean energy future, the government of Baden-Württemberg has firmly adjusted its regional planning law to allow for a more widespread use of wind power in particular, with the aim of upping the portion of wind in its electricity production from 0.8% to 10% by 2020.


As well as being active in The Climate Group’s States & Regions Alliance, Baden-Württemberg is also involved with collaborative low carbon initiatives, the Four Motors for Europe, the Cross-Border Upper Rhine Conference and the Internationale Bodenseekonferenz (“International Lake Constance Conference).

But while the economic and efficiency benefits of switching to clean energy make clear common sense, it is the imperative need to tackle rising global temperatures that foremost drove the government to join The Climate Group’s States & Regions Alliance.

Minister Untersteller says:Climate change is a reality. In Baden-Württemberg we have again experienced one of the warmest summers ever recorded. For us there can be only one answer: We must forge ahead with our efforts to mitigate climate change and look for allies all over the world. We can combat climate change effectively only if we act in concert.

“We are pursuing two objectives. The first is to mitigate climate change. We want to do our part to achieve the international goal of limiting global warming to less than two degrees Celsius. And at the same time we want to prepare our state for the necessary adaptation. Whereas climate change may bring us benefits in the short term, for example by lengthening the swimming season in our lakes, in the long term it will create significant hazards by upsetting the current equilibrium.”

But of course national governments also have a big part to play in enabling sub-national governments to achieve their climate targets. Talking about Energiewende in particular, the Minister says: “This radical transformation will succeed only with government support at all levels. Our national government is creating the legal framework in a number of areas, and in Baden-Württemberg we are building on this.

"Unfortunately, the policy of the federal government is not always consistent, and sometimes it is even counterproductive. For example, the government is keeping environmentally unfriendly coal-fired power plants online, although in my opinion there is no need for this. At the local level, however, many specific measures are being taken which I consider very important.”


Along with California, which is also a member of our States & Regions Alliance, Baden-Württemberg is the founder and main promoter of the Under 2 MOU, a pioneering agreement to commit to either reducing between 80-95% below 1990 levels by 2050, or achieving a per capita emissions target of less than 2 metric tons by the same date.

Minister Untersteller says the state led this initiative because “it was high time for regions committed to climate protection to create a special platform, especially in order to send out a clear message to the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris this December.”

He adds: “The idea of the Under 2 MOU was born last year in my talks with Governor Jerry Brown in San Francisco. It has been a big success. The response has been excellent. I am impressed by the fact that even states and regions that did not sign the memorandum at the moment, for example because they had already made other commitments, have told us that it is good we are doing this.”

Talking more about international climate efforts, the Minister says he expects incremental but important progress to come out of the UN COP21 climate talks in Paris this December, of which sub-national governments have a critical but often overlooked role.

“In my experience, dramatic progress is rare in international climate policy, one important reason being that that the conditions and expectations in each country differ widely. But when added up, many small steps can make a big difference if they are taken in the right direction. Our partner state California is a leader in climate policy. And now that the US government has recognized climate protection as a major task for the future, I feel confident. This demonstrates yet again how important it is for sub-national governments to take the initiative.”


A robust global climate deal needs strong commitments from all nations, yet some national contributions submitted so far have been seen as weak. Other factors also indicate a troubled process ahead, with one example being a recent study which states China’s emissions could have been overestimated for more than a decade.

Reflecting on this headline, we asked the Minister why it is so important to disclose clear and verifiable data, even for sub-national governments, which is something the Compact of States and Regions – which the state is signed up to – sets out to achieve.

“A sound policy is credible if it can be assessed through monitoring and measurement. Data on emissions are especially important in climate policy. The Compact of States and Regions is an instrument which makes it possible to compare the results of efforts to mitigate climate change, in this way encouraging healthy competition among the partners. At the same time, it must be admitted that data cannot always be compared down to the last detail. And no one has found a way to record all the data. For example, methane leakage can occur in biogas plants but also in the tapping of natural deposits. And methane is 20 times more harmful to the environment than carbon dioxide.”

As a leader of the global low carbon economy then, what advice can the Minister impart for national and other sub-national leaders?

“Don’t just see the obstacles", he concludes. "See what enormous opportunities an ambitious climate protection program can open up. I don’t just mean the benefits of protecting the public from weather catastrophes and harmful pollution. There are huge economic benefits as well. Climate protection compels us to develop new, intelligent solutions that have a great market potential and can create many new jobs. In this way every state, every region and every individual can make a contribution to climate protection.”


Our digital countdown to Climate Week NYC 2015 runs from September 1-20.

Each day The Climate Group is releasing exclusive conversations with key figures from the worlds of business and politics and beyond – through video, social media and blogs – as well as expert briefings. Follow @ClimateGroup for the latest.

See the full gallery of #CWNYC graphics and tweets to join the countdown, by clicking below.


Climate Week NYC is a key event in the international calendar that brings together leading governments, investors, businesses, innovators and opinion formers. The Climate Group launched Climate Week NYC in 2009, and has acted as the secretariat since its inception.

Host to more than 100 affiliate events from September 21-28, Climate Week NYC 2015 is the collaborative space for climate events in support of the UN Summit to adopt the Post-2015 Development Agenda. 

ClimateWeekNYC.org | @ClimateWeekNYC | #CWNYC

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