On Sunday 26th March, the citizens of Berlin will vote in a referendum on setting a new and highly ambitious goal for achieving climate neutrality. The referendum, which comes as the result of a popular citizens’ initiative, proposes to amend the 2016 Berlin Climate Protection and Energy Transition Act, which set a non-binding target of statewide carbon neutrality by 2045.
What will the referendum decide?
The citizens’ initiative Berlin 2030 klimaneutral (climate neutral Berlin 2030) was launched in 2021 by the activist group Klimaneustart Berlin (climate restart Berlin) who are dedicated to forwarding staunch climate action through direct democracy. The group insisted that phasing out emissions in over two decades was simply not good enough; instead they put forward the loftier target of the year 2030, which would mean rapidly reducing Berlin emissions by approximately 95%. By November 2022 the initiative had collected more than 260,000 eligible voter signatures, well surpassing the number needed to bring the motion to referendum.
If Berlin votes yes to the proposed change to the climate act, it will not only bring forward the timeline, but also strengthen its terms and create new social provisions. By the settled 2016 Act, the government must “aim” to reach the target by the set date, whereas the referendum would give them a legal obligation to achieve climate neutrality by 2030. Furthermore, they will be bound to do so in a socially equitable manner. Under the Berlin 2030 Klimaneutral proposal, public buildings shall be outfitted with clean energy capacities, further measures for making renewable energy accessible would be implemented, and Berlin’s tenants would receive subsidies in the event of subsequent rent increases.
Skeptics vs dreamers? / Is climate neutrality by 2030 an unrealistic target or a moral imperative?
The detractors include many of Berlin’s prominent politicians, and not just those of a more conservative leaning. Those arguing against the reform insist that a city of nearly four million inhabitants and growing cannot hope to achieve climate neutrality in under a decade, especially as the path to achieving this lofty ambition is far from clear. While many plan to vote for the initiative despite serious doubt about the plausibility of the goal, others question the wisdom of “voting for the impossible” and speculate that this may damage the legitimacy of Berlin’s direct democracy. Even Environment Senator Bettina Jarasch, who has committed to vote in favour of the amendment, has conceded that while the 2030 target is technically possible to realize, it is politically infeasible.
While concrete plans to meet this new objective are still somewhat nebulous, further doubts are raised regarding the effectiveness of an implemention at the state level without corresponding action at the national level. In short, Berlin likely cannot achieve the goal acting alone. Furthermore, ending fossil fuel reliance would cost billions for a major urban centre like Berlin. That being said, the cost of failing to take rapid action may be far higher still. Proponents of Berlin 2030 Klimaneutral argue that in the face of climate catastrophe the current measures being pursued by the Berlin Senate are far too tentative and conservative. Instead, they argue, Berlin must be at the vanguard of climate politics and lead the way towards national climate neutrality.
Will Berlin 2030 klimaneutral succeed?
Walking through Berlin, you’ll find yourself surrounded by green and red posters urging you to vote “ja”. The absence of “nein” posters might give the impression that the outcome of the referendum is already a predictable victory for those in favour of amending Berlin’s climate goals. However, the outcome is not so predictable.
Only German citizens resident in Berlin are eligible to vote in the referendum, leaving Berlin’s large population of foreign nationals without a say in the decision. Polling indicates a narrow majority of eligible voters favor adopting the new climate goal, with 46 percent in favor of a climate-neutral Berlin by 2030, 42 percent against the amendment and 12 percent undecided as of February. Berliners are starkly divided along age demographics. While those in their twenties and thirties are overwhelmingly in favour of the initiative, older generations are far more skeptical. In order to pass, the amendment must not only be favored by a majority of votes on the day, but also be supported by 25% of all eligible voters. With Berliners narrowly divided on the issue, and voter turnout is posing another potential barrier. Only time will tell whether Germany’s capital will embrace this formidable environmental challenge.
Experience Green Berlin
While Berliners are locked in a contentious debate on whether the 2030 climate neutrality initiative is a starry-eyed pipedream or a well-needed counter to a calcifying political culture of climate fatalism, Green Bike Tours offers you an opportunity to judge the matter for yourself. Whether by bike or on foot, you can explore some of the many ongoing initiatives that contribute to making Berlin a more climate-friendly city. Regardless of the result of next week’s referendum, with a variety of green spaces, energy-efficient building projects, innovative recycling management systems and expanding green architecture, Berlin’s climate pioneers strive to make the city a national green leader.
By green guide Leona Quigley