Germany’s CO2 emissions

2 min read


Ewa Kiełsznia

Writer, transcreator and eco-enthusiast

Germany is the most populous country in the European Union. It sets many trends in the economy, production, and above all: in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. What are Germany’s CO2 emissions? Why does a country with only 1% of the world’s population contribute to 5% of global warming? How does Germany manage to reduce its CO2 emissions? This article will answer these and many more questions about CO2 emissions in Germany.

Germany – an environmentally conscious nation

Germany is a large country, in 2019 it had a population of 82,438,640, which then represented 1.07% of the world population. There is a huge number of climate-conscious people, as surveys show more than 90% of Germans do not doubt climate change. Despite all the inconveniences, Germans also accept the government’s steps to mitigate climate change and limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius – as many as two-thirds of those surveyed have no objections to these measures. Although the representatives of the conservative part of society are not yet ready to make changes in their personal lives, they do not question scientific reports on environmental issues.

The general climate awareness in Germany therefore looks very promising. How do people in Germany deal with their CO2 emissions?

CO2 emissions in Germany

Germany’s total CO2 emissions reached 810 million tonnes in 2019. This accounts for 1.92% of the GHG emissions worldwide. The largest share of this sum is the burning of fossil fuels, which represents 82%.

How big is this figure in comparison with other countries? The year 1990 is a reference point for worldwide calculations, systematic measurements began then and today’s emissions are compared to those of 1990. Compared to 1990, CO2 emissions in Germany have decreased by 35.1%.

How did Germany manage to reduce its CO2 emissions? The greatest savings can be seen in the energy sector. The government is investing heavily in the development of modern technologies and is rapidly developing a system for obtaining energy from renewable sources. The reduction in emissions was also possible due to the reform of the carbon credit system, low price of gas, expansion of wind and solar power plants, and the gradual moving from coal-based power. Coal’s consumption fluctuates depending on the weather conditions, e.g. it increases in less windy seasons to compensate for the unused wind power plants.

Germany is doing a lot to reduce its CO2 emissions, but sometimes things do not go as planned. The rise and fall of GHG emissions is affected by events beyond the control of government plans. Unforeseen increases in emissions were recorded in 1996, 2001, 2010, 2013, and 2016. They were caused by unusually cold winters and the need to increase indoor heating.

Luckily, sometimes unforeseen events contribute to lower GHG levels, in 2009 emissions fell due to the economic crisis. The global Covid-19 pandemic also contributed to the downward trend in CO2 emissions. One of the side effects of the pandemic is the decrease in CO2 emissions – a trend that is also observed in Germany. The Covid-19 pandemic affected mainly the reduction of emissions of small businesses and households that had to slow down their turnover due to the lockdown.

Average CO2 emissions in Germany per capita

The average citizen in Germany emits 9.6 tonnes of CO2 per year. This is slightly more than the European Union average of 8.4 tonnes CO2 per capita. By comparison, an average Chinese citizen in China emits the biggest amount of CO2 in the world, emitting an average of 7.4 tonnes of CO2 per year. Germany’s average result is therefore not far off the average, but it is above it.

How are the CO2 emissions of statistical Germans distributed?

  • Average Germans leave the largest portion of their emissions in the atmosphere as a result of their consumer behaviour. Household shopping, clothes and leisure activities account for 4.42 tonnes of CO2 per year
  • Nutrition and heating come in second with 1.75 tonnes of CO2 released into the atmosphere each year
  • Land transport releases 1.61 tonnes of CO2 per year
  • Electricity generates 0.79 tonnes of CO2 per year
  • Waste generation: 0.73 tonnes of CO2
  • Air travel accounts for 0.58 tonnes of CO2

Germany sets a good example for the rest of the world because the average CO2 emissions per capita in Germany are falling. Annual per capita footprint was 12.87 tonnes in 1990. Just 29 years later it’s only 8.52 tonnes. This is still more than the EU average, but the trend is definitely hopeful.

German cuisine – is their diet healthy for the planet?

According to the 2021 data, up to 10% of Germans are vegetarian or vegan. This will come as no surprise to anyone who has ever had the pleasure of shopping in a supermarket in Germany. The selection of vegan equivalents of products that are usually meat or milk-based can be overwhelming. From vegan cold cuts, through vegan yogurts, sour cream and cheeses, to vegan bread spreads and sweets. Many of them will not only have a green V-label to symbolize the lack of animal products, but also a climate neutral label. In this field, Germany is an unquestionable pioneer.

Interestingly, the number of vegetarians in Germany doubled in just one year! Researchers see the source of this rapid change as a result of the pandemic. The fact that meat from a wet market may have contributed to the spread of the virus has made many people aware of how harmful eating animal products can be. Locked in their homes, Germans were more likely to choose vegetables, which now make up the majority of their daily diet. According to a survey, Germans were mainly driven to change their eating habits by curiosity (71% of respondents). 59% of those surveyed changed their diet for animal welfare reasons.

Among those who still include meat in their diet, as many as 92% say that they check the information about the conditions which the animals were raised. The welfare of the Earth and climate protection is also important to the average German, about 54% of Germans change their diet because they care about climate issues. This is important, as moving away from animal products and reducing livestock farming are important steps to climate neutrality.

CO2 emissions of the German transport section

The German Environmental Agency estimates that in 2016 (compared to 1990) GHGs from the transport sector increased by 1.1%. While the increase might not be too big, transportation is still one of the more carbon-intensive sectors of the German economy. Therefore, the government is implementing a climate policy in which reducing GHGs from transport occupies a very important place.

How do Germans travel and how much CO2 does Germany’s transport emit?

According to 2016 data, 82.5% of Germans travel independently in motorized vehicles, 13.3% use public transport. Rail accounts for 3.9% of all travels, and flights represent 0.3%.

In 2019, the transport system in Germany left more than 152 million tonnes of CO2 in the atmosphere. With improvements in engine building technology and automotive development, the average passenger car now emits about 5% less greenhouse gases and other environmentally harmful substances than it did just a dozen years ago. In the case of trucks, the improvement is even more visible with decreased amounts to as much as 32%.

As the number of cars continue to increase, overall CO2 emissions from transport in Germany are rising year over year. At the moment, Germany’s land transport CO2 emissions are 21% higher than in 1995 and currently amount to 47.4 tonnes of CO2 per year.

A German car – a brand in itself

The vast majority of cars in Germany are powered by gasoline engines (65.5%) and diesel engines (32.8%). However, the electric car market is gaining in importance and popularity, with nearly 54,000 electric cars on the roads in 2018. Compared to the previous year, the increase is huge at 53.3%.

Interestingly, the frequency of car use and the sympathy of Germans for cars are falling. According to 2019 data, 61% of Germans used a car frequently – it’s a significant drop from data 4 years back, when frequent car use was declared by as many as 70% of citizens.

No strings attached – car sharing in Germany

The ability to rent cars spontaneously straight from the street through a mobile application is a great convenience for those who use this means of transport occasionally while not having to invest in purchasing a car, inspections, insurance, tire changes, etc. In Germany, there are many companies that offer flexible car rental. However, not many people use this form of mobility at the moment, about 0.1% of passenger kilometres are covered by hourly hired vehicles.

Car sharing has great potential to make a difference in the car market. With cars parked and unused for the vast majority of the time, car sharing saves not only money, but also resources and the environment. Germany has introduced several programs to help increase the share of shared cars. These include free parking spaces for shared cars, systems for combining shared car trips with public transport, and the promotion of shared cars by cities. In Bremen, civil servants are using hourly hired cars to commute to work to support this form of mobility. In addition, young companies can count on government grants to support the start-up of related businesses.

Germany is one of the leading car manufacturers in the world and at the same time the leader in introducing car sharing solutions. By observing the development of the automotive market in Germany, we can make conclusions about the future trends in this field all over the world.

Green light only for green stickers – environmental zones in Germany

Green Zones (in German: Umweltzone) were introduced in Germany at the beginning of 2008. Vehicles that do not comply with the emissions standards are not allowed into these zones. To enter a Green Zone, a vehicle must have a green sticker with the number 4 on it indicating that it meets the exhaust fumes standards. There are already 80 such zones across the country and the fine for non-compliance with green zone requirements is 80 EUR.

In 2018, the green zone regulations were further tightened with the ban for old diesel vehicles. Old diesels, even with a green badge, are not allowed to enter these zones.

In addition, Germany is promoting the usage of electric and hybrid vehicles, distinguishing them with a sticker with the letter E. Owners of such vehicles can enjoy many benefits such as driving on bus lanes or free parking.

Bikes in Germany

There is at least one bicycle in 76% of households in Germany, and 44% of Germans ride a bike regularly. Germany has a huge presence in promoting cycling among its citizens. Not only do all large cities have designated paths for cyclists, most cities and towns are connected by a network of cycling routes marked on small internal roads, as well as intercity paths built specifically for cyclists. Every weekend they fill up all different kinds of cyclists – from sport enthusiasts to senior citizens who go on short trips with their electric bikes.

As many as 5.4 million e-bikes and electrically-assisted bicycles are in use in Germany, and 14% of all households have such a bicycle.

What’s more, 41% of Germans admit they would like to cycle even more in the future. At the moment, the statistical cyclist covers 30 km per week – it would be great to see this figure grow in the future.

Energy sources in Germany

The annual carbon footprint of the energy sector in Germany was 243,217,215 tonnes of CO2 in 2019.

In 2010, Germany announced a plan to transform its energy mix to a greener one. The following year, after the Fukushima disaster, the move away from nuclear power was further accelerated. The three newest nuclear plants, Isar II, Emsland and Neckarwestheim II, will be shut down by the end of 2022.

Similarly, there are plans to move away from coal-based power generation, although the deadline is a bit more distant. The closure of the last coal-fired power plant has been set for 2038, but many companies are already preparing for this step with plans to convert their energy model to the one based on hydrogen.

An example of a company that has so far relied on coal but intends to change its model to the one based on hydrogen, is Thyssenkrupp. Among other products, the company makes steel that is exported worldwide and also elevators that most of our readers probably use every day. In 2019 alone, Thyssenkrupp emitted 23 million tonnes of CO2, which equals to almost 3% of Germany’s entire emissions – quite a lot for one company (that’s more than Berlin emitted for an entire year)! Most of those emissions come from burning coal to produce steel. However, by 2050 the company has promised to become climate neutral and to source its energy from hydrogen.

What powers the German economy?

According to 2015 data:

  • 33.8% was provided by oil,
  • 21% by gas,
  • 12.7% by hard coal,
  • 11.9% by lignite,
  • 7.5% by nuclear power plants,
  • 12.6% by renewables,
  • and the remaining 0.5% by other sources.

Despite the efforts to move away from coal, Germany faces periodical difficulties hard to foresee. The beginning of this year was much less windy than last year, so more energy had to be obtained from coal. The drop in energy production from wind turbines was as much as 7 percentage points. Fortunately, when it comes to renewable energy, Germany acts dynamically and diversifies its sources.

Renewable energy sources in Germany

In 2020, just over 19% of Germany’s energy came from natural sources – that’s 6.4 percentage points more than in 2015. The biggest portion of renewable energy came from wind power plants – of the 251 billion kWh produced overall, as much as 131 billion kWh came from wind sources. Photovoltaics and biomass are in second place – each of these sources provided about 50.6 billion kWh. Hydroelectric power installations produced 18.6 billion kWh, and geothermal sources accounted for the remaining small share.

Industries in Germany

According to the German Environmental Agency, since the beginning of industrialization, Germany has contributed 5% to global warming. It’s quite a lot for a country with only 1% of the world’s population.

What industry sectors contribute the most to Germany’s CO2 emissions?

  • The biggest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in Germany is electricity generation: 37.8%
  • Industrial production generates 20.7% of GHGs
  • Transport: 18.2%
  • Households: 10.2%
  • Agriculture: 7.8%
  • Trade and services: 4.2%
  • Waste: 1.2%.

As much as 1/5 of all GHGs are produced by industry. Germany exports steel and iron all over the world, and huge amounts of coal are burned in their production. The chemical industry, mainly cement production, is also a major contributor to the overall sum of the greenhouse gases.

Germany’s climate plans – is the future green?

In 2021, North Rhine-Westphalia experienced catastrophic flooding which also resulted in a massive landslide. 160 people died, many were injured, and the losses are estimated at several billion Euros. This disaster is directly linked to climate change. It showed that not only regions typically associated with violent weather events (such as tropical areas) are vulnerable to climate change. The so far calm Europe is also experiencing the increasing effects of these changes.

One consequence of this tragedy has been the focus on targets to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. This was evident in the headlines of newspapers describing the event, and also in the election posters for cities in Germany just a few months later. In the fall of 2021, elections to the German Bundestag took place: all three parties (SPD, CDU, and the Greens) that won the most seats in parliament had ambitious climate goals in their programs.

What overall climate goals does Germany have? A target date of 2030 has been set to reduce emissions to 438 tonnes CO2 per year. Germany has set a target date for reaching climate neutrality by 2045. By that time, its annual carbon footprint will be equal to zero.

Germany’s future in terms of CO2 emissions is also determined by a plan called Klimaschutzplan 2050, which aims to reduce GHGs by 55% by 2030 (compared to the reference year 1990).

Last but not least, an interesting fact, where have the greatest CO2 savings been achieved so far? Although waste management emits primarily non-CO2 greenhouse gases (mostly methane), the progress in reducing these gases in the waste management sector in Germany is worth noting. Compared to 1990, emissions from this sector have fallen by as much as 76.7%. As a result, waste now accounts for only 1.2% of all greenhouse gas emissions in Germany.