The story of "Climate Chancellor" Angela Merkel

Angela Merkel's long-standing engagement for emissions cuts has brought Germany's leader the nickname "The Climate Chancellor". Many now wonder if she can live up to this reputation, as it looks likely she won a fourth term after the federal election on 24 September. This factsheet provides a timeline how she developed this reputation. [UPDATE - adds election result, coalition talks]

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?

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

At the beginning of the year, the environment ministry says that Germany plans to develop a ‘G20 Action Plan on Climate and Energy for Growth’. The federal government wants G20 leaders to adopt it at the G20 summit in Hamburg and include its key provisions in the final communiqué. A first discussion paper by the German government is debated at several meetings of the G20’s Sustainability Working Group at the beginning of the year. From the outset, talks are stymied by incoming US President Trump’s campaign promise that he would “cancel” the Paris Climate Agreement once he was in office – and his administration’s lack of a clear position since.

Trump repeatedly postpones his decision on whether or not to leave the Paris Agreement. In early April, G7 energy ministers fail to sign a joint statement reaffirming the member states’ clear commitment to the Paris Agreement at the end of their meeting in Rome. The US representatives refuse to support such a provision and the remaining countries argue that issuing a joint statement without it would be “a step backwards”. The US administration was “in the process of reviewing many of its policies and reserves its position on this issue, which will be communicated at a future date,” according to the Italian Chair’s summary.

In June, Donald Trump announces his decision to leave the Paris Agreement. Merkel calls the decision "extremely regrettable, to say the least". Ahead of the Hamburg G20 summit, Chancellor Merkel says she is determined to make the meeting a success on climate – despite US President Donald Trump’s decision to leave the Paris climate agreement.

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 summit in Hamburg, where the fight over the climate issue 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 also is 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

Analysts say that whether she can now lead credibly on climate in the long-term depends also on the country’s own efforts to tackle stubbornly high emissions at home. In a televised town hall campaign event two weeks ahead of the September parliamentary election, the chancellor promises voters that Germany would find ways to meet its ambitious target. But in October, the federal environment ministry warns that the country is on course miss its 2020 climate targets by a wider margin than previously anticipated.

Despite heavy losses in the elections, Merkel looks set to stay chancellor for another four years. After the vote, she says she does not give up the government’s goal to reduce CO₂ emissions by 40 percent by 2020, which would “play a big role” in the talks to form a new government coalition. However, climate and energy policy so far seem to be one of the biggest hurdles in building a government coalition of her conservative CDU/CSU group, the Free Democrats (FDP) and the Green Party – a so-called Jamaica coalition.

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

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