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Germany's New Climate Charter: What Will It Change?

A field of sunflowers near the Mehrum coal-fired power station, wind turbines and high-voltage lines in the Peine district of Germany on Aug. 3, 2020. Julian Stratenschulte / picture alliance via Getty Images

By Elliot Douglas

The coronavirus pandemic has altered economic priorities for governments around the world. But as wildfires tear up the west coast of the United States and Europe reels after one of its hottest summers on record, tackling climate change remains at the forefront of economic policy.

The German Economics Minister Peter Altmaier made history last week by announcing the "historic compromise" of a new climate charter for Europe's economic powerhouse. Days later, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced the EU's Green New Deal climate goals would become even more ambitious, with a plan to cut greenhouse gas emissions in the bloc by 55% by 2030.

Germany's climate charter would bring the country in line with Brussels' plans and put Germany at the forefront of green policy. But is Altmaier's charter just political posturing?

What Is the Climate Charter?

"This is the first time the economics ministry of a major country has openly embraced policies suggested by groups like Fridays for Future," climate change policy expert Miranda Schreuers told DW. "That is really quite dramatic."

Schreuers is a professor of environment and climate policy at the Technical University of Munich, and is among those who cautiously welcome Altmaier's announcement.

Youth environmentalist movement Fridays for Future, led by Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, has enjoyed widespread support in Germany β€” millions of people took to the streets in what became known as climate strikes last year.

The establishment of the "Charter for Climate Neutrality and Economic Strength" may indeed be a response to some of their demands. Altmaier's announcement also enshrines the EU goal of complete climate neutrality by 2050, with the application of annual goals in Germany. But prominent London-based think tank Energy Transmissions Commission described the goal as "mission impossible" on Wednesday.

Other key points include subsidies for German businesses which use renewable energy sources and the introduction of a scoreboard to rate companies for how efficiently they cut emissions.

But Altmaier's most radical announcement β€” at least politically β€” was his admission that he has made mistakes by not acting faster and that the goals can only be achieved if political parties work together.

"We have failed to adequately explain our policy. A lot could have happened quicker and faster," the close ally of Chancellor Angela Merkel said.

Importance of the Economic Model

Schreuers believes that getting certain key industries to work with the climate charter will be crucial to the success of Altmaier's plan.

"If we don't manage to get certain industries on board β€” automobile manufacturing and steel for example β€” then it simply won't work," she explained.

"Big industry needs to stay in the country, and it needs to become competitive and green."

Germany's reliance on high-emitting industries has long cast a shadow on its green reforms. Altmaier hopes that a reform of CO2 pricing can help improve this.

"The only concrete measure in his plan is the idea of reforming CO2 pricing," said Antje von Broock of environmental organization Friends of the Earth Germany. "And he could have done that in September 2019."

That was when Germany announced its climate package ahead of the EU's Green New Deal.

In the new green Europe, which von der Leyen wants to see as the world's first climate-neutral continent, Germany can only keep up if it protects big industry, Schreuers believes.

Is Germany a World Leader for Climate Protection?

But Schreuers also thinks that Germany's role as a world leader in this issue may have been overstated in the last few years.

"Although Germany has been seen as a leader in climate protection policy, you could argue that Germany has really been crucial in putting on the brakes," Schreuers says. "But now Germany is waking up to the reality that other parts of the world are already streets ahead of them."

China, Japan and the U.S. state of California are all in the process of developing ambitious renewable energy systems that could leave the EU, and Germany with it, trailing behind.

Schreuers also believes that this November's U.S. presidential election will be a game-changer for the EU and Germany's climate goals.

"Right now, it looks like [Democratic presidential candidate Joe] Biden will win β€” and he wants 100% carbon-free electricity in the U.S. by 2035," Schreuers explains. "That will change the global playing field hugely."

An Early Start to the Election Campaign?

The timing of Altmaier's announcement may also be significant, with Germany heading to the polls in less than a year.

Von Broock of Friends of the Earth Germany largely dismisses the 20-point plan as electioneering. "Peter Altmaier wants to use climate protection policy to increase his profile in the pre-election campaign."

There is all to play for in 2021 for Altmaier's center-right Christian Democrats (CDU), as the enduringly popular Chancellor Angela Merkel will step down. The CDU is currently in coalition with the center-left Social Democrats (SPD), but the Green party is catching up with the SPD. Many national polls put the Greens as Germany's second most popular party.

"All of this means the CDU are setting themselves up for a new coalition partner β€” possibly the Greens," said Schreuers. The climate charter may be a concession toward this possible future pact.

Altmaier was insistent that the new charter will "cross party lines" and that the CDU is ready to work together with other parties.

For both academic Schreuers and activist von Broock, the proof will be in the achievement of the goals.

"What we need are serious social efforts, led by politicians who courageously initiate the necessary ecological and social transformation," says von Broock. "It is therefore fundamentally to be welcomed that Minister Altmaier wants to bring the economy on board. However, the 20 points of his climate charter do not go far enough."

"Germany needs to be a player in the next stage of global climate protection," Professor Schreuers explains. "If you are a player, you have more power to shape the narrative. And Germany needs to shape the narrative if it wants to remain an economic powerhouse."

Reposted with permission from DW.

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A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes β€” the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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