The Sins of the Parents and the German Federal Constitutional Court

Exodus 20 v5 includes the words “…… for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation…….” This has always seemed pretty harsh to me but in a broad sense is true of things such as climate change. There, in particular, the emissions of greenhouse gases in recent times will have potentially severe or even catastrophic ramifications for the future. That is, of course, why younger people tend to be more concerned about climate change than their elders. They will have to bear the burden of it while those of us who are older are unlikely to be around when the worst of it bites.

In other words, the climate sins of the parents will be visited on the children and the children’s children.

It seems though, that the German Federal Constitutional Court has begged to differ….

Following difficult negotiations between the parties in its coalition government in 2019, Germany passed its first climate law. This decreed that by 2030 carbon emissions must be cut by 55% from 1990 levels and set out annual quotas for different sources of emissions. In addition, it stated that Germany, like the rest of the EU would aim to emit no net greenhouse gasses by 2050.

Critics, however were not impressed and decried the targets as far too unambitious. Perhaps not surprisingly after those difficult negotiations, Angel Merkel, Germany’s chancellor retorted that ‘politics is what is possible’. Not being satisfied with that, climate activists took the government to the Federal Constitutional Court arguing that by not taking climate action seriously enough, the government was denting future citizens’ basic human rights.

Well, the court didn’t entirely agree with the activists’ contentions, but it did decide that the law would allow the government to push too great a share of the burden of decarbonisation into the future. Put another way, the court declared that the law as it stood would force future generations to have to “engage in radical abstinence” by leaving too much of the burden to the years after 2030. If you like, the court is saying, “Sorry parents, you can’t push the burden of your (climate) sins onto your children or your children’s children.”

The court demanded that binding targets be set by the end of 2022 for the years after 2030, thus giving the law much stronger ‘teeth’. Rather than leave the job to the government that will take office after the coming elections in September, Angel Merkel’s coalition has drawn up legislation that goes further than the court requires, lifting the 2030 target to 65% and bringing forward the date for net carbon neutrality to 2045.

Strictly speaking, the decision of the court only affects Germany. However, as governments around the world draw up binding climate change laws, it will have a bearing on them all. Courts are watching each other in order to work out how to enforce those laws, and activists will look to follow tactics that have been used successfully elsewhere.

Perhaps, commitments will be taken more seriously as a result and more effort will be focussed on how emissions can be cut now and in the short term, not just the longer term.

The editor acknowledges items published in ‘The Economist’ magazine, 7th – 14th May edition as the basis for this article.


First published on: 13th May 2021