04 Sep 2017 | Sven Egenter

Colour codes: How energy & climate policy differs in German coalitions

The next German government is almost certain to be a coalition of two or more parties. That means the country’s energy and climate policy will be a compromise between different party priorities. Energy and climate issues on a national level often differ from those on a state level. Nonetheless, the coalition treaties of state governments reveal parties’ priorities and hint at their ability to work together. This factsheet looks into possible coalitions and examines these state-level agreements to highlight the impact a new coalition government could have on German climate and energy policy after federal elections on 24 September.

Red, black, green or yellow - the colour wheel by German writer Goethe. Source: Wikipedia/Luestling   The Federal Republic of Germany has been governed by coalitions for most of its history. Germany’s voting system of proportional representation makes it extremely rare for a single party to win an outright majority of parliamentary seats. Since 1949, the only time this happened was in 1957, allowing the conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) and their Bavarian sister-party the Christian Social Union CSU to govern without coalition partner. The CSU also is the only party currently governing a federal state without a coalition partner.

German voters expect a period of coalition talks and negotiations to follow an election. More often than not, parties have to compromise on their election programme pledges. [Find an overview of the parties’ key energy and climate policies in this factsheet.]

For most of the second half of the 20th century, only the CDU, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the Free Democratic Party (FPD) took part in federal governments. That changed in 1998, when the Green Party formed a coalition government with the SPD, known as a red-green coalition. In recent years, smaller parties have taken more seats in both federal and state parliaments, leading to a wide range of coalitions in state governments.

German coalitions tend to be named after the political parties’ colours: black for the CDU/CSU, red for the SPD (and for the Left Party), yellow for the Free Democratic Party and Green, of course, for the Greens. [The website of the Bundesrat, the federal states’ representation on the federal level, provides an overview over the current make-up of the state governments]. A coalition between Germany’s two main parties – the CDU/CSU and the SPD, which have taken the largest number of seats in parliament – is called a “grand coalition”.

The party with the most parliamentary seats in a federal coalition usually gets to name the chancellor and is known as the “senior” coalition partner; the smaller party or parties are the “junior” partners.

In the past, parties have often run campaigns naming a preferred coalition partner. This time, all major parties have left this question open. During the current campaign, all other parties have ruled out a coalition with the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD), which looks set to enter federal parliament for the first time.

German polling institutes also ask voters about their preferred coalition. A survey of public broadcaster ARD conducted in late August has indicated that a renewed grand coalition is losing appeal, with positive ratings now below 50 percent and only just ahead of a combination of CDU/CSU and FDP.  A Spiegel Online poll showed that such a centre-right coalition has now the strongest support, with nearly one third of voters saying in the poll it would be the best combination. [For an interactive guide to possible coalitions see Bloomberg’s website.]

This factsheet provides an overview of energy and climate policies of coalitions in state governments – other than the current grand coalition – that could realistically form a federal government after the election on 24 September. It includes coalitions between the SPD, Greens and the Left Party (“Red-Red-Green” or “R2G”), and between the SPD, FDP and Greens (“traffic light”), although polls do not currently indicate a high-enough share of votes for these combinations to be possible. The former is also unlikely mainly because of key Left Party politicians’ NATO-critical, pro-Russia stance on foreign policy.

On the prospect of a renewed grand coalition, leading daily Süddeutsche Zeitung wrote in its recent analysis of possible coalitions after the vote: “On energy and climate policy, everything points to a decisive continuation of the same…. Nothing sounds like a revolution.”

 CDU/FDP (Black-Yellow) in North Rhine-Westphalia since June 2017

The coalition came to power after the conservative CDU landed a shock victory in the Social Democrat’s heartland. It is currently the only state-level coalition between the two parties, which last governed the country together on a federal level between 2009 and 2013. The coalition treaty states that the two parties aim to launch a fresh national energy policy from NRW.

The coalition wants to support climate protection without preference for any particular technology, based on the European Emissions Trading System. It wants to rid the state’s climate protection law of all regulations that go beyond the European Union’s targets and measures. It also wants to end “subsidies for new renewable installations”, which are set by the federal law, as soon as possible, and pledges to work towards a cut in the electricity tax (also a federal tax).

The treaty aims to preserve the lignite-producing state’s current energy mix, saying that lignite, hard coal and natural gas will remain indispensable bridging technologies for the foreseeable future.

The parties pledged to tighten regulation for new onshore wind installations, making a distance of at least 1,500 metres from residential areas mandatory. Critics have pointed out that this could bring wind-power development to a virtual standstill in the densely populated state.

On mobility, the treaty states that the two parties stand for a mobility policy “free of ideology”. They want to improve the environment for developing alternative drives but pursue “technology-neutral” policy. They reject driving bans for diesel vehicles.

Environmentalists and representatives of the renewable energy sector have strongly criticised the NRW coalition treaty. Media have also reported that the agreement raised concerns among energy company managers that a federal CDU/FDP coalition could lead to a U-turn on national energy policy, just as most of the major utilities have finally shifted their focus towards renewables.  

The daily Süddeutsche Zeitung wrote in its analysis of coalitions that both parties have preferred this coalition in the past on the federal level, but it was less clear cut this time.

 CDU/Green Party (Black-Green) in Hesse since 2013

In its coalition treaty, the first coalition of Merkel’s conservative CDU and the Green Party in one of the major states (i.e. besides one in the city state of Hamburg) called climate change a global challenge that required “the strongest efforts from all”.

The agreement calls the Energiewende and climate protection “central projects”. The coalition pledged to take “ambitious” steps to expand renewable energy and double its share in electricity consumption by the end of the legislative period in 2018, seeing the largest potential in wind energy. (According to figures from the Renewable Energies Agency AEE, renewables accounted for 16.4 percent off Hesse’s power consumption in 2015, up from 12.5 percent in 2013.)

At the time of the agreement, the two parties supported changes to the federal Renewable Energy Act (EEG) towards a more market-oriented system, and a capacity market for low-emission, flexible conventional power plants. [The federal government ultimately decided against a capacity market in 2015. See Clean Energy Wire dossier on the power market reforms.]

Mobility takes up a large part of the treaty as it plays an important role for the central German state, which is also home to the country’s main airport in Frankfurt. The treaty pledged to focus on “best-possible use of existing resources” and to support rail traffic as much as possible. It also contains a list of major highway projects to be concluded and one to be dropped. The treaty called for an assessment of the need for a third terminal at Frankfurt airport, which is now being built. 

In 2017 the two parties approved a “climate protection plan 2025”, which sets out measures to achieve climate neutrality by mid-century. In the coalition treaty, the two parties also support binding European and national climate-protection goals.

The two parties are also in a coalition in Baden-Württemberg, a centre of Germany’s car industry, though here with the Green Party as senior partner, after it won the biggest share of seats in a state government for the first time in 2016. Both coalitions have worked smoothly for the most part, in what many commentators see as a sign they are now ready for a coalition on a federal level, after the Greens rejected entering coalition talks with the CDU/CSU in 2013.

The Süddeutsche Zeitung said in its coalition analysis that Chancellor Angela Merkel seemed quite open to this combination on a federal level, with energy policy actually one of the areas where an agreement should be relatively easy. However, the parties’ strongly differing positions on the future role of diesel (and other combustion engines) remain hard to reconcile.

 CDU/FDP/Green Party (“Jamaica coalition”, named after the colours of the country’s flag Black, Yellow, Green) in Schleswig-Holstein since June 2017

The treaty of the second state-level Jamaica coalition (the first imploded in Saarland in 2012) begins its section on energy and climate with a commitment to the nuclear phase-out, the Energiewende, and the Paris Agreement, as well as a rejection of CCS and fracking. The parties say the path to electrify heat and transport (“sector coupling”) must be technology-neutral. They vow to find “new ways” to make renewables cheaper, aiming to maintain a high level of citizen support. They want to lobby to bring momentum back to the expansion of PV installations on a federal level.

The parties say they will renew the state’s climate action programme, setting out the Energiewende’s path until 2040. They want to make parts of Schleswig-Holstein – one of two federal states that produce more renewable electricity than they consume – a model region for e-mobility.

The parties want a slight increase in the minimum distance between new onshore wind parks and residential areas, but also call on the federal government to raise the cap on offshore wind development. They want a “responsible” exit from coal-fired power generation. In order to shut down the state’s last operating coal-fired power station, the government will seek talks with operator Vattenfall and the neighbouring city state of Hamburg.

The Süddeutsche Zeitung wrote to expect “exciting coalitions talks” should the three parties go for a Jamaica coalition on a federal level. Contrarian views on the role of the market and government between the FDP and Greens and different views on the future of the internal combustion engine ranked among the main obstacles, the paper wrote.

 SPD/FDP/Green Party (“Traffic light coalition”, Red-Yellow-Green) in Rhineland-Palatinate since May 2016

In its treaty for the next five years, Rhineland-Palatinate’s coalition of Social Democrats, Free Democrats and the Green Party pledges to support national and international climate targets. In the state itself, the parties want an “ecological and affordable” energy supply. Renewable energies are to be expanded to achieve this.

The government also wants to lobby on a federal level to improve the regulatory framework for combined heat and power plants, which it considers necessary to balance power from fluctuating renewable sources, but says this is ultimately up to the federal government.

The treaty commits to stricter rules for new wind parks. They are not to be built anywhere near naturally or historically protected areas, or within 1,000 metres of the nearest populated area. The FDP had called for a complete halt to wind power expansion, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung reported at the time.

The overall target of covering 100 percent of the state’s power demand with renewables by 2030 included in the previous red-green coalition government’s treaty has been dropped.  On reform of the federal Renewable Energy Act (EEG), the Rhineland-Palatinate government has vowed to push for the continued use of bioenergy, and to “strengthen” consumer use of self-generated power from rooftop PV installations. It also supports the nuclear phase-out and advocates for the shutdown of the Cattenom, Fessenheim, Tihange and Doel reactors in neighbouring France and Belgium.

 SPD/Left Party/ Green Party (R2G, Red-Red-Green), in city state of Berlin since December 2016

The only red-red-green state coalition is in the city-state of Berlin. In their treaty, the parties pledge to make the city a leader in climate protection and the Energiewende. They want to make it “climate neutral” by 2050 and vow to align their policies with the Paris Climate Agreement, saying climate protection and the Energiewende are key projects for the coalition.

They want to continue divesting from companies and funds that invest in energy sources harmful to the climate. They are committed to ending coal-fired power generation, and have enshrined this goal in law through their energy and climate protection programme. The coalition wants to speed up retrofitting houses with insulation.

The coalition aims to make the city’s power supply 100-percent renewable “as fast as possible”, and plan to create a “Solar Capital” masterplan to set expansion targets. They aim to assess the roofs of all public buildings for their potential to carry PV installations by the end of 2018. The coalition also wants to kick-start the transition to greener mobility, focusing on public transport and improved infrastructure for cycling and walking.

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