Home » Berlin votes on tighter climate goals in test of Germans commitment to change

Berlin votes on tighter climate goals in test of Germans commitment to change

BERLIN, March 26 (Reuters) – Berlin votes on Sunday on making the city climate neutral by 2030, in a binding referendum that will force the new conservative local government to invest heavily in renewable energy, building efficiency and public transportation.

Climate campaigners gathered over 260,000 signatures in support of the referendum, which will make Berlin one of few major European cities with a legally binding goal to become carbon neutral in seven years.

The European Union last year started a scheme to help 100 cities inside and outside of the bloc become climate neutral by 2030, but the scheme and the financial support it offers are not legally binding.

The referendum’s results would show whether Germans, or at least Berliners, want Germany’s climate policy, which now aims to make Europe’s biggest economy carbon-neutral by 2045, to be more ambitious.

Climate activists who initiated the vote say the government’s target is too far in the future to prevent global warming from exceeding 1.5 degrees Celsius.

“At the moment, climate policy is simply not sufficient to ensure a future worth living in our city,” Jessamine Davis, a spokesperson for Climate New Start Berlin, told Reuters.

Unlike Berlin’s previous referendums, including one calling for expropriation of large landlords or on keeping the former Tempelhof airport free from development, Sunday’s climate referendum will be legally binding for the government in Berlin.

“The new version will automatically apply if Berlin population votes if favour,” Davis said.

The initiative, if approved, will only oblige the local government to achieve climate-neutrality in seven years, but the group says various scientific studies offer a wide range of specific measures to reach that goal.

They include a mandate to install solar panels on all suitable roofs in the city to generate around 25% of the city’s electricity, in addition to expanding wind power turbines in the neighbouring Brandenburg state to supply the capital.

Installing a large heat pump on the Spree river and renovating buildings across the city to replace oil and gas heaters with efficient heat pumps are also among the measures that will be needed if Berliners back the new 2030 goal.

Germany’s capital would also have to expand electric vehicles usage and add bike lanes while making public transport more attractive, the group suggested on its website.

The referendum comes as Germany’s conservative CDU party is negotiating a possible coalition with the Social Democrats in the city after its clear victory in a repeat election, driving the environmentalist Greens into opposition.

Stefan Taschner, a Greens Berlin lawmaker, said a positive referendum result would force the new ruling coalition in the city-state to conduct a more active climate policy.

According to the initiative organizers, around 455,000 Berliners have requested to cast their votes via mail so far. In addition to a majority of positive votes, the initiative needs at least 608,000 “Yes” votes to make the results binding.

Danny Freymark, a CDU Berlin lawmaker, said the initiative had a high chance of winning approval, but he would vote against it, saying a new binding target would deprive the new government of any leeway and would lead to disappointment.

“Because even if we do everything we can, we wouldn’t make it in 2030,” Freymark told Reuters.

As a city of four million, with few renewable energy sources nearby or geothermal heating, Berlin lacks what is necessary to make that target more achievable, said Bernd Hirschl from Berlin’s Institute for Ecological Economy Research.

Still, the referendum is a way to revive the debate over climate policy and the changes people must accept to reach climate neutrality regardless of the deadlines, Hirschl told Reuters.

“Because it’s not about 2030. It’s about the question of whether we want to send a signal to politicians or not,” he added.

Reporting by Riham Alkousaa
Editing by Tomasz Janowski

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Riham Alkousaa is the energy and climate change correspondent for Reuters in Germany, covering Europe’s biggest economy’s green transition and Europe’s energy crisis. Alkousaa is a Columbia University Journalism School graduate and has 10 years of experience as a journalist covering Europe’s refugee crisis and the Syrian civil war for publications such Der Spiegel Magazine, USA Today and the Washington Times. Alkousaa was on two teams that won Reuters Journalist of the year awards in 2022 for her coverage of Europe’s energy crisis and the Ukraine war. She has also won the Foreign Press Association Award in 2017 in New York and the White House Correspondent Association Scholarship that year.