German Environmental Science-Policy Interactions – Greening Policies, but on a Par with Economic Competitors?

Johanna Ferretti |

The use of knowledge has become increasingly important in policy-making for tackling important societal challenges such as climate change. As a result, the role of scientific evidence has grown as well. Particularly, the role of environmentally-related scientific knowledge has becomes more important. A significant example of this development is the 2011 100% Renewables Report of the German Advisory Council on the Environment (SRU) which showed Germany could be supplied with 100% renewable energies by 2050 and which found wide resonance with the public and the media.[1]

Various venues for environment-related science-policy interaction – so called science-policy interfaces, SPIs – have evolved over the last decades in Germany (and worldwide) so that new scientific findings can reach policy-makers. SPIs aim to deliver sound, science-based arguments to decision-makers for greening environmental and non-environmental policies. They strive to raise policy-makers’ awareness of environmental issues, to provide information to support decision-making and to influence research priorities.

Using two environment-related SPIs – the SRU as one of the most important environmental SPIs in Germany, and Regulatory Impact Assessment (RIAs) with the rather recently integrated Sustainability Assessment (SA), I make the point that environment SPIs’ influence may often depend on certain favourable constellations (e.g. when a certain openness characterizes the policy process) or even lucky circumstances. But changes in terms of financial resources and in terms of the “channels” through which scientific knowledge is forwarded to policy-makers can dramatically increase a science-policy interface’s influence and capacity to play a key role for greening policies.

Capacities of German Environment SPIs

Environment-related SPIs in Germany have contributed to greening German policies. They have done so by targeting decision-making at different phases of the policy cycle. While the advisory-focussed SRU plays a stronger role in raising problem awareness, as a procedural interface, the RIA/SA informs decision-makers about the likely economic and sustainability-related impacts of policies, directly targeting policy formulation processes. The two case studies also vary in terms of their independence from the policy system. The SRU is largely free from political interference. The seven council members – professors with specific environmental yet interdisciplinary expertise – independently determine the issues that the SRU examines. In the RIA & SA processes, the lead ministry decides which environmental evidence and impacts to consider. Regarding outputs, the SRU provides a main report every four years. Together with a government statement, this document is forwarded to the German Parliament. The council can also issue statements and comments on current environmental aspects. RIA & SA statements must be produced for all laws and the results must be presented in the rationale section of the legislative text.

Environmental SPIs do not normally compete with each other. On the contrary, the effectiveness of the SPIs may benefit from their complementary nature: their shared field of study is so broad that their actions hardly ever interfere with the work of other environmental SPIs. What the SPI outputs have in common is that they are relevant for triggering a discussion. They present a common reference point for public or stakeholder debate about the role of the environment and therefore serve to enrich policy-making processes.

The Environment-related SPIs’ Economic Competitors

While German environmental SPIs seem well-established (to varying degrees), their limitations become more visible when compared to their competitors, who appear to have more efficient mechanisms to ensure their influence. For instance, the SRU’s economic counterpart – the German Council of Economic Experts – reports directly to the chancellor and issues one main annual report. Similarly, the administrative burden impact category, within the German RIA procedure, has an advantage over environmental issues. In this case, the National Regulatory Control Council (NKR) has to be involved. It scrutinizes the assessment performed by the responsible ministry based on the standard cost model and issues a statement which is included in each policy proposal issued to the Cabinet. A similar plausibility control has been established by the Parliamentary Advisory Council on Sustainable Development (PBNE) which scrutinizes the Sustainability Assessment performed by the ministry. But this scrutiny may be more difficult and resource demanding. Indeed the SA’s scope is much broader (all the objectives of the National Sustainability Strategy) and the assessment is not based on a standardized assessment method. The fact that the members of the NKR are independent – while those of the PBNE are parliamentarians – may represent another challenge for the consideration of environmental issues.

Strengthening Germany’s Environmental SPIs

For environmental SPIs to deliver on greening policies – or at least on raising environmental issues – the above examples point the way: environmental SPIs need sufficient financial and personal capacities. Moreover, they require communications channels such as those allocated to economic SPIs, to become even more efficient and to be (at least) on a par with economic aspects in decision-making processes.

[1] Hohmeyer, O. H., Bohm, S. (2014). Trends toward 100% renewable electricity supply in Germany and Europe: a paradigm shift in energy policies. WIREs Energy Environment 2015, 4: 74-97.