1954-1989 Merkel the scientist
Merkel grows up in East Germany, the daughter of a protestant pastor. In 1973 she follows her passion for science and studies 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.
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
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”.
Merkel chooses her close ally Peter Altmaier, the current head of the Chancellery, as the next economy and energy minister. Altmaier is respected for his energy transition expertise, but has a fraught history with the Energiewende. Back in 2016, Altmaier watered down the draft of Germany’s Climate Action Plan 2050, and a year later he irritated the climate community by calling the national climate targets “wrong” and pleading for ambitious EU goals instead.
*Like the Clean Energy Wire, Agora Energiewende is a project funded by Stiftung Mercator and the European Climate Foundation.