Carbon Neutral Government Travel: What Germany’s Efforts Can Show the U.S.

By Charlotte Collins

Germany’s Climate Action Plan 2050, approved in 2016, is impressive in the breadth of its environmental action. It emphasizes reducing reliance on fossil fuels across all sectors, and employing climate offsets as established in the U.N. Kyoto Protocol. (These offsets, or Emission Reduction Controls (ERCs), allow industrialized countries to compensate for their own emissions by promoting sustainability projects in developing countries. ERCs are currently being phased out in favor of the trading mechanisms put in place by the Paris Agreement, so Germany’s methods of offsetting will likely see some changes in the coming years.)

Such an ambitious plan against climate change (Germany’s reduction goals are greater than those of the EU) already places the country leagues ahead of the United States in terms of environmental policy, and the German government has recently announced a modification to the carbon footprint of its own federal employees, further distinguishing itself from the U.S..

In August 2017 the German Federal Ministry for the Environment announced that German federal employees’ travel would be “carbon neutral.” Minister for the Environment Barbara Hendricks was quoted as saying: “Avoiding emissions should always be first choice. But the Federal Government offsets what is unavoidable by investing in high-quality climate change mitigation projects.”

Her statement that “avoiding emissions should always be first choice” invites harsh comparison to the actions of current EPA chief Scott Pruitt, who is now under investigation (along with Energy Secretary Rick Perry) for extensive and perhaps unnecessary travel by private jet. Pruitt spent 43 of 92 days in office between March and May in his home state of Oklahoma or traveling to and from the state, at the price of not just to American taxpayer dollars but also to the environment. Veterans Affairs Security David Shulkin, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, and U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price have also faced criticism for similarly non-essential and expensive plane travel. (Price, in fact, lost his job over it.) President Trump himself has been in the news for his numerous trips to Mar-a-Lago and other golf clubs. Beyond these public controversies, there are also a large quantity of federal workers flying by coach and contributing to aviation GHG emissions; thus the public image of employees of the U.S. government at the moment has more to do with expensive and polluting travel than with any effort to offset or reduce its carbon impact. The issue is not one to be taken lightly, as flights produced 781 million metric tons of CO2 worldwide in 2015, and the percent of global emissions caused by air travel is projected to rise significantly as the volume of air travel increases more rapidly than advances in flight fuel efficiency.

Germany has outlined an “Avoid-Reduce-Offset” plan to keep its government travel carbon neutral. For example, to keep emissions and polluting as low as possible for traveling to the Climate Change Conference in November 2017 in Bonn, employees used carbon- neutral train journeys, electric cars, and purchasing climate offsets obtained from sustainability projects across the world, certified according to UN rules. The majority of credits traded in Germany originate from Asian renewable energy projects, as well as afforestation and methane destruction projects. Climate Action Plan 2050 particularly emphasizes the electrification of cars, use of biofuels, and new, more sustainable train technology—all of which would be used to reduce the carbon footprint of federal travel. The additional acquisition of more than 235,000 offsets (each offset equaling one metric ton of emissions) aims to compensate for the 235,240 metric tons of emissions caused by governmental car trips and air travel in the last year.

These options are employed when travel is unavoidable, but the federal government also seeks to reduce the number of trips taken by employees by the increased use of video and telephone conferences. Presumably the energy used to power these devices comes more and more often from sustainable resources, as Germany raised the proportion of its power produced by renewable energy to 35 percent in the first half of 2017. This year Germany has been getting up to 85 percent of its electricity from renewable resources on particularly sunny and windy days.

The ambitious goals set for reduction of emissions, purchasing of offsets, and increased use of renewables have been relatively successful in Germany. The target set in 2007 to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent by 2020 was nearly met in 2015, when a reduction of 27.9 percent was achieved (both compared to 1990 emissions.) The plan for carbon-neutral federal travel is indicative of a general trend in the country, although one not without its problems. While Germany does generate large amounts of renewable energy, its use of climate offsets is not a direct reduction of emissions. While certainly better than nothing, there are those, often affiliated with the Green Party, who believe that offsets are being used as a crutch to avoid stronger emissions reductions. Such emissions reductions could prove difficult to achieve, considering Germany’s increased reliance on coal since the country’s post-Fukushima ban on nuclear energy. Coal is also being used to create energy that is then exported, contributing to an additional ten million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions per year. Lastly, the information provided by the government about carbon-neutral federal travel focuses for the most part on the use of offsets rather than reductions. It will be interesting to see whether statistics are published after the November climate conference in Bonn.

Despite such caveats, however, Germany’s current federal attitude towards emissions is far more advanced than that of its U.S. counterpart. The image currently promoted by several high-ranking US government officials is one of emission-intensive travel, especially by airplane, rather than a public support of emissions reductions or offsets. This same attitude towards emissions is reinforced by President Trump’s announcement of intent to withdraw from the Paris Agreement. That announcement, while in and of itself ineffective, as the withdrawal would not occur for four years, indicates the attitude of his administration toward emissions reductions. Nonetheless, several aspects of Germany’s plan merit further examination by the U.S., such as the increased use of video or phone conferencing (although the German government has not confirmed that such measures have resulted in reduced federal travel). Given the geographical size of the U.S. compared to that of Germany, replacing flights with train and electric car journeys would be less practical, except within concentrated areas like the Eastern Seaboard.

We should not hold our breath, but it would truly be a remarkable day when Scott Pruitt says, “Avoiding emissions should always be first choice.”

Charlotte Collins is a recent graduate of Barnard College where she studied English Literature, Environmental Science and German. She is currently living in Berlin, Germany dancing Argentine Tango and working as a freelance editor and writer monitoring German environmental policy.

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