Germany has reduced its emissions of greenhouse gases more than almost any other industrialized democracy and is exceeding its ambitious Kyoto commitment of a 21% reduction since 1990. Hence, it is commonly portrayed as a climate-policy success story, but the situation is much more complex. Generalizing Germany's per-capita emissions to all countries or its emissions reductions to all industrialized democracies would still very likely produce more than a two-degree rise in global temperature. Moreover, analyzing the German country-case into eleven subcases shows that it is a mixture of relative successes and failures.
This illustrates several major problems with the literature on environmental performance. It has a competitive emphasis, which assesses performance relative to other countries rather than an external standard, and a bias toward seeing success and ignoring failure. Moreover, the literature has developed through cross-national studies, which have treated national cases as undifferentiated wholes. To counter-balance these tendencies, this article uses absolute, external standards to assess climate-policy outcomes in terms of environmental damage, it focuses on failures as well as successes, and it analyzes differences in outcomes across policy areas and economic sectors.
This differentiated analysis leads to three main conclusions, which are also applicable to other countries. First, high relative performance and high environmental damage can coexist, and hence a fuller and more realistic understanding of environmental policy and its outcomes requires keeping both aspects in view. Second, we should see national cases in a differentiated way and not only in terms of their aggregate performances, since all countries are really mixtures of successes and failures. Third, researchers on climate policies should more often begin with outcomes, work backward to policies, and be prepared for some surprises. Some major climate policies, e.g., the ecological tax reform, may not be very effective. Ironically, the most effective government interventions may not be explicit climate policies, e.g., the economic transformation of eastern Germany. Moreover, the lack of policy-making in certain areas may undercut progress made elsewhere, e.g., unregulated increases in car travel, road freight, and electricity consumption. Therefore, research on climate and other environmental policies should focus on different areas of government intervention and ask different questions about them than it currently does.