30.11.22 “We must not burn our forests in wood pellet stoves” Interview with Sebastian Scholz, Director of Climate and Environmental Policy at NABU • Credits: 5 • Reading time: 5 min.

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Summary

Sebastian Scholz, Director of Climate and Environmental Policy at the German Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union (NABU), discusses the European Union’s Fit für 55 program. 

The aim of the EU’s Fit for 55 program is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to at least 55 percent of their 1990 levels by 2030. Is this enough to effectively counteract the climate crisis?

When the target was formulated, it seemed quite ambitious. But, given the time that it is taking for the measures to have an impact, we now really need to speed things up. The curve would have to be maximally steep to achieve as much as possible in total by 2030. However, I would also like to say that I am pleased we have retained the Fit for 55 target, against the background of the war and the energy crisis. 

Director of Climate and Environmental Policy at NABU

Let’s talk about the effectiveness of individual projects. What do you think about the tightening up of the EU emissions trading system?

In principle, emissions trading is a good thing, because it allows emissions to be reduced in the areas where this can be done most cheaply. But in practice, there have been far too many certificates on the market in recent years, which has meant that the system was not sending out the right price signal. A more powerful degression factor would be needed, in other words, a significant shortage of emissions certificates. That would be the only way of achieving the reduction target. 

The expansion of emissions trading to cover transport and buildings provides an additional incentive. Will it be sufficient?

This is the right thing to do in principle, but there must be equal reductions across all the sectors. The introduction of ETS-2 must not result in the different emissions trading systems being merged at a later date. However, I fear that is what will happen. If the different sectors are brought together into a joint emissions trading system, we run the risk that emissions will fall dramatically in only one sector, such as industry, while there will be no reduction in another, for example transport or buildings. We need to prevent this from happening. The problem is that the price elasticity of gasoline, for instance, is very high. Consumers are used to sudden price increases. In addition, tax makes up such a large proportion of the price that emissions charges have a relatively small impact. In this case, the proportion of emissions charges should be higher than in other sectors to achieve a genuine reduction. 

At the same time, the CO2 thresholds for vehicles are falling. Will the move to electric cars result in an adequate reduction?

The changeover to electric vehicles for individual motorized transport is just one of many factors. In addition, the public transport network, footpaths, and cycle ways all need to be expanded in urban areas. The company car tax benefit in Germany is also an incentive for people to drive large, powerful cars which are subsidized by the scheme. It would make a lot of sense to abolish this benefit to protect the climate. Unfortunately, I get the impression that there is not the necessary political will to remove this subsidy of the German automotive industry. 

The potential savings in the building sector are particularly high… 

That’s right and we need to exploit them. This is why we, along with many other environmental organizations, are calling for “worst first.” This means that the 20 percent of buildings that are the least energy-efficient must be renovated first of all, because they offer the greatest potential for combating climate change. But we need the right type of funding instruments so that the people who own the buildings are able to take these measures. 

Let’s move on to the original concern of NABU, which is protecting nature and the countryside. What do you think of the EU’s strategy for peat bogs and forests?

It is a move in the right direction, but we need overall land use reform. One of the biggest problems is agriculture in moor and bog regions which gradually releases the huge amounts of greenhouse gases stored there in the peat in the form of CO2. Instead we must focus on creating more humus and increasing the amount of biomass and dead wood in the forests. Another important point is that biomass must only be used within strict limits if it is to be climate friendly. To put it more clearly, we must not burn our forests in wood pellet stoves. The years of drought led to many trees dying and along with it a plentiful supply of wood. Now the demand for wood has increased enormously. In a few years, we will probably have to start importing timber. This means that forests will be felled elsewhere to heat our woodburning stoves, which would be a disaster. 

The expansion of the renewable energy generation has come to a standstill, in some cases because environmental organizations are blocking the construction of wind farms. What needs to be done?

It is clear that we need to increase our supply of renewable energy quickly. Here in Germany that means wind and solar energy. As a nature conservation organization, we have no problem with the expansion of photovoltaic systems. We believe there should be a requirement to install solar panels on roofs wherever this is possible. All parking garages, surfaced areas, and industrial plants should have roofs with photovoltaic panels. Wind farms can also be built in a way that does not harm the environment. We very much welcome the fact that the Onshore Wind Energy Act is requiring the German states to identify areas for wind energy, but this must be accompanied by careful planning. 

Is that not currently the case? 

On the contrary, we have a patchwork of different planning systems at country level. It is clear that effective planning on a regional level would result in far fewer conflicts with environmental organizations. Until there is effective regional planning in Germany, we take a critical approach to the EU Commission’s proposal to identify so-called go-to areas for wind farms, because this means that the priority zones for the expansion of wind energy can be used without any assessment of the wildlife there. The go-to concept could significantly accelerate the expansion of the wind energy generation, but it must be linked to effective planning on a regional level. It would be possible to make an important contribution to nature conservation by identifying go-to areas for rewilding at the same time. 

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