Germany’s top court has demanded changes to Germany’s climate law, saying it places too much of a burden on future generations to reduce carbon emissions, in a key victory for young climate campaigners.

The court said the law “violate[s] the freedoms of the complainants, some of whom are still very young” because it “irreversibly offload[s] major emission reduction burdens on to periods after 2030”.

The measures the government had set out for the post-2030 period were “not sufficient to ensure that the necessary transition to climate neutrality is achieved in time”, it said, and demanded authorities set out clear goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions after 2030.

Luisa Neubauer, the climate activist behind Germany’s Fridays for Future demonstrations, called the decision a “huge win for the climate movement”.

“Today, the German constitutional court has decided that climate justice is a fundamental right,” she tweeted. “Today’s inaction mustn’t harm our freedom & rights in the future.”

The verdict is a setback for Angela Merkel, who had touted the 2019 law as a turning point in Germany’s efforts to battle climate change. It requires the country to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55 per cent by 2030, relative to 1990 levels, and to have virtually no emissions by 2050. It also sets out how much CO2 certain sectors such as transport, agriculture or buildings are allowed to emit per year.

The complainants against the law included Sophie Backsen, whose family live on the island of Pellworm in the North Sea, not far from Hamburg. She had argued the island was threatened by rising sea levels caused by global warming, and the German government’s failure to address the problem adequately amounted to a violation of her fundamental rights.

Ministers welcomed the court’s decision, which requires the government to rewrite the law by the end of the year. Peter Altmaier, economy minister, described it as a “great, historic ruling, of crucial importance for the rights of young people and the younger generation as a whole”. He said it was also good for business because it helped them “plan long-term for the future”.

That comment triggered a swift response from Olaf Scholz, the Social Democrat finance minister, who blamed Altmaier’s centre-right CDU/CSU bloc for the weaknesses in the original climate change law. “As far as I can remember it was you and the CDU/CSU who prevented us doing what the constitutional court has now advised us to do,” he tweeted, addressing Altmaier. “But we can correct that quickly. Are you with us?”

Experts said the court’s ruling could have a profound impact on government policy. Germany might, they said, be forced to bring forward its planned phaseout of the use of coal by 2038. “A simple calculator shows that this will be necessary,” said Roda Verheyen, a lawyer for Sophie Backsen and her brothers and sisters.

The court said the German climate law in effect backloaded Germany’s carbon reductions, saying “the reductions still necessary after 2030 will have to be achieved with ever greater speed and urgency”.

“These future obligations to reduce emissions have an impact on practically every type of freedom, because virtually all aspects of human life still involve the emission of greenhouse gases and are thus potentially threatened by drastic restrictions after 2030,” the judges said.

In their ruling they said the authorities should avoid a situation in which one generation gets off relatively lightly and the “radical burden” of reducing emissions is placed on future generations, who are also “exposed to a loss of freedoms that affect their whole lives”.

The government had an obligation to leave the natural foundations of life “in such condition that future generations who wish to continue preserving these foundations are not forced to engage in radical abstinence”.

​Letter in response to this article:

German court ruling has trivial impact on climate / From Professor Graham Weale, Centre for Environmental Management, Resources and Energy, Faculty of Management and Economics, Ruhr University Bochum, Germany