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A sign reading Game over is held up at a climate change demonstration (Photo: Shutterstock / Firn)
23.03.2023 from 
Research + Transfer
Isn't climate protection important enough for Germans?

In January 2021, the so-called CO2 price was introduced for the heating and transport sectors in Germany. This will make climate-damaging fuels such as heating oil, diesel and gasoline more expensive. The additional revenue is to be invested in implementing the measures of the Climate Protection Program 2030, such as climate-friendly transport and energy-efficient buildings. So much for the theory, but the fact is that hardly any Germans even know that this CO2 price has been introduced. Another reason for this is that it is so small that people don't even notice it. And despite this, and perhaps because of it, the CO2 price is not accepted by Germans. This is the conclusion reached by researchers from the Institute of Psychology at the University of Magdeburg, who have studied the acceptance of the CO2 price in more detail. But what exactly can we conclude from this? Are Germans unconcerned about climate protection, or do they simply need other incentives? Ronja Gerdes talks about this in an interview.

Portrait Ronja Gerdes (c) Anna Friese Uni Magdeburg

As part of a research project, you investigated how the CO2 price is received by Germans and Austrians: What was the result?

Through many studies together with our project partners, we have found that a CO2 price is generally badly received. And the interesting thing is that it is badly received everywhere, regardless of whether it is in Germany or Austria, in the countryside or in the city. And also regardless of which CO2 prices we asked people about. In Austria, for example, we asked about the planned CO2 price. In Germany, we asked about many different hypothetical CO2 prices, which had different price levels. So, for example, the CO2 price that we had in Germany at that time, €25 a ton, or also a very, very high CO2 price, like €250 a ton. We also asked about different ways in which the revenue could be used. Even independent of the types of use, the acceptance is rather low, the basic CO2 price acceptance is always consistently at 36%. In Austria it was a bit higher, the reason is probably that climate protection is often a bit more important to the Austrians. But the differences are really marginal. We come to the conclusion, based on our findings, that you cannot design the CO2 price in such a way that it becomes acceptable to a majority.

In summary: What do people in Germany and Austria think about the CO2 price?

I can't read minds, so all I can say is that people have a hard time saying they think a CO2 price is good. If anything, many people don't think the CO2 price is good. There are other climate protection measures that people find better, that's also pretty well documented in other research results. For example, measures that don't hurt as much, such as subsidies for the purchase of electric cars or photovoltaic systems. Most people also like measures such as the abolition of factory farming. I think because animal suffering is an issue that affects many people emotionally. Therefore, the acceptance of doing something about it is simply higher. This is not the case with CO2 prices.

Many people didn't even know that there was a CO2 price. Why is that?

I believe that there are essentially two reasons for this. The first is the motivation to deal with the topic in the first place. You have to look for information. And the other reason is how the CO2 price is structured in the first place. To talk about the first reason first: To gain knowledge about a climate protection topic, like the CO2 price, you usually have to actively search for information. If you don't read the news, if you don't watch the daily news, if you don't inform yourself about climate protection issues, you won't learn anything about it. And whether people inform themselves about it or not often depends on their motivation to protect the environment. So people who are motivated and interested in environmental protection inform themselves about such topics. They google what's happening in climate protection in Germany or they set up notifications on their cell phones to be informed when there's news in the climate protection field in Germany.

People who are not interested in this don't look for this information and they don't remember it. Even if you've seen it on the news, you quickly forget it because it's just not that important to you personally. We also see this in our studies. The knowledge that people have about CO2 pricing before we have told them anything about it in our survey is very strongly related to their CO2 price acceptance and also to their climate protection motivation. Precisely because climate protection motivation drives both, CO2 price acceptance and the acquisition of knowledge about climate protection instruments. In general, only 35% of the Germans we surveyed in 2021 knew that a CO2 price already existed and still exists today.

Another reason is: You don't notice the CO2 price at all. The CO2 price was set very low and was supposed to increase annually. That was currently paused at €30 per ton, because of the energy crisis. And you have to be honest that it really is a very low price. There are almost no changes to the prices you pay for diesel and gasoline, for example. And we notice now, in the wake of the energy crisis, that there are prices that are much more noticeable in our everyday life, all people notice those price increases. There are many more people who know that there are increased prices due to the energy crisis than people who know that there is a CO2 price. This is because the increase in price due to the CO2 price is not so high that we feel it in our everyday lives. And I think that's also politically intended, that you don't actually notice the CO2 price.

What is the additional revenue from the CO2 price being spent on at the moment and why is there so little information about it?

As far as I know, the additional revenue from the CO2 price goes to the Federal Ministry of Finance, which uses it to finance the energy turnaround and relief for citizens, for example the increase in the commuter tax allowance, a very controversial area. But it also supports citizens in the renovation of houses and apartments and in the installation of new heating systems. The VAT on rail tickets was reduced and the rail network is to be supported. And there was also a reduction in the EEG levy for private individuals. You learn so little about it because you don't really feel it. It's a relatively non-transparent way of using the revenues. So nobody gets the information: This amount of additional revenue has now been used in such and such a way. There are redistributions in other countries, for example in Switzerland or Austria, where it is completely different, where people realize that they are getting something back and that at least part of the revenue is simply paid out directly to citizens.

The German government is thinking about this: climate money. However, this seems to be so difficult administratively that it has not yet been implemented. Let's see if it comes. We have seen, with the energy price flat rate for students, how complicated it can get. In Switzerland and Austria, you notice much sooner and more directly how the revenue is used. And that also has many advantages, because people who already save a lot of CO2 emissions may even gain money through the CO2 price, while people who emit a lot of CO2 emissions always pay more, because they never get back what they actually paid in CO2 prices.

So acceptance is not particularly high at the moment. Does this suggest that people simply don't care enough about climate protection?

That is the crucial question, and of course it sounds a bit harsh at first. I think we have to show a lot of understanding for each other here, because climate protection is not an important goal for everyone. Many people simply have other things to do in their lives. When people say they accept a political measure, they think about what that measure means for them and their everyday lives. And the CO2 price can be very uncomfortable. For example, if, as we're noticing now with rising energy prices, gas is so expensive that I have to think about whether I want to visit my relatives 300 kilometers away. Or whether I might prefer to put on an extra sweater instead of heating. And that's behavior that's very different from what we're often used to. Suddenly having to think about this and perhaps change your behavior is uncomfortable. And people who care about climate protection do it willingly, they may have done it before. That's why it doesn't affect them as much, or that's why it's easier for them to say: Ah yes, okay, this is important now, I'll do it for climate protection. I will adjust my behavior. And other people say: yes, but I have another goal or it is more important to me that it is warm. Or I want to visit my family. Which is also legitimate. But that's basically where it fails: when the population says that the burdens are too high to be worth it for climate protection.

There are, of course, other ways in which you can adapt. However, many people do not have these options. Namely, something like renovating the house or purchasing a heat pump and so on.

People who care about climate protection would also be more likely to accept high CO2 prices. But what about people for whom climate protection is not important? Perhaps because they can't afford it. In other words, isn't the acceptance of the CO2 price or the importance of climate protection for the person also a question of social status?

We have to keep two things apart, namely the climate protection motivation and the burdens that arise from climate protection behavior. These are two different things. A high or low climate protection motivation can be found in all strata of the population, i.e. in old people, in young people, in men and in women, in people with a high income, in people with a low income, in people who live in the countryside or in the city. All these people can have a high or low climate protection motivation. Climate protection motivation means that it is important to them to protect the climate and that they are already doing a lot about it. On the other hand, there is always the burden that results from such climate protection behavior. So, for example, if I want to commute to work by bike, that's somehow a burden. For example, if it's raining and it takes more time and I can't take as many things with me, all that is stressful. Those are burdens that come with climate change behavior. And this burden does not depend on motivation. It's equally exhausting for all people to ride a bike up a mountain while it's raining, no matter how important climate protection is to them.

And on the other hand, it may be that the burdens vary between people. For example, heat pumps or the renovation of buildings, that really only affects people who own their own home. People who rent can't decide something like that at all. And the problem is that these people then pay the CO2 price, but cannot decide, for example, to renovate their house or to use heat pumps in order to pay less. In this sense, tenants are more burdened than people who own their own home.

In addition, as part of the project we also looked at whether there is a difference between people who live in the city and those who live in the countryside. Because people who live in the countryside more often live in their own home. That means they have the opportunities to renovate their house or use heat pumps. But these owner-occupied homes are also harder to heat than multi-family homes. You often have more expenses in the countryside, you often have to commute further distances by car, because there are not so many opportunities to switch to public transport. Here it may be that the burdens vary between different groups of people and that is of course problematic. However, this has nothing to do with climate protection motivation. So it may be that a person living in the countryside who has the same climate protection motivation as a person living in the city is simply less likely to accept the CO2 price because their burden is much higher than that of a person in the city.

What else could you put a CO2 price on? Would there be areas that would be more accepted than costs of the beloved car?

I don't think the car is actually the point. In Germany and Europe, very many sectors are already subject to a CO2 price, in European emissions trading, for example, European aviation or energy-intensive industries and electricity and heat generation. And in Germany, there has been a CO2 price for road transport and building heat since 2021. I don't think it's difficult with acceptance because it's about the car. We see now in the area of heating, building heat, that there can also be very high burdens here that are simply unacceptable. We think that people are inherently skeptical of new taxes. So it's a big problem that the CO2 price has the label "tax." It always gives the impression that the government is pocketing money and that because we consume CO2 emissions, we have to, because often the alternatives are not even there yet. So if public transport in the countryside isn't there yet, the question is: What alternatives do I have at all, instead of just paying more? And that's difficult. That's why I think that mobility perhaps has the big problem that it's still so much more difficult to get to alternative behaviors, because many people have the impression that they are dependent on the car. Or because taking the train, for example, is not cheaper at all, but often much more expensive. Actually, the alternatives have to be created here so that people can really change their behavior. Only then will a CO2 price have an effect.

From a psychological point of view, does CO2 pricing really make sense as a way of motivating people to do more to protect the climate, for example?

From a psychological point of view, I think the CO2 price is cool, because it is a behavioral tool. Not only for private individuals, of course, but also for industry, so that they can, for example, already change their production and only manufacture electric cars or produce renewable energies, because the rest will be far too expensive in the foreseeable future. But for private individuals, the CO2 price is exciting from a psychological point of view, because it is an instrument that says: Okay, we have behaviors here that have been relatively cheap up to now because they are heavily subsidized. But behaviors that also generate a lot of CO2 emissions, such as driving a car or heating with gas or oil. And that simply becomes much more expensive. In principle, private individuals can now make the decision. Either I maintain my behavior, but pay a lot more money for it. Or I change my behavior and save the money. In other words, incentives are set so that people change their behavior. Of course, it doesn't make sense if you don't notice the CO2 price at all, because then people won't change their behavior. And the question of acceptance is, of course, a completely different one. I think it's also a moral question whether you want to force people into it when they've actually made it clear that they don't want it. And from a democratic point of view, there is a clear answer to that.

What would have to happen for the CO2 price to be accepted?

So honestly, I don't think the CO2 price is really salvageable in terms of acceptance. We've seen that no matter how we design the CO2 price, even if we set the price very low, we still don't find majorities for it. Even if we implement a revenue use that people really like, there is no majority. There are two levers: Either we reduce the burden of the CO2 price, which is what happened in Germany, i.e. we set the CO2 price nice and low so that acceptance is there to begin with. It is supposed to rise later. The problem is that it still carries the label "tax" and that people still don't like it, even though they don't notice it. Therefore, politically, one can only hope that people won't notice it and that it can continue to exist quietly. But that makes no sense at all.

Or, and this is the other possibility: The climate protection motivation in the population increases. So a larger mass of the population says that climate protection is so important to them that they're willing to take it all on themselves and perhaps push other things as well. For example, they are committed to refurbishing their apartment building, or that there are simply more options, such as making train travel wonderfully affordable. The €9 ticket was a super push. But that we as a society decide to work together on this and that many people are motivated to organize and make sacrifices because climate protection is important to them. Currently, those majorities don't exist.

The problem is that climate protection motivation is very, very stable. You can see how it has only risen very, very slowly over the course of the last few decades, and it's not foreseeable that this will lead to any majorities in the near future. This means that, in principle, interventions are needed here. But I'm not aware of any interventions that could be made, especially on such a large scale, to get people to say: Yes, climate protection is one of the most important issues in my life. And I'm not just saying that, I'm also doing something about it. These are the two areas where things are getting stuck. In other words, the burden of the CO2 price, especially the label as a tax, and the current level of climate protection motivation among the population.

It also turned out that there are hardly any regional differences. What does that mean exactly and why was that surprising?

I mentioned urban and rural earlier. It may be that different population groups are burdened differently by where they are, how much income they have, or by other characteristics. And that would lead to the acceptance being different in those groups. So we looked at four focus regions in Germany, namely urban regions and rural regions and regions that are affected by structural change and regions that are not affected. The regions were Munich and Upper Bavaria and Berlin and Brandenburg.

We expected that it would be more difficult for people living in rural areas to accept a CO2 price because, for example, they have to commute longer distances or generally have poorer public transport or spend more on heating. We also expected that this would be more difficult in regions that still need to change and where the infrastructure is not yet as good. However, we have seen that it actually makes little difference. Although the regions are very different, just in terms of income, you can clearly see that it doesn't lead to different levels of burden. So it's not so clear that one would have to adjust again.

We also compared Germany and Austria. There are actually no differences there either. This means that CO2 price acceptance is very stable across many regions, which is of course also interesting.

The question after the end of the project and with the knowledge gained, what would you recommend to politicians regarding the CO2 price?

I think there is not so much hope for the CO2 price. We are currently investigating again in Austria how the acceptance was before the implementation of the CO2 price, which came in October 22, and how the acceptance is now after the introduction. In principle, however, I believe that the biggest problem is that we as a society are not yet in agreement about what we are actually prepared to do for climate protection. And people always say: Yes, but we have to do climate protection, because the alternatives might be terrible, and besides, Germany has committed itself to meeting the climate protection targets. And I always ask myself: Has the German population committed itself to meeting the climate protection targets? Are we at all agreed as a society that the climate protection targets are important? I almost think we are, maybe. I think it would be really good just to ask. And I don't mean in a poll or a psychological study, but maybe more in a referendum. I think it would be a great project, really cool, if we as a society were to promise each other that we think the climate protection targets are sensible and good and that we are prepared to do something about them.

And if we had agreed by a majority, not just the politicians had signed a contract or the industry had somehow committed itself, but the population had said, by a majority, we are prepared to go through with it and we want to keep to the climate protection targets and we promise each other and promise other people in the world and if we had found this joint approach, then it would perhaps be possible for us to actually do something for climate protection and not just say that it was important. I would find that totally nice, personally.