How much emergency does a climate emergency need?

A call for change
6 Min.

Text: Diana Olbrich, 17.07.2020

By declaring a climate emergency, more and more cities and countries around the world are committing themselves to consider the consequences for the climate of their political decisions. We will show who is already participating and what such a voluntary act can achieve.

June 13, 2009 – Activists in Melbourne demonstrate against climate change on the annual “Earth Day.” “CLIMATE EMERGENCY – carbon trading won’t work, 100% renewable energy will” is written in large print on the banner leading the protest march. This is the first time that there has been talk of an “emergency” in connection with the current climate situation.

However, the term “climate emergency” only really became known through the London environmental movement Extinction Rebellion and its protests in November 2018. Since then, it has been gaining more and more popularity. To date, 1,488 cities, municipalities and institutions in 30 countries have declared a climate emergency, including Great Britain, Canada, Spain and Ireland.

What does climate emergency mean?

Declaring a climate emergency is intended to show that a municipality or government is taking climate change seriously and is introducing measures to protect the climate. The aim is to ensure that temperatures on earth do not rise more than 1.5°C.

What is happening worldwide?

More than 11,000 scientists are also flying the flag. At the beginning of November 2019, scientists published a statement in the scientific journal BioScience pointing to the global scope of climate change and jointly declared the global climate emergency.

With the declaration of climate emergency, countries, municipalities, cities and scientists are publicly speaking out for more climate protection. But what has happened since then? Let’s take a look at developments in the countries.


From Konstanz to Kiel – more and more municipalities in Germany are declaring a climate emergency. However, Germany itself has not yet made such a decision nationwide. In May 2019, Konstanz was the first city to do so. This now means that all decisions made by the city are examined to see how they will affect the climate. For example, this means converting car lanes into cycle paths, promoting climate-neutral buildings and solar systems, planting additional trees or increasing parking fees in city centers. The long-term goal is to reduce CO2 emissions by 75% by 2050 through climate-neutral energy supply and renovation of existing buildings. Erlangen, Munich, Karlsruhe and Cologne, Germany, are also among the cities that have declared a climate emergency. They have all planned similar measures and intend to gradually reduce CO2 emissions. However, critics say that too little is happening in most places. This is also shown in a survey conducted by the Deutsche Presse Agentur. In most cities the implementation of many demands is still pending.


As the country where it all began, Australia is still one of the pioneers in terms of climate emergency. The first climate emergency plans were adopted here, starting in August 2017 when Darebin City Council adopted a package of measures under the name “Darebin Climate Emergency Plan”. Since then, a total of around 100 cities and municipalities in Australia, representing 8 million people – a third of the Australian population – have declared a climate emergency.

Darebin, a suburb of Melbourne with a population of about 160,000, is a good example: it can be a step in the right direction. So far, the city has already implemented several successful projects. Together with the schools, the economy and the communities, Darebin launched the Solar Saver program, which provided solar systems for 500 pensioner households and those with low incomes. Other households were fitted with shutters and weather protection to reduce energy costs. By working for more energy-efficient buildings, they have already saved the equivalent of almost €800,000. And Darebin has even more goals, including establishing a Darebin Energy Foundation for more sustainable and meaningful action, eliminating greenhouse gas emissions and doubling the amount of solar energy produced from 19,000 kW to 38,000 kW through an expanded Solar Saver program.


As one of the most important institutions worldwide, the European Parliament declared a climate emergency for Europe on November 28, 2019 and with it, set itself high goals. According to the Parliament, the EU has committed itself to significantly reducing CO2 emissions by 2030, with the aim that Europe will be climate-neutral by 2050 at the latest. The Parliament also called on EU countries and the EU Commission to take action to ensure that all new proposals are consistent with the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5°C. With the Green Deal, a kind of master plan proposed only a few weeks later by the EU Commission, the Commission showed that it was on a similar course. Individual EU countries had also previously declared a state of emergency, including Spain, France and Great Britain.


Symbolic gesture or tangible change?

There is much debate about whether and to what extent the declaration of a climate emergency will really bring about change. Each city and each country decides for itself what it understands by climate emergency in specific terms and what measures it wants to take. The declaration of a climate emergency is not legally binding, only a signal; a declaration of intent. But precisely this declaration of intent, this first step in the right direction, has been a gain in the eyes of the protesters since the 2009 demonstrations. Even today they are still calling on governments to declare a state of emergency to send a signal to society and other governments – a signal that creates awareness of the seriousness of the situation and also encourages others to act.

The Climate Alliance, a network of almost 2000 cities from 26 countries, draws attention to some critical points in an analysis. Declarations of intent usually do not clarify the question of financing at all. Only very rarely would explicit financial resources be made available. “But climate protection will only be effective if the necessary funds are made available and invested in the future,” said the Climate Alliance. “We are already being affected by the consequences of climate change. Adapting to these changes is increasingly not an option, but a necessity. Despite the explosiveness of the situation, this important aspect hardly ever occurs in declarations of emergency,” it said. For example, more people in Austria have already died in 2018 as a result of extreme heat than in road traffic, the Climate Alliance points out and implicitly demands that words must be followed by actions.

More than 11,000 scientists have called for a climate emergency to be declared, but only 69 municipalities in Germany have answered. But more is possible. After all, it is very easy to become active yourself and put climate protection on the agenda in your own community to get things moving one step at a time.