Germany to revive climate change, phase out glyphosate

New German Environment Minister Svenja Schulze from the Social Democrats is still largely unknown. In her first major speech in parliament, she has promised to at least aim to meet climate change targets by 2030.

Svenja who? That's the question on many people's lips when she was tapped as the new environment minister. In fact, 49-year-old politician Svenja Schulze was previously known primarily in her home state of North Rhine-Westphalia, where she used to be science minister.

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Now, for the first time, she has taken the speaker's podium at the Bundestag, full of praise for Germany's efforts at environmental protection. Her speech described a continuing, decades-long success story.

Read more: Germany's new government - same old story for the environment?

And indeed, Germany is a driving force behind the transition to green energy, building solar and wind power plants. And it is the world's leader in waste sorting. Chancellor Angela Merkel was even celebrated internationally as the "climate chancellor."

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Dents in environmental record

But in recent years, the country that once spearheaded environmental and climate protection has seen its track record dented. Greenhouse gas emissions have risen again because there are still too many coal-fired power plants, especially in Schulze's home state of North Rhine-Westphalia.

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Germany will barely be able to achieve its goal of reducing greenhouse gases by 40 percent by 2020 - somewhat embarrassing for the former trailblazer in environmental protection.

Read more: Climate scientists should cut back on air travel 

"It is true, and this coalition has openly admitted that there is a gap in our ability to reach our 2020 climate protection goals that cannot yet be closed, despite the efforts made in recent years," Schulze admitted.

Let's phase out fossil fuel, but when?

Schulze now wants to convene a special commission to clarify when Germany will be able to phase out fossil fuel power stations. For many critics her plan is not ambitious or fast enough, because no fixed date has been set.

Read more: Time running out to save the Earth's plants and animals

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But Schulze has said quite openly that she is also keeping an eye out for the workers who still work in the coal industry. She also said she will always have to consider the social impact of any environmental policies. Next year, the new minister plans to present a climate protection law, which will make the goal of saving 55 percent of greenhouse gases by 2030 legally binding.

'I'm not a fan of driving bans'

And then there is the ongoing diesel scandal. And part of this is the danger that millions of drivers will be threatened with driving bans because the safe thresholds for nitrogen oxides have been exceeded in many cities. "I am certainly not a fan of driving bans. But I also know that we are going to need some innovative solutions if we want to prevent them," Schulze says.

"The perpetrators are not the motorists who bought cars in good faith, believing that they were environmentally friendly. The perpetrators are the car manufacturers." They will soon have to carry out, and pay for, extensive retrofittings, she said. With this, it would seem that the first conflict is looming with the new transport minister, Andreas Scheuer from the Christian Social Union (CSU).

2017: Devastating effects of climate change

Sweltering heat

Unprecedented heat waves swept across the globe in 2017, leading to droughts, wildfires and even deaths. Australia started the year with temperatures near 50 degrees Celsius (122 Fahrenheit), the "Lucifer" heat wave brought the mercury above 40 degrees Celsius throughout Southern Europe in July and August and scorching heat hit India's most vulnerable people. Get ready for next summer...

2017: Devastating effects of climate change

Disappearing wonder

Earlier this year, scientists realized that coral bleaching in Australia's Great Barrier Reef was worse than first thought. In some parts of the UNESCO World Heritage site, up to 70 percent of the coral has already been killed. By 2050, scientists have warned 90 percent of the reef could disappear. Rising sea temperatures and ocean acidification are the main culprits.

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Deadly combination

Armed conflicts are pushing millions of people to leave their homes or live in terribly precarious situations — and climate change is making it worse. A lack of natural resources increases the risk of conflict and makes life even harder for refugees. South Sudanese families, for instance, are escaping to neighboring countries like Uganda and Kenya — countries already suffering from drought.

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World on fire

From New Zealand to Spain, from California to even Greenland: the world has seen a nonstop year of wildfires. Global warming has been blamed for the increased fire risk, and in some countries that risk has turned into reality. Wildfires engulfed large areas of Europe's Iberian Peninsula, causing death and destruction, while firefighters in California have had no rest for more than six months.

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Record-shattering storms

Hurricanes Maria and Irma, which hit the Caribbean region in August and September, were two of the year's most damaging weather events. The list of deadly storms also included Ophelia in Ireland, Harvey and Nate in Central America and the US, and Xavier and Sebastian in Germany. Warming of the ocean surface has led to more evaporation, and that water may help fuel thunderstorms and hurricanes.

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Melting Antarctica

In July, one of the largest icebergs ever recorded separated from the Larsen C ice shelf — one of Antarctica's biggest — reducing its area by more than 12 percent. While calving icebergs in the Antarctic are part of a natural cycle, scientists have linked the retreat of several Antarctic ice shelves to global warming and are closely monitoring potential long-term effects.

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Struggle to breathe

Deteriorating air quality causes thousands of deaths around the world every year. India's capital, New Delhi, is one of the world's most polluted cities. In November, large parts of northern India and Pakistan were engulfed by a blanket of thick smog carrying harmful particulate matter. Schools were forced to close, and hospitals were full of people with respiratory problems.

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Oceans at risk

The high levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere represent a major threat for our oceans, already in danger due to plastic pollution, overfishing and warming waters. Ocean acidification could make these waters — covering more than two-thirds of our planet's surface — a hostile environment for sea creatures. And without marine animals, entire ocean ecosystems are at risk.

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Fierce floods and mudslides

Superstorms often trigger flash floods and mudslides. In late December, more than 230 people were killed when a storm hit the Philippines' second-largest island of Mindanao, a tragedy exacerbated by years of deforestation. In 2017, severe floods also hit countries such as Vietnam, Peru and Sierra Leone. European countries, including Greece and Germany, also felt the damaging effects of heavy rain.

Glyphosate to be phased out

Schulze also had, at the ready, a small declaration of war on the new and old coalition partners from the Christian Democrats and Christian Social Union (CDU/CSU). At the end of last year, former agriculture minister Christian Schmidt sparked a heated dispute with the Environment Ministry. Without consulting the then-Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks, he voted in favor of continuing to authorize the highly controversial pesticide glyphosate in the European Union.

Read more: Glyphosate: the key points in an endless debate

Schulze does not want a repeat of this. "My hope is that this was a one-off gaffe and that we can assume that there is a new spirit prevailing in the current German government and that such foul play will not happen again." Schulze announced that the use of glyphosate will be stopped as soon as possible.

Climate change deniers in parliament

Schulze rather surprisingly took over the office of environment minister from her party colleague Barbara Hendricks. Karsten Hilse, member of parliament for the right-wing populist "Alternative für Deutschland" (AfD), wasted no time in making it clear to the new minister what she can expect to deal with in the Bundestag.

For him, the greenhouse effect is simply a lie. The other parties want to give Svenja Schulze time to set her own course of action. But according to Judith Skudelny from the Free Democrats (FDP), only 3 percent of the coalition agreement was devoted to environmental protection. This will certainly be one of the new Minister's most important tasks - to attract more attention to environmental and climate protection in Germany.

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