There is a mood of alarm at the UN climate summit. The past eight years have been the warmest since systematic weather records began. What is the world doing about the climate crisis, and what is Germany doing? The answer: not enough – but at the same time we are more successful than we think.

The UN Secretary-General sees black. “We are on the highway to climate hell – with our foot on the gas pedal,” said António Guterres on Monday in his speech at the world climate conference in Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt. “We’re fighting the fight of our lives – and we’re about to lose.”

In view of the climate catastrophes of the past two years, it is difficult to contradict Guterres. It was only in the summer that a third of Pakistan’s entire land area was flooded, a disaster that has never happened in its history. A historic heat wave had previously led to rapid glacier melt in the Hindu Kush mountains and the Himalayas, as well as to dramatic monsoon showers in the lowlands. A total of 1,700 people died, tens of thousands were injured, and property damage is estimated to be $40 billion.

In recent years, Germany has also experienced natural disasters that were favored by the climate. A total of 183 people died in the floods in Rhineland-Palatinate and North Rhine-Westphalia last year. Even more deadly: the heat. In the summers from 2018 to 2020 alone, more than 19,000 people died from heat in Germany, according to an evaluation by the Federal Environment Agency, the Robert Koch Institute and the German Weather Service in the “Deutsches Ärzteblatt”.

So Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has his reasons when he reminds at the opening of the world climate conference in his country: “Millions of people around the planet have their eyes on us.” And at least the world community has already addressed the problem agreed. The so-called Paris Agreement of 2015 stipulates that all countries make efforts to limit global warming to a maximum of 1.5 degrees by the end of this century. For this to happen, humanity’s CO2 emissions must begin to decrease by 2025 at the latest. Seven years have passed since the Paris Agreement – where does the world community stand with its goal? And especially Germany?

The United Nations Environment Program summarized the current status just a few days ago. In the so-called “Emission Gap Report” (emission gap report) the UN has shown how much CO2 the world still has to save in order to reach the 1.5 degree target. And in this regard, things are looking bleak: “The international community is about to fall far short of the Paris targets,” says the report, “there is no credible path to 1.5 degrees”. Only an “urgent system-wide transformation can prevent a climate catastrophe”. The name of the report: “The closing window”. The earth has already warmed up by an average of 1.1 degrees, in Germany it is already almost two degrees.

Measured against the goals it has set itself, it is difficult to attest the world community anything but a serious failure. According to preliminary calculations, 2021 could be a record in terms of CO2 emissions into the atmosphere. Even the announcements are not enough: if each individual country successfully implements its specific climate promises, a maximum of ten percent of CO2 emissions would be saved by 2030, according to the report. In order to achieve the 1.5 degree target, however, a saving of 45 percent is necessary. And even the modest ten percent saving is currently a long way off.

The result: according to the current status, humanity will not end up at 1.5 degrees, but somewhere between 1.9 and 3.3 degrees. The result would be many more heat waves, floods and wildfires. “We have to close the emissions gap before the catastrophe closes in on us,” said UN Secretary-General Guterres on the publication of the report.

That is one side of the coin: humanity is doing far too little and will fall far short of its self-imposed 1.5 degree target if nothing changes. The other side of the coin is a bit more hopeful: We have already made concrete progress – and prevented the big apocalypse.

Because while climate research is pessimistic about the efforts of the global community, it is still more optimistic than it was a few years ago. This development can be seen in the so-called “status reports” of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the internationally recognized supreme authority on climate issues. For years, hundreds of scientists from all over the world have been brooding over tens of thousands of studies for the reports, so they represent the most comprehensive state of the art in climate research.

Lo and behold: Even in the fifth world climate report from 2014, a hellish global warming of five degrees Celsius was considered a realistic possibility. It is now considered almost impossible. The biggest doomsday scenarios are now off the table, the view of the future is becoming clearer: It will be bad, hundreds of thousands of people will die – but it could have been much worse. As strange as that may sound.

A major reason for the cautious optimism is the technical progress of the last ten to 20 years, which in some fields has been faster than even experts would have thought possible. The energy sector in particular, the world’s largest source of emissions, is currently experiencing nothing less than a revolution. In the five-degree scenario of 2014, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change still assumed that the consumption of extremely dirty lignite and hard coal for power generation would continue to increase until the end of the century.

The reality is different. Global coal consumption has been falling since 2014, and analysts assume that coal could be completely unprofitable in western industrialized countries in ten to 20 years. This is mainly due to the triumph of renewable energies: solar panels and wind turbines are not only significantly more efficient than they were a decade ago, they are also largely cheaper than the alternatives. For centuries, coal was considered the cheapest form of energy production – but now, on average, renewable energies are 50 percent cheaper. The reality has become too fast for the forecast models of the climate researchers.

The costs for solar panels, for example, have fallen by 85 percent since 2010, according to the sixth status report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change from 2021. Photovoltaics will soon become the “cheapest energy source in history”, the International Energy Agency IEA predicted in a 2020 report. Developing countries could skip their “coal phase” and go straight to solar energy.

The energy miracle does not go unnoticed by the current world community’s biggest polluters. China, which owes its rapid rise to cheap coal, still plans to build almost 80 coal-fired power plants, but has canceled hundreds of construction projects in recent years. At the same time, the Middle Kingdom is currently planning an aggressive expansion of solar capacity that would be larger than the expansion of the rest of the world put together.

Meanwhile, the US government of President Joe Biden has pushed through the “Inflation Reduction Act” (IRA), which provides subsidies in the three-digit billion range for the expansion of renewable energies. According to forecasts, the United States could already achieve 80 percent of its climate goals for 2030 with the IRA.

And Germany? In this country, too, the matter is complicated. Germany has committed to reducing its CO2 emissions by 65 percent compared to 1990 – and to becoming completely climate-neutral in 2045. It is true that emissions have actually fallen by 27 percent since 1990, which is not bad in an international comparison. But there is still a long way to go before we reach the 65 percent target, which is due in just under seven years.

It was only on Friday that a new report by the so-called Expert Council for Climate Issues issued a devastating testimony. “At the moment it doesn’t look as if we can achieve the goals,” said deputy chairwoman Brigitte Knopf when the results were presented on Friday. The Expert Council was set up in 2020 to constantly review the federal government’s climate policy.

There are several reasons for the gap between aspiration and reality. First, the expansion of renewable energies, which is responsible for a large part of the savings, was at times systematically slowed down during the 16-year term of office of Chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU). For example, the federal government had cut subsidies for photovoltaic systems several times and even introduced a “solar cap” that provided an annual upper limit for the expansion of solar energy. There are also a number of bureaucratic and regulatory obstacles.

Secondly, German heavy industry is still dependent on the climate-damaging energy sources coal and gas. ThyssenKrupp’s Duisburg steelworks alone burns so much coal in its blast furnaces that it is single-handedly responsible for two percent of annual CO2 emissions in Germany. Corporations like BASF or HeidelbergCement

Thirdly, the Germans live more and more wastefully: The living space per capita has risen sharply in the last 20 years, from an average of 39.5 square meters in 2000 to 47.7 square meters in 2020. According to statistical data, senior citizens over 75 live in particular Federal Office significantly more spacious than before the turn of the millennium.

The result: there is more space that needs to be heated – and that is still mainly done with gas and oil. In 2021, 75 percent of all new buildings will still have gas or oil heating systems. Existing buildings are not being renovated quickly enough, the advance of heat pumps is still too slow, energy-saving “smart” electricity meters are much less common in Germany than in other European countries.

Fourth, the car country Germany does not get its traffic emissions under control. Between 2010 and 2019, emissions from transport actually increased while they fell in most other fields. It is true that cars have become significantly more efficient in the last twenty years. At the same time, however, the number of vehicles has increased and cars are getting bigger.

The Ministry of Transport, which was last run by the CSU and now by the FDP, has shown little ambition to slow down CO2 emissions. In the summer, Transport Minister Volker Wissing (FDP) presented a climate plan that only provided for savings of 14 megatons of CO2 by 2030 instead of the legally prescribed 275 megatons. The emergency program was “already unsatisfactory from the outset,” said a sharp statement from the expert council at the time. Even simple immediate measures such as the introduction of a speed limit on motorways have not yet been implemented.

How large Germany’s share in global climate change is, however, is a matter of perspective. Germany is currently “only” responsible for around two percent of all global CO2 emissions, putting it far behind countries such as China (29 percent), the United States (14 percent) and India (7 percent). However, Germany only accounts for a little more than one percent of the world’s population, so the Germans live in grand style.

It gets even trickier when you look at the so-called “historical emissions”, i.e. the total amount of all pollutants blown into the air. According to data from the Global Carbon Project, Germany has been responsible for 5.5 percent of all CO2 emissions since 1750. That’s pretty much as much as the emissions of all of Africa and South America combined.

These “historical emissions” are no mere moral finger exercise. Because the global warming that has already happened, with all its floods and fires and heat waves, is the consequence of all the CO2 emissions that have been blown into the air so far. This also means that if climate change is helping to flood a country like Pakistan (historic share of emissions: 0.3 percent) by a third, then this is happening because of emissions for which Pakistan is not at all to blame. The Global South has to pay for the pollutants caused by the rich North.

The question of the so-called “loss and damage” is therefore the central point of contention at this world climate conference in Sharm el Sheikh: The poorer countries of the world are emphatically demanding that the rich industrialized nations should pay for the damage they have caused, preferably with an aid fund. But what this fund will look like and what damage it will cover is still unclear.

A first push in Egypt came from Germany: Chancellor Olaf Scholz (SPD) announced in a speech on Monday evening that the traffic light government would make a total of 170 million euros available for a global protective shield to cushion the damage caused by climate catastrophes. The office for this is to be set up in Frankfurt am Main, and the 170 million euros are start-up financing.

However, the majority of the remaining EU member states and above all the USA had blocked the establishment of such a fund so far. “Name the government in the world that has trillions of dollars to spare,” US climate chief John Kerry said at a panel in September. “Because that’s how much it would cost.” To then add, “I won’t feel guilty about it.”