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Of Climate Protection and Freedom

By: Tim Eschert Tim headshot BW
• May 2021

Last week, the German Federal Constitutional Court ruled that previous climate legislation didn't go far enough. Without a stringent long-term strategy in place for reducing emissions, future generations risked losing their liberties.

This ruling can be described as nothing less than historic.

Not only because it reaffirms the obligation laid down in Article 20a of the Grundgesetz ("German Constitution") - "The state shall protect the natural foundations of life, also in responsibility for future generations" - to do everything possible to keep climate change within manageable limits.

What is truly thrilling about this judgment is the careful balance between present and future freedom. Today's freedom of action must not destroy options for action in the future. A "freedom-preserving transition to climate neutrality" must do what is possible today to secure tomorrow's freedom.

The ruling postulates an intertemporal concept of freedom—it is about "safeguarding of freedom protected by constitutional rights over time" and the "proportionate distribution of freedom opportunities across generations." In other words, the equal freedom of all includes the freedom of the future.

Germany's highest court only criticized the lack of a post-2030 plan. They did not analyze whether the current measures are effective or call for stricter targets. However, the ruling does call for more binding precautions for the time after 2030. The Federal Constitutional Court obliges the legislature to update reduction targets for greenhouse gas emissions beyond 2030 in order to ensure a "sufficient degree of development pressure and planning certainty."

Given the technical and environmental dynamics, this cannot be a detailed roadmap, but a mix of binding targets and flexible instruments. It is a bureaucrat's illusion that the transition to a climate-neutral industrial society, which is in constant interaction with science and technology, global markets and international politics, can be planned 30 years in advance with precise annual targets. Ecological transformation is not a linear process, but takes place in leaps of innovation and investment cycles.

The verdict sets a clear limit and forces us today to act with foresight, to plan clearly and, above all, to be honest with ourselves about the future viability of our actions. As an industrial nation, we are now forcing ourselves to find an optimum of necessary change and new technology in order to be able to not just enjoy our greatest asset, our freedom, today, but to secure it for the future.