07 Dec 2021, 13:30

The story of "Climate Chancellor" Angela Merkel

German leader Angela Merkel has been nicknamed the "Climate Chancellor" for her long-standing international action on emission cuts. However, at the end of her 16-year German leadership in winter 2021 many see her climate legacy as mediocre. International observers commend her steadfast leadership in negotiations with other heads of state and government, while critics speak of a “lost decade for climate action” at home. This factsheet provides a timeline of Merkel's climate involvement. [Updates to end of Merkel's 4th term]

1954-1989 Merkel the scientist

Merkel grows up in East Germany, the daughter of a protestant pastor. In 1973, she starts studying physics at the University of Leipzig. Afterwards, she is a researcher at the Central Institute for Physical Chemistry at the Academy of Sciences in Berlin, earning her doctorate in 1986. Entering politics when the Berlin Wall falls in 1989, she quickly rises in the party ranks of the centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) of then-Chancellor Helmut Kohl.

1994-1998 Environment Minister

Merkel is made Federal Environment Minister. In 1995, she presides over the first UN Climate Conference in Berlin, which puts Germany at the forefront of the global movement to cut CO2 emissions.

“Greenhouse gas emissions do not only have to be stabilised, but have to be reduced as quickly as possible,” Merkel wrote in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung shortly before the conference started.

Frustrated during negotiations, she breaks down in tears, according to a biographer. After a renewed effort, an agreement is reached - one of her proudest moments. Merkel is also in charge of 1997 negotiations for the Kyoto Protocol, the first and only binding international climate protection treaty to date.

2005-2007 The making of the “Climate Chancellor”

Merkel is elected Chancellor in 2005 as head of a “grand coalition” government of CDU and rival Social Democratic Party (SPD). In 2007, she hosts the World Economic Summit of the G8 industrialised countries. “I have been fighting for climate action for over ten years now and I consider it to be a tough struggle,” Merkel said in an interview a few days before the G8 summit. Asked about the reservations of US President George W. Bush against a 2°C warming limit, she said: “You can be assured that I won’t accept trusted scientific findings such as those by the IPCC to be watered down.”

Eventually, she persuades G8 leaders to accept the science of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and gets them to agree to the necessity of binding CO2 reduction targets. Merkel also leads the EU to adopt emissions reduction targets. The German press dubs her the “Klimakanzlerin” (Climate Chancellor). 

2009 Defeat in Copenhagen

Merkel has to accept defeat at the Copenhagen UN Climate Conference, where she lobbied hard to get countries to agree to a 25 percent cut in CO2 by 2020. 24 hours before the end of the summit, Merkel appeals to world leaders to find a solution: “If we go home and have to explain why we haven’t accomplished anything, this will be good for those who don’t want to fight climate change, who don’t want to fight poverty, and who don’t want to change their lives. That would be a terrible signal to all who want to secure a good future for the world in the 21st century.”

In the end, countries fail to agree to targets that could cap global warming at 2°C this century. Merkel says climate change can only be fought at a global level. "We all need to help each other, and we all have to be willing to change the way we live." 

2010 Reversing the exit from nuclear

Merkel, now in a coalition with the business-friendly liberal party (FDP), reverses the decision to phase out nuclear energy by 2021 – agreed by the SPD/Green coalition of Chancellor Gerhard Schröder in the early 2000s. Environmentalists had fought against the technology for decades, and Merkel goes so far as to describe Schroeder’s decision as “absolutely wrong.” Merkel believes reconciling the shut-down with demands to reduce dependency on coal for electricity – in order to meet climate targets - would be problematic.

2011 Fukushima turns Merkel against nuclear

Only a few months after the final decision to extend the operation of nuclear plants, the Fukushima nuclear disaster pushes Merkel to one of the most spectacular u-turns in German politics. Within days of the accident in Japan, she announces her intention to quit the technology – the corresponding bill to shut all nuclear power stations by 2022 is passed with a huge majority in parliament in June. "Fukushima changed my attitude towards nuclear energy", Merkel said in parliament. Especially many international observers consider this final decision to phase out nuclear energy the real start of the Energiewende.

In the same year, Merkel’s government passes a package of long-term policy goals committing Germany to making the Energiewende a success. With strong approval across all party lines, parliament agrees to the following 2050 targets: cut greenhouse gases by 80 to 95 percent, produce 60 percent of gross energy consumption with renewable sources, and halving total energy use.

2013 Merkel the automobile industry’s chancellor

After five years of EU negotiations about CO2 emission standards for cars, negotiators from all member states agree on a compromise to toughen the rules. But in July 2013 Merkel intervenes at the last minute by calling the Irish EU Council President, asking him to take the subject off the agenda. A government spokesperson explains the “particularities of the German automobile industry had to be taken into account”. This delays the process by another year, leading to watered-down rules. Parliamentary opposition and environment organisations are enraged by the Chancellor’s decision, and media report other EU members complained about Merkel using  "bullying tactics" to protect the German car industry.

2015 Merkel pushes for an “ambitious, comprehensive, fair and binding” Paris Climate Agreement

Merkel makes climate and energy policy a major focus of Germany’s G7 presidency. At the Petersberg Climate Dialogue in May, a preparatory meeting for Paris, Merkel says Germany will double its contribution to international climate financing by 2020. In 2009, industrialised nations agreed to mobilise $100 billion dollars (87 billion euros) annually by 2020 to help developing countries mitigate climate change and adapt to its effects. “We are aware that the industrialised nations as a whole will have to do more if we are to honour the pledge," Angela Merkel said with regard to other G7 members. At the G7 summit in Germany in June, she pushes G7 leaders to commit to the concept of "decarbonising" their  economies by the end of the century – a move which meets much praise from environmental NGOs.

In December, French delegates work tirelessly to secure a deal at the UN Climate Change Conference, with China and the US as the two important major players. Merkel's engagement, and that of her team, is one of many pieces that make the diplomatic success of the Paris Climate Agreement. During a speech on the first day of the summit, Merkel pushes for an “ambitious, comprehensive, fair and binding” agreement. It remains her only appearance at the conference. She “never sought the limelight, and yet her fingerprints were everywhere,” writes William Sweet for Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. The Guardian credits her with securing Vladimir Putin’s pledge that Russia would not stand in the way of a deal, in a private meeting.

Shortly before the summit, then Greenpeace head Kumi Naidoo says in an interview there was absolutely no doubt Merkel had worked hard to make Paris a success. Jennifer Morgan, who today is Executive Director of Greenpeace International and has discussed matters with Merkel in the past, tells the Clean Energy Wire before the Paris meeting the Chancellor had a deeper knowledge of climate issues than any other head of state. Morgan believes Merkel's nickname "Climate Chancellor" is definitely justified from an international perspective: "I have no doubt that she understands the science and what’s at stake."

2016 Climate Chancellor “off-duty”?

But her own government's commitment is questioned, among other things because of its reluctance to push for an end to Germany’s dependence on coal, even though the use of highly polluting lignite for power production put Germany’s target at risk to reduce emissions 40 percent by 2020 over 1990 levels. The Paris deal fuels the German coal exit debate, as most commentators and climate activists argue the results of the summit vindicated demands that Germany urgently needs to phase out coal to achieve its climate targets.

This struggle plays out over the details of the country’s Climate Action Plan 2050, a basic framework and roadmap for largely decarbonising the country’s economy to reach 2050 climate goals. The government coalition of Merkel’s CDU, its Bavarian sister party CSU and the Social Democrats (SPD) had agreed in 2013 that measures to reach greenhouse gas reduction targets should be written into such a plan.

Throughout 2016, environment minister Barbara Hendricks fights for ambitious provisions, while Merkel’s Chancellery and the economy ministry under Sigmar Gabriel (SPD) rebuff draft after draft, when pressure from industries such as Germany’s powerful car manufacturers mounts. Any mention of a coal phase out date is omitted from early drafts and the final version. The final plan, which includes emission reduction targets for transport, the energy industry and other sectors – but no coal deadline – sees the light of day just in time for the UN climate summit in Marrakesh in November.

Merkel remains largely silent throughout the negotiations, at one point prompting environment minister Hendricks to demand that the Chancellor “put down her foot”. In an opinion piece for German daily Der Tagesspiegel, Dagmar Dehmer calls Merkel the “Climate Chancellor off-duty” whose passionate efforts against climate change on the international stage did not match concrete actions at home.

Finalising the Climate Action Plan 2050 is important to the German government, which in December takes over the Group of Twenty (G20) presidency and makes climate policy one of its priorities in that forum.

2017 A “Climate Chancellor” once again?

In the wake of President Donald Trump’s inauguration, uncertainty about the new US administration’s energy and climate policy prompts commentators and politicians to call on Germany to take the international lead. Merkel says she will try to work with Trump on climate policy, while making clear that “climate change is absolutely caused by people”. Over the following months, Merkel’s administration avoids open confrontation. The chancellor says nothing about the climate during her appearance with the US president in Washington in March.

At the beginning of the year, the environment ministry says that Germany plans to develop a ‘G20 Climate and Energy Action Plan for Growth’. The federal government wants G20 leaders to adopt the plan at their summit in Hamburg, and include its key provisions in their final communiqué. From the outset, talks are stymied by Trump’s campaign promise that once in office, he would “cancel” the Paris Climate Agreement, and by his administration’s lack of a clear position ever since.

In June, Trump finally announces his decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement. Merkel calls the move "extremely regrettable, to say the least". On the eve of the G20 summit in Hamburg, Merkel says she is determined to make the meeting a success on climate – despite Trump’s decision.

In July, Merkel pulls off a “solid” diplomatic success on climate policy by closing the ranks of all G20 members except the United States at the Hamburg summit, where the fight over combating climate change dominates the talks. Nineteen members of the group of leading industrialised and emerging economies underscore their commitment to the Paris Climate Agreement, leaving the United States isolated. The US is also the only country to opt out of the first ever G20 action plan that outlines steps to implement the deal and drive a global energy transition.

Chancellor Merkel in conversation with US President Donald Trump in Hamburg. Source - German Government/Bergmann

Germany’s own efforts to tackle stubbornly high emissions at home are increasingly under scrutiny both in the national debate and abroad. In a televised town hall campaign event two weeks ahead of the September parliamentary elections, the chancellor promises voters that Germany would find ways to meet its ambitious 2020 climate target. Overall, energy and climate play a minor role in the parties’ campaigns, and statements on these topics by the chancellor are few and far between.

Merkel’s CDU suffers heavy losses in the September elections, but it still remains the strongest party. After the vote, Merkel reiterates that she does not give up the government’s 40 percent CO₂ emissions goal by 2020. But in October, the Federal Environment Ministry warns that the country is on course to miss this target by a wider margin than previously anticipated.

In November, the global climate community’s eyes are on Germany again, as Bonn hosts the 23rd UN climate summit (COP23). After the action packed summit, the German government says Bonn has delivered what is needed to stay on schedule for the decisions to be taken at COP24 in Katowice, Poland, in 2018. In her speech before the plenary, Merkel herself dashes hopes for a strong statement on Germany’s climate goals and the future role of coal as she calls on the world to walk the talk on climate.

After the elections, Merkel initially tries to forge a federal government coalition between her conservative CDU/CSU group, the Free Democrats (FDP), and the Green Party. A few days after the conclusion of COP23 in Bonn, the talks collapse, which also takes off the table an offer by the chancellor to the Greens to cut coal-fired power production by seven gigawatts (GW) to help reach the country’s 2020 climate goal. In December, the CDU/CSU alliance and the Social Democratic Party (SPD) decide to open talks on renewing their grand coalition government.

2018 - Farewell to the 2020 climate target, preparing her departure

The coalition agreement sealed in February between the CDU/CSU alliance and the SPD is met with mixed reactions. It includes provisions on finding an end date for coal-fired power production; accelerating renewables expansion; and introducing a climate protection law. However, it waters down the 2020 emissions reduction target and delegates decisions on climate and energy policy to multi-stakeholder ‘commissions’. Environmental NGOs say Germany squanders precious time in climate protection, and “the future government disgraces itself internationally”.

In her speech at the 2018 Petersberg Climate Dialogue, Merkel calls for more ambitious global climate action and multilateral cooperation. But her international commitment is increasingly contradicted by a lack of action at home. Germany also comes under fire for opposing more ambitious emissions targets for the European Union. By summer, an internal brawl in the German government's conservative camp over immigration has a paralysing effect on the country's energy and climate policymaking, holding up important legislation on renewables expansion and bringing the grand coalition to the brink of collapse.

After the coalition parties suffer hefty losses in state elections in Bavaria and Hesse, Merkel announces that she will give up the position as conservative party chairwoman and not seek another term as chancellor at the next regular elections in 2021. Her planned departure casts further doubt over the strength of her government ahead of difficult policy debates about coal exit pathway and a climate protection law. Her decision is also seen as further weakening the international coalition that made the Paris climate agreement possible in 2015.


*Like the Clean Energy Wire, Agora Energiewende is a project funded by Stiftung Mercator and the European Climate Foundation.

2019 – Crunch time for German climate policy

Angela Merkel is under pressure to deliver a comprehensive climate policy package to ensure Germany reaches its 2030 targets by the end of 2019 – as promised in the coalition treaty. This includes action in all economic sectors. In January, the multi-stakeholder commission to come up with a plan of how to phase out coal in Germany – set up by Merkel's government – recommends exiting the fossil fuel by 2038 at the latest. The proposal is widely welcomed, but the government takes months to work out the relevant legislation.

For several months, Merkel's chancellery does not publicly react to environment minister Svenja Schulze's ambitious Climate Action Law draft, until the minister sidesteps Merkel and sends the draft to cabinet colleagues for consultation. It is heavily criticised by the chancellor's conservatives.

Faced with growing public pressure to finally act – triggered by the 2018 heat wave and the Fridays For Future student protests – Merkel installs the so-called climate cabinet to end the coalition's impasse and ensure climate action legislation before the end of the year. A slump in the EU election in May raises the pressure on Merkel's coalition, as the Greens surge on climate worries. This reportedly prompts her to tell party colleagues that Germany must end its 'easy-peasy' approach on climate policy – the very same day the Greens overtake her conservatives to be the strongest party in a key national poll. She later says the student protests have pushed the government to speed up its decision-making process and act more resolutely. In her commencement address delivered at Harvard University in the United States, Merkel tells graduates that the world must do “everything humanly possible” to combat climate change.

On a European level, Merkel long resists France and other neighbouring countries' call for more ambitious climate action and climate neutrality by 2050. At the Petersberg Climate Dialogue, however, she cautiously pledges to aim for net-zero by mid-century before fully signing on to a European Council push in June

On 20 September– just in time for UN Secretary-General António Guterres' Climate Action Summit in New York three days later – her government presents a climate package including a slow-starting CO₂ price for the transport and buildings sectors and a slew of incentives. The package is widely criticised as insufficient to reach 2030 climate targets, prompting commentators to criticise that Merkel is "overpromising and under-delivering".

Merkel is faced with record crowds at Fridays for Future climate protests on Germany’s streets while she announces the package at a press conference in Berlin. She expresses her sympathy for the protesters: "Something that impresses me as a scientist is when Greta Thunberg [the initiator of the Fridays for Future protests] says 'unite behind the science'. We're not doing something ideological here, but something for which there is massive evidence and which we need to counteract." However, Merkel goes on saying: "what distinguishes politics from science and impatient young people is that politics is what's possible. And we've sounded out the possibilities."

By the end of the year, German parliament has adopted a climate action law and the CO₂ price for transport and buildings, which takes effect in 2021 with a higher starting price than originally envisioned.

2020 – Coronavirus crisis and EU Council presidency – "Merkel had to fix it"

At the beginning of the year, Germany and the EU are seen to hold a pivotal role to drive global climate ambition in 2020. Countries are set to ratchet up ambitions under the Paris Agreement by the end of the year and the European Union is seen as a key driver, perhaps in cooperation with China. Merkel is scheduled to host an EU-China summit in Germany in September, as the country takes on the EU Council presidency in July.

However, the coronavirus pandemic upends many plans the government had for its 6-months presidency. Merkel makes tackling this “biggest challenge in the history of Europe” the new priority. The pandemic also significantly delays key energy and climate legislation such as the coal exit law and new rules on renewables expansion. It takes until July for the parliament to finally adopt the coal exit law, ending a two-year agreement process.

NGOs call on Merkel to make clear that this is the moment to “rebuild better”, using the recovery programmes to push climate action. Her government’s national stimulus package contains steps to further the country's landmark energy transition and the coalition resists industry calls for a buyers' premium for all types of cars, and instead opts to double subsidies for electric cars. At the EU level, Merkel emphasises that the recovery plans should be used to tackle the “future challenge” climate change.

In September, Merkel unexpectedly throws her weight behind the European Commission proposal to raise the EU 2030 climate target to at least 55 percent, aiming to use Germany's Council presidency to rally all member states behind the target. Despite a lot of headwind from some EU member states, the plan succeeds at the very last moment. Just in time for the 5th anniversary of the Paris Agreement in December, and following a night of tough negotiations, EU leaders jointly call for the target increase. Merkel leads the effort to find a compromise, also on the bloc's long term budget and pandemic recovery programme. "Merkel had to fix it," reads a headline in EurActiv.

Merkel was set up to become a sort of lame duck chancellor after her decision not to run again. However, her handling of the coronavirus crisis “revitalises Ms. Merkel and burnishes her reputation as one of the country’s best leaders”, writes the New York Times. At the European level, Merkel and her government met the high expectations to help steer the EU through the crisis in their role as moderator during the Council presidency. "Some EU officials and diplomats said they could not imagine how the EU would have managed if any other country or national leader had held the presidency in the second half of this year — and that the challenges the German presidency faced were the policy equivalent of climbing Mount Everest," writes Politico.

2021 – Merkel leaves work to do with mixed climate legacy

During her last year in office chancellor Merkel has to manage several crises, leaving little room for focusing on climate policy. She faces increasing pushback from state premiers on how to handle the pandemic and the rising numbers of infections, signalling that her political power in Germany is slowly fading.

As new U.S. president Joe Biden takes office, Merkel talks about a “new chapter in German-American friendship and cooperation,” but singles out Nord Stream 2 as a major bone of contention. She reaffirms her support for the pipeline project, which has come under fire not only for its geopolitical implications but also for its role in prolonging the use of a climate-harmful fossil fuel. In July, Merkel travels to Washington, D.C. to iron out the dispute.

At the international level, Merkel pledges an additional 220 million euros to poorer countries at the Climate Adaptation Summit, but fails to live up to observers’ expectations at Biden’s Leaders Summit on Climate in April, making no new pledges. However, the EU as a whole comes to the summit with a fresh agreement on its more ambitious 2030 climate target.

Then, in a decision widely hailed as historic, Germany's highest court rules at the end of April that the government's climate legislation lacks detail on emission reduction targets beyond 2030. The ruling catapults climate to the top of the political debate as the government coalition partners shift into election campaign mode and outbid each other with climate pledges over the following days.

At surprising speed and less than a week after the court decision, Merkel’s government announces new climate targets for 2030 and 2040, along with the goal to reach greenhouse gas neutrality by 2045. The new 2045 target puts Germany in the lead internationally, and chancellor Merkel receives praise from global leaders and ministers at the government’s 12th Petersberg Climate Dialogue, a meeting held in Berlin to prepare the November UN Climate Summit COP26 in Glasgow. However, civil society representatives are disappointed that Merkel herself doesn’t announce more money for climate change mitigation and adaptation in the global south. She does so a little later: At the G7 summit in the UK, Germany pledges to increase international climate financing from four billion to six billion euros annually by 2025.

After catastrophic floods caused by extreme rainfall kill more than 200 people in Germany and neighbouring countries, Merkel says that Germany must speed up its efforts in tackling the climate crisis. The disaster pushes climate change to the centre of the German election campaign.

During several public appearances, Merkel does not beat around the bush in her remarks on the urgency and severity of the climate change crisis. “What we’re doing is simply not enough,” says Merkel at the 20th annual conference of the German Council for Sustainable Development (RNE). “Worldwide, we live at the expense of younger and future generations, that is the depressing truth.”

At her annual summer press conference, Merkel defends her climate policy legacy more clearly than ever. She highlights that in her view she has done a lot, but that it was still not enough. “I have put a lot of energy into climate protection […] And yet I am sufficiently equipped with scientific understanding to see that the objective circumstances mean that we cannot continue at this pace but that we have to move faster.”

Merkel’s conservatives lose to the Social Democrats (SPD) in the September election, paving the way for Germany’s first three-party government coalition of SPD, Green Party and Free Democrats (FDP). Coalition talks last until late November, while Merkel’s team continues as a caretaker government until the new cabinet is sworn in.

With her last international climate-related speech at the UN climate conference COP26 in Glasgow, Merkel disappoints NGOs and media commentators by making no new pledges and displaying no self-criticism.

As Merkel’s last year in office draws to a close, national and international media increasingly focus on her legacy. Overall, it is seen as middling. International observers commend her steadfast leadership in negotiations with other leaders, while critics speak of a “lost decade for climate action” at home. Early 2021 estimates show her legacy may be tainted by a strong rebound of greenhouse gas emissions after the coronavirus crisis. Instead of presenting a perfect image of Merkel’s goal of a green recovery, the rise throws the country off course to meet its 2030 target.

In early December, Merkel leaves the stage as Olaf Scholz becomes Germany’s new chancellor.

[Also read our article Merkel leaves work to do with mixed climate legacy]

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