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In a Dialog with Policymakers

The physician Hans-Martin Henning sits on the federal government’s Expert Council on Climate Issues

Freiburg, Sep 23, 2021

How can Germany reach its climate protection targets for 2030? The Expert Council on Climate Issues – also known as the Climate Council – was convened in 2020 to advise the federal government on the application of the new Federal Climate Change Act regarding this and other issues. Prof. Dr. Hans-Martin Henning serves as professor of solar energy systems at the University of Freiburg’s Department of Sustainable Systems Engineering (INATECH) and as director of the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems ISE. Under his chairmanship, the panel published its first report on German emissions data for the previous year in April 2021. In an interview with Patrick Siegert, he speaks about the new council, the consequences of a pandemic year, and the future of German climate policy.

Prof Dr Hans-Martin Henning from the Institute for Sustainable Technical Systems (INATECH) at the University of Freiburg advises the Federal Government in the Expert Council for Climate Issues. Photo: Fraunhofer ISE

Prof. Dr. Henning, you look over the federal government’s shoulder on climate issues as chair of the Climate Council. What, exactly, does your council do?

Hans-Martin Henning: Our goals are defined in the Climate Change Act of 2019. We check and evaluate the German emissions data for the previous year, which the federal government issues each year in March. In doing so, we don’t just look at the results in aggregate but also take into account sectors defined in the act, such as energy, industry, and transport. We submit a report to the federal government and the Bundesrat describing whether Germany met its climate protection targets for the previous year. In addition, we prepare special reports at the request of the German government or work on adjustments to the climate protection targets.

The Climate Council is composed of five researchers from different disciplines. How do you contribute your own research foci there?

Our aim is not just to understand emissions but also to determine what approaches can help us reduce them. To do this, we need expertise from the areas of climate, environment, economics, and social sciences. In particular, my team and I contribute knowledge on technical solutions for helping us manage the energy transition. We’re familiar with the state of technology, its potential for development, and how it can be used, as well as with the associated costs. For example, we look at programs in the building sector and ask where and how we can use heat pumps to replace boilers and what CO2 reductions we can expect as a result.

You presented a report on the previous year’s estimate of German greenhouse gas emissions for the first time in April 2021. What conclusion do you draw in it?

Overall, Germany met its climate protection targets for the year 2020 and remained below fixed emission levels in almost all sectors. We also looked at data collection in the report, as well as the question of how accurate an early estimate can be in March of the following year, when many official statistics are not yet available or complete. The German Environmental Agency doesn’t publish its official inventory reports until the year after the following year. We realized in retrospect that the differences between the early estimates and the later validated data were quite large in many sectors.

Unexpectedly low emissions: In 2020 there was less traffic and the streets were emptier than in the past due to the pandemic. Photo: AA+W /

The year 2020 was marked especially by the coronavirus pandemic. What impact did it have on emissions?

The federal and state governments took considerable measures to try and contain the pandemic, which of course also had an impact on emissions. We were able to identify specific effects in the building and transport sectors in particular. For example, parts of working life and education shifted to private households. They consumed more energy, which could no longer be offset even by lower consumption in public buildings and companies. The building sector thus exceeded its emissions targets in 2020. On the other hand, there was a significant decrease in traffic during the first wave of the pandemic, which is why the transport sector was able to reach its targets. In a so-called decomposition analysis, however, we concluded hypothetically that the building sector would probably have reached its target in a year without exceptional circumstances, whereas the transport sector would not have.

What consequences does your report now have for the responsible ministries?

If a sector exceeds its annual goal, the responsible ministries must formulate suitable programs for immediate action. This serves to ensure that the targets defined in the Climate Change Act for the period to 2030 are really reached in the following year. The Ministry of the Interior and the Ministry for Economic Affairs are responsible for the building sector. They have to present a program for immediate action to us, which we review and evaluate in the summer. We submit our opinion to the federal government before it makes a decision on the program. However, our council does not have the right to impose sanctions on the political institutions. Rather, we engage in a dialog with policymakers and use our contributions to influence issues relating to climate protection.

In 2020 parts of working life and education shifted to private households due to the pandemic, causing high emissions in the building sector. Photo: Nattakorn /

According to a ruling by the Federal Constitutional Court and a tightening up of EU law, the Bundestag and Bundesrat will likely pass a new version of the Federal Climate Change Act in the summer. What will be changed?

The target for reducing CO2 emissions until 2030 in comparison with 1990 will no longer be 55 percent but 65 percent. We managed a reduction of around 40 percent by 2020, as defined in the federal government’s previous energy concept. The new target for the next ten years will therefore include a considerably steeper path of reduction. And by 2045 we want to achieve climate neutrality in Germany. All in all, an extremely ambitious project. The revised version also includes a new task for us as the Expert Council: Every two years, we are to submit a more comprehensive report reviewing past developments as well as trends in greenhouse gas emissions and the effectiveness of measures in terms of targets.

Will Germany reach its climate protection targets for 2030?

I of course can’t say for certain whether we’ll reach them. To do so, we’ll need to reorganize nearly all areas of society and the economy in a relatively short period of time so that we can manage without fossil energy. The most important levers are energy efficiency and energy supply based on renewables. However, we should not only reduce emissions but also promote new economic sectors in the process, if necessary through economic and political incentives. Many companies are already setting their own climate goals now, and there are also ambitious initiatives in civil society and in the municipalities. In general, I see a strong will among many of those involved to tread this path together. That fills me with confidence.


Report on the previous year’s estimate of German greenhouse gas emissions for the year 2020