Climate emergency trend gains traction in German-speaking countries

Dozens of cities across the world have declared a climate emergency. Now, students behind the school climate strikes are bringing the movement to Switzerland and Germany. But what does that mean exactly?

In December, 19-year-old Philippe Kramer and other students in the Swiss city of Basel skipped school because they had something better to do: protest the government's lack of ambition in fighting climate change.

Since then, the protests have grown in number across Switzerland with people of all walks of lives joining the students. "Switzerland is not a country where people usually take to the streets but the feedback was huge and it has changed a lot," Kramer told DW.

Inspired by how the strikes sparked public discussions about climate change, Kramer and the other students wanted to do more than protest. 

So they decided to follow the example of dozens of cities in Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States that have declared a climate emergency after activists lobbied their local governments to take action against global warming.

Nature and Environment | 08.10.2018

The students published an open letter in newspapers in Basel explaining the concept of a climate emergency and inviting politicians to present it to parliament.

Swiss politician Aenas Wanner from the Green Liberal Party did just that — and managed to get a two-thirds majority in favor of Basel officially declaring a climate emergency, the first local government in the German-speaking world to do so.

Read more: 'We can make a difference': Voices of school climate strikers from around the world

Infografik Klimademos weltweit 15.3.2019 EN

Sending a signal

But what exactly does it mean when a city declares a climate emergency?

The idea behind the movement is to inspire change from the bottom up. The concept, however, differs slightly from city to city. While some local councils commit to specific targets — such as reaching zero emissions much earlier than their national government plans to — others promise to make climate change policy a priority.

In Basel's case, the move is legally non-binding, essentially making it symbolic. The city has committed to consider taking the environmental impact of new projects into account, favoring businesses that mitigate climate change. 

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"When we discuss the expansion of gas supply in parliament now, we have to consider the consequences for the climate," Wanner told DW.

The city of Basel also promises to ground their policies in the guidelines set out by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which are  much stricter than Switzerland's national climate protection plan. Switzerland committed to reduce its CO2 emissions by 20 percent of 1990 levels by 2020, but is not expected to reach this goal. 

Student climate strikes go global

'If you don't act like adults, we will'

Thousands of students walked out of class in Sydney, kicking off global protests on Friday. They got the attention they wanted. Some Australian politicians hit back with criticism. "For action on issues that they think is important, they should do that after school or on weekends," said Education Minister Dan Tehan.

Student climate strikes go global

Students bring grown-ups into line

Protesters in New Zealand invited adults to join the march. "If we go on strike on a school day, then they'll notice and they might want to do something," said 14-year-old student Inese, who didn't want to give her full name. And her prime minister is listening. Jacinda Ardern supports the strikes and has pledged NZ$100 million (€60 million/$68 million) to cut greenhouse gases.

Student climate strikes go global

Truth to power

The movement has snowballed since 16-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg began skipping school to protest in front of parliament last August. On March 15, her protest spread from Vanuatu to Hong Kong (pictured here), Tashkent to Madagascar. In Thailand, one of the world's top plastic polluters, students campaigned against single-use plastics.

Student climate strikes go global

Seoul to Singapore

From Seoul to Singapore, each city's students spoke out in their own way. Here in South Korea, 100 students held signs saying "Too warm 4 school" and "Don't deny climate change." In Singapore, strict laws regulate public assembly so young people planned a virtual campaign on social media.

Student climate strikes go global

'To educate adults'

In India, protests were seen in 36 different cities, including New Delhi, Mumbai, Hyderabad and Bangalore. Students in New Delhi chanted slogans demanding the Indian government stop using coal and act against climate change and air pollution.

Student climate strikes go global

Berlin takes matters into its own hands

While German Chancellor Angela Merkel has supported the movement, some German students are still afraid to skip school. But not all. Protests were planned for 200 cities across the country. In the German capital, the crowds were huge by midday.

Student climate strikes go global

Braving the storm

In the western German city of Cologne, students braved the wet weather. Massive storms have recently battered that part of the country, though they only appeared to fan the flames of the students' protest.

Student climate strikes go global

Swedish inspiration

Greta Thunberg (center) led one of the many protests in Sweden. She said she was excited that protests had spread to 2,052 places in 123 countries. Asked if adults should strike too, she replied: "It's up to them, if they want their kids to have a future."

Student climate strikes go global

'Denial is not a policy'

Students in South African cities, including Cape Town and Pretoria, joined in the school strike. Africa, with more than 1 billion people, is expected to be hardest hit by global warming even though it contributes the least to greenhouse gas emissions.

Student climate strikes go global

Strike across the US

Strikes were held by students in cities across the country, including New York, Washington, Chicago, Portland, Oregon and St. Paul, Minnesota. In June 2017, US President Donald Trump announced that the US was withdrawing from the 2015 Paris agreement on mitigating climate change.

Student climate strikes go global

Guterres: 'My generation has failed'

Montreal drew among the largest crowds, estimated by organizers at nearly 150,000. The global movement saw a response from UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who said he was inspired by the climate strikers to call a special summit in September to deal with "the climate emergency."

"Climate change and climate protection are among the biggest challenges for our society these days," Wanner said. "These young people are absolutely right to demand a future that's worth living in and we as politicians haven't done enough to secure that."

Germany follows lead

The students' idea has inspired other Swiss cities, like Zurich, to follow Basel's lead. And it's even sweeping over the border to Germany, where students and citizens are starting to pressure their cities to do the same.

For months, tens of thousands of students have used weekly school strikes to protest Germany's lack of ambition in fighting global warming. Although often praised in the international community as a leader in the climate change fight, Germany, too, is struggling to reduce emissions: it's projected to fall short of its 2020 goal of reducing greenhouse gas output by 40 percent of 1990 levels.

One of the students pushing cities to declare a climate emergency is 19-year-old Louisa Schocke, a coordinator with the German branch of Fridays for Future, the movement behind the weekly climate strikes. She petitioned the city of Erlangen to declare an environmental emergency. 

The motion was voted on during a town hall meeting at the end of March with 99 percent in favor. The city council is expected to make a final decision by the end of April.

"What's driving me to take action is this fear that when I'm 35 years old, nothing will be left of the things that I know exist now, like biodiversity," Schocke told DW.

The message among climate protesters is clear, and getting louder.

She and her team came up with concrete ideas for measures the southern Geman city of Erlangen could take to become more climate-friendly, and divided them up in seven sectors: energy, mobility, construction, urban parks, food, waste management and investment.

"So for instance, we suggest that Erlangen should install more trash bins, open new bike routes and grow more plants across the city." 

Students have proposed similar motions for climate emergency declarations in other German cities, such as Berlin, Leipzig, Kiel, Dortmund, Düsseldorf and Cologne. 

From local to national level

Critics argue that a city symbolically declaring a climate emergency without any legal consequences can’t have a real impact on policies. But politicians like Lisa Badum, Green Party spokesperson for climate policy in the German Bundestag, disagree.

"Nothing is being done at a federal level. The German parliament hasn't understood how urgent this topic is," she told DW. "We are missing our climate targets by miles. That's why it's so important that pressure is being put on cities and municipalities at a local level."

According to Badum, cities have the chance to really make an impact without waiting for parliament to pass climate measures. Instead of subsidizing free parking, they can, for instance, put the money into public transport or more secure bike lanes. 

Investing in safe bike lanes is just one of the things cities can do for a better climate

And by making climate change a priority, they are impacting federal politics as well.

"Every member of parliament has a constituency somewhere, many are voted into parliament directly, and if this constituency is putting pressure on them to do something about climate change, then they have to act," she said.

Push for national climate emergency

According to the Australian campaign Climate Emergency Declaration, the emergency mode is supposed to be upheld until the emergency passes. But it's unclear whether new local governments will uphold the status, provide necessary budgets or monitor results.

Philippe Kramer from Switzerland, however, is convinced by the movement's impact and says Basel's declaration of a climate emergency has already made an impact on climate politics. 

"Now one political party after the next is trying to make a name for itself by coming forward with suggestions how to protect the climate, and that's great," he said.

What started on a local level may soon be brought to a national one, with Samira Marti, the youngest member of the Swiss national council, the lower house of the Federal Assembly of Switzerland, planning on introducing the idea to declare a nationwide climate emergency soon.

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Reporter | 18.03.2019

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