Hard Nuts to Crack! The impact of science on the European climate policy

Science has presented its case, now politics must act: Manfred Fischedick, Director and President of the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy, on challenges and requirements for European Climate Policy.

The interview was conducted by Nathalie Saccà

ifa (Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen): This year, Earth Overshoot Day falls on 2 August. Germany already used up the natural resources to which it is entitled on 4 May 2023. What do you as a scientist call for from politicians to counteract this development?

Manfred Fischedick: The reasons why the date for Earth Overshoot Day was so early in Germany are complex. In particular, greenhouse gas emissions are not sinking quickly enough, raw material consumption is far too high, and the progress being made with regard to energy efficiency is partially offset by additional consumption. The answer to all this can only be a strict policy which, among other things,

  • urges that products become more energy efficient and redevelopment measures, especially in buildings, are carried out very quickly, avoiding rebound effects,
  • focuses on the rapid expansion of renewable energies, moving away from fossil fuel structures, including fossil lock-in structures,
  • supports energy-conscious and sustainable consumer behaviour, for example by encouraging the reduced consumption of meat,
  • promotes a shift away from today’s continued linear production structures towards a truly closed circle economy,
  • has the courage to crack hard nuts and overcome resistance, such as breaking down behavioural routines or overcoming car-fixated urban infrastructures,
  • is geared towards genuine participation in the upcoming transformation processes, e.g. for residents and communities in local wind power stations,
  • convinces consumers by means of a positive, cohesive narrative and shows the opportunities associated with environmentally responsible development, thus encouraging people to participate, in other words implementing a culture of participation.

As Scientific Managing Director and President of the Wuppertal Institute as well as lead author of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), you advise on both German as well as European climate policy. How do you assess the current European climate policy from a scientific point of view?

Fischedick: In its European Green Deal, the European Union (EU) focuses on a holistic approach which, for the first time, sees climate and environmental protection closely connected to economic development and the reduction of vulnerabilities while setting more ambitious goals. And from a scientific point of view this is greatly appreciated. It is, however, necessary to implement these goals consistently and continuously, thus generating sufficient dynamics of transformation. Even if we can say that the EU is driving national climate protection policies, e.g. through the European Emissions Trading Scheme or the Ecodesign Directive, we must nevertheless concede that the necessary consistency is lacking in various places. Two examples:

  • the regulations of EU taxonomy, which are meant to differentiate between sustainable and unsustainable economic activities and thus use the leverage effect of the financial economy, were significantly watered down when, shortly before they were adopted, nuclear energy and gas were included as transition technologies,
  • the attempts of parts of the EU Parliament to soften the requirements for climate protection and to turn the clock back, at least to some extent.

From a scientific point of view, these attitudes are incomprehensible in view of the ever more visible consequences of climate change, be they prolonged periods of heat or extreme rainfall and storms.

We need to be more pragmatic and speed up the processes, especially when drawing up and applying the laws on state aid, allocating funds and implementing approval procedures.

Where do you see the greatest challenges faced by the European climate policy at the moment?

Fischedick: Apart from the consistency and continuity already called for, reaching a unified position quickly despite different framework conditions within the Member States is one of the very big challenges. In the end, everyone will profit from a climate-friendly, resilient energy system based on renewable energies, which is built on the close cooperation between the Member States. To achieve this requires courage at one point or another: courage to place the mutual goal above national self-interest.

And in view of the enormous pressure to act, a further challenge is to become significantly more pragmatic in our actions. We simply have no more time to wait for one hundred per cent best solutions and to safeguard ourselves several times over on all sides. We need to be more pragmatic and speed up the processes, especially when drawing up and applying the laws on state aid, allocating funds and implementing approval procedures.

What instruments would you wish for to be able to make an impact on this policy?

Fischedick: In my opinion, we need stronger mandates for scientific advisory boards or monitoring groups which clearly identify deficits in implementing ways to reduce emissions and make specific proposals for additional measures. And we must consistently comply with existing regulations. Germany’s law on climate protection provides for an automatic procedure which requires that ministries which do not achieve the reduction targets within their sectors must launch emergency programmes to ensure they get back on track.

Both the building sector as well as, in particular, the transport sector have regularly “breached” their sector targets in the past years without these ministries developing and implementing sufficiently comprehensive emergency programmes. Reliability and credibility are distinctly different from such behaviour.

It says in the 2023 IPCC Report on Climate Change that political commitment, joint guidelines and an exchange of knowledge are necessary for effective climate protection measures. Where do you see these preconditions as given and where are they not yet established?

Fischedick: Thanks to numerous formats and councils, the exchange of knowledge is well established at a European level, whereby it is important to openly address the conditions for success and the dependence of specific measures on national framework conditions. European guidelines are mandatory for all countries and this is how they generate their effectiveness.

At a regional level, this exchange must urgently be improved, especially between regions which are struggling with similar requirements in terms of structural change. But even at an international level there is still a need for development. Both the IPCC and the International Energy Agency report on the portfolio of suitable policy measures. In addition, however, we need a more intensive bi- or multilateral exchange and a mutual learning process in which different peer groups, each of which are confronted with similar challenges, must be integrated and enabled to carry out an exchange (peer-to-peer learning).

In the end, everyone will profit from a climate-friendly, resilient energy system based on renewable energies. To achieve this requires courage at one point or another: courage to place the mutual goal above national self-interest.

Let us now look at Germany: science has already formulated approaches for changes in energy policy; you yourself have assisted in drawing up a six-point emergency plan for heat transition. How do you feel when you follow the current debates in the German Bundestag (key words: Buildings Energy Act, wind farms, LNG)?

Fischedick: I have very mixed feelings. On the one hand, it’s good to see that – at long last – they are working on solutions with the necessary seriousness and speed, whereby, when you consider the enormous amount of pressure to act and the immense need to catch up, it’s not surprising that things are “going bumpy”. Although the climate protection goals have been continuously adjusted and made more stringent since 2010, an adequate agenda for transformation has not, however, been developed, let alone implemented.

The debate on the German Buildings Energy Act [Gebäude­energie­gesetz / GEG] has made it very clear that, despite all the need for haste, it depends just as much on good communication and good explanations (why do we need this Act and why are there no alternatives for it?) as on maintaining the right pace. Specifying far-reaching regulatory measures such as the ban on installing heating systems which use fossil fuels without, at the same time, allaying people's fears concerning their implementation by means of an adequate support programme and transitional arrangements has led to a high level of uncertainly and frustration. Climate protection policies are complex and must take the economic and social consequences into consideration. Thus, closed packages of measures must be formulated instead of individual instruments. The proposals made by science have already been put on the table.

In September, you will travel to Budapest for the German government’s lecture programme and speak about the opportunities and challenges of the energy transition. What are you hoping for from this journey?

Fischedick: I hope to make it very clear that, considering the dramatic changes to our climate, there is no alternative to effective climate protection, and that this is a common task for the European community. I also hope to make it very clear that, based on scientific studies and scenario analyses, we already know very well today how the necessary transformation paths must be designed even if we cannot (yet) fall back on established blueprints.

And finally, I hope to make it very clear that, although comprehensive climate protection is a huge challenge, it is also linked to opportunities for society and the economy. Last but not least, I hope for an open exchange and a critical dialogue. Only in this way can we sharpen our arguments, overcome opposition and adjust measures suitably.

Climate protection policies are complex and must take the economic and social consequences into consideration.The proposals made by science have already been put on the table.

How do you evaluate the concerns and methods of the young activists from “Fridays for Future” or the “Last Generation”?

Fischedick: The young generation has every right to point out the need to take action and hold political decision-makers accountable for their actions. However, this requires not only the formulation of vital targets, such as maintaining the 1.5° C target, but also dealing with the question of “how”: how can this target be met? What changes are necessary in the individual sectors? Where do existing dynamics need to accelerate massively and where are drastic measures needed to reverse the trend?

And finally: which instruments can be used to implement the targets in a socially acceptable manner? In 2020, we at the Wuppertal Institute carried on an intensive discourse over several months with “Fridays for Future” regarding these “how” questions and compiled the results in a report. Since then, so to speak, we know how hard the nuts are to crack to maintain the target of 1.5° C. And since then it has been possible to carry on a more enlightened debate on the possibilities and hurdles regarding its implementation.

Protest is important; protests must also offend people in order to catch their attention. In the meantime, however, the protests of the “Last Generation” and other groups have reached a level which bears the danger of being counter-productive for climate protection. In many parts of the population, the feeling of disturbance has become so great that the social acceptance of climate protection is receding. People with a previously positive attitude towards climate protection are beginning to change their minds.


Manfred Fischedick
President of the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy

Prof. Dr.-Ing. Manfred Fischedick has been President and Scientific Director of the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy since January 2020 and a member of the Executive Board since 2010. In 2008, he was appointed associate professor at the University of Wuppertal. He is also one of the lead authors of the 6th Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).The Wuppertal Institute and Manfred Fischedick pursue a transformative scientific approach. Research serves not only to gain a better understanding of systems (incl. research into socio-economic and socio-technical interactions), but also to proactively support the implementation of transformative processes.