21 Aug 2019, 16:00
Julian Wettengel

German government enters crunch time on climate challenge

Fridays for Future climate protesters in Dortmund, Germany in August 2019. Photo: CLEW/Mohn.
The Fridays for Future movement is planning a global climate strike for 20 September - the very same day the German government aims to make major climate policy decisions. Photo: CLEW/Mohn.

Moment of truth for German climate policy: Right in time for the UN Climate Action Summit, chancellor Angela Merkel's government is due to present a raft of measures to drastically cut emissions. The eagerly awaited announcements will coincide with the global Fridays for Future climate strike on 20 September, and shape the course of Germany's landmark energy transition for many years to come. Expectations are high as the proposals are meant to get the country back on track for 2030 climate targets, and "climate chancellor" Merkel has called for an end to the government's piecemeal approach. Following heat waves and student climate protests, rising public pressure has already pushed the country's political parties to outdo each other with a myriad of proposals to fight climate change. The shaky coalition of Conservatives and Social Democrats, under fire for failing to back up climate talk with action, is under pressure to use the window of opportunity and take major decisions before the political attention turns elsewhere.

The pressure on Germany's grand coalition government to come up with effective energy and climate policy is set to reach a climax in the coming weeks, as calls by the public for more ambition continue unabated, and critical deadlines loom.

One month before a 20 September due date for which the climate cabinet has promised key decisions – just in time for UN Secretary-General António Guterres' Climate Action Summit in New York – Chancellor Merkel's conservative CDU/CSU alliance and coalition partner SPD have yet to find consensus on major issues, such as CO₂ pricing and climate action measures for "problem child" sector transport.

"If Merkel goes to New York empty-handed, it would show a lack of leadership," says Brigitte Knopf, Secretary General of the Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change. In her view, the government has to decide in September on tangible and concrete measures, such as carbon pricing, on which to build climate action legislation afterwards. "If the climate cabinet only decides easy-peasy policy again – a small climate measure here, another one there – then it will all come to nothing."

The grand coalition had postponed any major climate policy decisions that could spell hardship or sacrifice for voters until after the regional elections in Saxony and Brandenburg on 1 September – elections that are set to further shake the unstable alliance in Berlin, as polls indicate major losses for conservatives and the Social Democrats.

After years of booming renewables, Germany's planned transition to a low-carbon, nuclear-free economy – the famed Energiewende – has slowed in recent years. Emissions remain too high to reach climate targets, renewables expansion has slowed, and initiating changes in sectors such as transport has proven to be extremely difficult. Chancellor Merkel has therefore set up the so-called climate cabinet – a round of ministers with responsibilities in key climate policy fields – to decide necessary legislation to reach 2030 climate targets – as promised in the 2018 grand coalition government treaty.

Full agenda, little time

The government's to-do list is full to bursting: the coalition has promised the comprehensive 2030 climate action legislation package by the end of the year. This includes the difficult debate about CO₂ pricing, and climate action instruments must span all sectors – from buildings and transport to industry and agriculture. The grand coalition has yet to present key legislation on how to implement the coal commissions' recommendations to phase out coal power generation by 2038 at the latest. And European regulation requires Germany to finalise its 10-year national energy and climate plan (NECP) by 31 December 2019, laying out the details on how the country aims to help the bloc reach its 2030 targets.

Time, however, is running short for the cabinet to come up with solutions for what Merkel said are "huge challenges". The government has lost a lot of time since the start of its reign one and a half years ago. An internal brawl in the government's conservative camp over immigration and delays in the coal exit commission – to which the grand coalition had delegated much of the decision-making process – had made 2018 a rather lacklustre year for German energy and climate policy. Energy and climate policy was not high on the agenda for a long time. "The SPD feared losing the workers because of climate action, and the [conservative CDU/CSU] union worried about the economy's competitiveness," Ottmar Edenhofer, head of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) recently told Süddeutsche Zeitung.

What German parties want on climate

While politicians have upped their rhetoric on climate action, sporadic dissent within the governing parties means it is difficult to pin down concrete policy they propose and support. So far, neither the SPD nor the CDU/CSU have a concept ready, and even once they do, they still need to agree to find common ground in the cabinet.

Merkel's governing conservative CDU and its Bavarian sister party CSU say they will decide a joint concept ahead of the decisive climate cabinet meeting, with deputy parliamentary group leaders Andreas Jung (CDU) and Georg Nüßlein (CSU) in charge of development. Jung said they would "closely link the process between parties, parliamentary group and the government" and coordinate with state representatives and the climate cabinet. Media reported the parties plan a joint climate action meeting on 26 August.

[Note: Find information on Germany's major parties in the blue info boxes throughout the text.]

Things have changed. Over recent weeks, German parties have hastened to present climate action plans, calling for CO₂ pricing which the economy ministry had ruled out for this legislative period as late as February of this year. Merkel heralded the end of an “easy-peasy” approach on climate policy, put Germany on track to support European climate neutrality by 2050, and the head of her governing partner CSU Markus Söder aims to spearhead the climate movement. What is different today from almost exactly one year ago, when voters cared more about migration and security, than the effects of a changing climate?

MCC's Knopf names two main reasons for the turnaround: The 2018 summer heat wave made climate change more tangible in northern Europe, and Germans realised it affects their personal lives. This had pushed the topic into the public debate. Several months later, the Fridays for Future student protest movement – a massive pool of possible future voters – made it clear that the youth are standing up for their future.

This has left an impression on politicians, says Knopf. "We know that Chancellor Merkel keeps a close eye on the public mood. She likely would not have initiated the climate cabinet without the protests."

The Fridays for Future movement is planning a global climate strike for 20 September - the very same day Merkel aims to make major climate policy decisions in her climate cabinet.

Several German politicians have acknowledged the role of the movement. Merkel herself said that the students have pushed the government to speed up its decision-making process and act more resolutely. “They’ve accelerated our actions,” she said at this year's annual press conference.

We know that Chancellor Merkel keeps a close eye on the public mood. She likely would not have initiated the climate cabinet without the protests.

Brigitte Knopf, Secretary General of the Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change

Dietmar Bartsch, head of the Left parliamentary group, said Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg – who inspired the Fridays for Future protests – "deserves respect for putting human-made climate change on top of the political agenda”. And former SPD head Andrea Nahles made a direct promise to the students in April that her party would increase speed on climate action.

Polls have shown that climate change has climbed to the top of Germans' ladder of most important issues facing the country, and become the main reason for the surging support for the Greens in the European elections in May.

CDU - Christian Democratic Union

The Christian Democrats are divided on how to tackle the climate issue. CDU head Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer and her party have struggled to respond to the young generation's call for more climate ambition, exemplified by its clumsy response to a video by a 26-year old youtuber. The party has since initiated an open "climate dialogue" in which it aims to collect members and voters' ideas. The CDU generally emphasises that ecologic measures to "preserve creation" must not threaten the competitiveness of German businesses, but opinions on how this can be reached differ. CO₂ pricing is a case in point: Economy minister Peter Altmaier had long said it was not on the table, but now the discussion is about the "how", not the "if". Most conservatives share the fear of voter protests should the prices for petrol or heating oil go up – akin to the earlier yellow vest protests in France. Over the past months, some CDU members have supported the idea of a tax, while others called for emissions trading for transport and buildings. There have also been calls for a European solution, integrating the sectors into the existing EU Emissions Trading System (ETS). Kramp-Karrenbauer said the CDU is "currently rather debating allowance trade" than a carbon tax, and she herself has called for a fundamental overhaul of energy taxes and levies. The conservatives have called for an even wider consensus on climate and said they want to include other parties in the process to ensure plans would survive legislative periods. NGOs have criticised that this could be a strategy to blame others in case of climate action failure.

"Elections are increasingly defined by moods, and parties who do not react to this are losing out," says political scientist veteran Gero Neugebauer, formerly of the Free University Berlin. CSU head Söder – who has undergone somewhat of a climate transformation – has likely "jumped on the topic for tactical reasons," adds Neugebauer.

Whether or not the topic is here to stay depends on outside factors, such as the economy, which has started to show signs of cooling. "At the moment, the economic situation in Germany is good, and voters are worrying about climate change," says Neugebauer. "However, should the situation change and force people to look more at their individual and immediate conditions, the stance on climate could change – especially if jobs are threatened due to certain energy policy decisions."

CSU - Christian Social Union

The CSU – which has until now made headlines by supporting German carmakers, farmers and industry, rather than increasing climate ambitions – is working on its very own "Climate Concept 4K" to add to the debate. The CDU's Bavarian sister party proposes a government climate budget to be used to support new technologies, and realigning the motor vehicle tax with CO₂ emissions. The CSU opposes a CO₂ tax on fuels. Instead, most members seem to now support the idea of emissions trading, others have said they aim to largely rely on lowering certain existing energy taxes. The CSU supports a CO₂ levy on domestic flights and considers state climate bonds with guaranteed interest rates for citizens who want to invest their money. CSU head Söder himself has undergone somewhat of a climate transformation. While a poll showed Germans say the new-found interest is hardly credible, Söder himself said it has nothing to do with "political expediency" and he has been "reading research reports on climate change for a long time”.  Söder has called for climate action to be enshrined in Germany’s Basic Law, for a coal exit as early as 2030, and for abolishing the value added tax on train tickets “as much as possible” to make rail transport more attractive.

Knopf likewise warns that the change of heart by the parties might not truly be a long-term development in German politics. "In the meeting of the climate cabinet on 20 September, the government must use the window of opportunity and take major decisions, because the current attention span could end very quickly," she says.

In the end, European pressure might also have played a part in making German parties change gears. If Germany misses annual climate targets for sectors not covered by the EU Emissions Trading System (ETS), such as transport and buildings, buying allocations from other countries could become a costly affair. Countries such as France have continuously called on the German government to support more ambitious policy on the European level. But this seems to matter little to Merkel and her cabinet, says Knopf. "France has tried repeatedly to initiate joint action and the German side has simply waited it out. […] The pressure on the government is first and foremost on a national level."

Merkel: saving a legacy

Merkel has been German chancellor for almost 14 years, and she continues to be the decisive voice in the country's government. However, since she stepped down as party head in 2018 and confirmed her plans not to seek re-election after the current legislative period, she no longer has the near absolute support of her party she enjoyed for large parts of her reign.

The question is: does Merkel, who has been nicknamed "climate chancellor" in the past for her long-standing international engagement for emissions cuts, still hold enough power to push through ambitious action – and does she want to?

SPD - Social Democratic Party

The SPD has been stuck between fighting for the jobs of workers in industry or coal mining, and calling for more ambitious climate action. In summer 2018, then party head Andrea Nahles attacked the Green Party, accusing it of wanting to shut down lignite plants too fast without thinking of the people in the region – eight months later she promised the Fridays for Future movement more speed on climate action. In June 2019, the party leadership decided on a ten-point-plan, which says that "contrary to the other parties" the SPD's climate policy manages the "necessary cohesion in society" during the transition. It calls for the adoption of the Climate Action Law as drafted by environment minister Svenja Schulze, also a Social Democrat. The law aims to make sectoral emissions limits legally binding. Schulze has also been the government cabinet's driving force behind plans to introduce CO₂ pricing. She advocates for a CO₂ tax, arguing it is easier and faster to implement than emissions trading. Since Nahles quit in June, the party has entered a long process to choose new leadership. Some of the candidates have called for new public debt to finance climate action, threatening Germany's balanced budget so far considered sacrosanct – a proposal rejected by the CDU leadership.

Merkel "definitely wants to do something on climate", says Knopf, adding that “the climate issue is really important to her”.

However, in the past Merkel herself has intervened at European level to protect German companies from ambitious policy, such as tougher CO₂ emissions standards for cars. The powerful conservative pro-business wing of the CDU – often rejecting climate policy that would burden domestic industry – is putting pressure on Merkel's successor as party head Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, a likely candidate for chancellor in the next election.

The opposition Green Party has been riding a "green wave" for several months, profiting from the population's new-found focus on climate. This for a time propelled them to the top of national polls – providing new gravity to talk about the possibility of a first-ever Green chancellor. Working their home turf, the smallest political group in the federal parliament can rely on years of expertise and proposals to bring the country on a more climate-friendly path. Other parties struggle to avoid losing voters to the Greens', often accusing them of being the "banning party" that prefers regulatory law over market mechanisms. Should the government manage a comprehensive successful climate action legislation package, this could weaken one of the Greens' unique selling points. In June, the Green Party presented a proposal for a “Joint Federal and State Emergency Climate Action Programme”. It calls for a speedy implementation of the coal exit commission’s recommendations, as well as the planned Climate Action Law. The Green Party is also calling for CO₂ pricing, which it says should be balanced out by abolishing the electricity tax and paying out 100 euros in “energy money” per year to citizens.

In addition, the grand coalition government is becoming increasingly fragile as election losses have shown that an increasing number of voters are turning away from the established forces in the political centre. Many in the SPD put the blame on the coalition corset, which in their eyes means the party cannot pursue the social policy voters expect.

The regional elections in eastern coal states Saxony and Brandenburg on 1 September could further destabilise the coalition. "The storm that the […] state elections are likely to trigger will shake the black-red coalition in Berlin like nothing before," wrote Heribert Prantl in an opinion piece in Süddeutsche Zeitung. "[It] can even destroy this no-longer-so-grand coalition."

Other opposition parties include the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP), who currently present themselves as the pro market economy and technology-savvy voice in the fight against the climate crisis. Sparking a public outcry, party head Christian Lindner told tabloid Bild am Sonntag in March that protesting students should leave climate policy “to the professionals” as “kids and teenagers cannot be expected to understand all global connections”. Some months later he called his comments "unfortunately misleading and dumb". Over the parliamentary break, Lindner and some party colleagues went on a climate summer press tour, visiting innovative start-ups and spreading the message that "there are other ways than bans and sacrifice" - a sentiment Lindner reiterated during a long TV interview with public broadcaster ZDF. In an extensive climate policy motion from April, the party's leadership says Germany should lead the way with an “ambitious, yet reasonable climate policy” instead of “risking our economic strength through overhasty decisions in energy and industry policy”. To avoid competitive disadvantage for German businesses, the FDP rejects national solo runs, calling for European or global solutions, such as on CO₂ pricing.

In its election programmes and party papers, the Left Party commits to climate action, with a similar, sometimes more radical approach than the Green Party. "However, the Left Party has not yet offered itself as a more resolute alternative to the Greens," writes Hanno Böck in an opinion piece in neues Deutschland. It has a similar issue as the SPD: as a representative of the working class it has in the past sought to save coal jobs, only to now call for a coal exit by 2030-2035.

The Alternative for Germany (AfD) is the only major German party that rejects man-made climate change. In July, it released the “Dresden Declaration”, a document that invokes the legendary German scientist Alexander von Humboldt before asserting that no one has “proved” that CO₂ emissions affect temperatures and climate protection measures are “expensive, useless … and endanger German prosperity”. Leading members have for some time cast doubt on human involvement in climate change, and the party has opposed most EU climate policies, including the ratification of the Paris Climate Agreement. The AfD made climate change a key part of its campaign in the European elections. The party’s campaign posters called on voters to “save diesel” and party members have criticised Greta Thunberg, the teenage Swedish climate activist.

CDU, CSU and SPD have agreed to jointly evaluate their work by mid-October, roughly the half-time of the current legislative period, as stipulated in the coalition treaty. The parties will then decide whether to continue their alliance. SPD delegates will likely get to vote on this at a party congress in December, said acting party head Thorsten Schäfer-Gümbel. Should they decide against it, this could lead to new elections. 

The coalition is also affected by the SPD's long process to choose new leadership, since Nahles quit in June. Asked about which questions candidates should provide answers to online, 40,000 party members voted "What's your answer to the climate crisis?" in first place.

A study by Bertelsmann Stiftung and Berlin Social Science Center showed that the "grand coalition is better than its reputation". In the first 15 months of the legislative period, the government has kept or at least tackled more than 60 percent of the promises made in the coalition treaty, it said. This is more than the previous grand coalition, but the majority of voters say they believe it to be much less. The study shows about half of promises in environment, nature protection and nuclear safety and two fifth of those in economy and energy have not been kept.

Political scientist Neugebauer does not see the coalition end. "Despite a negative atmosphere in the SPD, I don't suspect that the coalition will be terminated. I don't think the SPD is interested in new elections," he says, and adds that the party lacks alternatives both in terms of long-term programmatic offers and in regards to personnel. "With the current offer, the party will not excite voters and mobilise its supporters, and it likely also lacks money for a campaign."

Photo shows German chancellor Angela Merkel at the open house at her chancellery. Photo: Bundesregierung/Plambeck.
Chancellor Merkel in the crowd at the 2019 open house festivities of the federal government. Photo: Bundesregierung/Plambeck.

Some SPD members have said they would to base their decision to stay in the coalition on ambitious climate policy decisions on 20 September. However, such threats are rather hollow, as climate has not been a top priority for the SPD, says Neugebauer. "The party has always dealt with the topic in connection with saving jobs. To put it bluntly, the party has not put forth any climate initiatives that would lend credibility to the threat to leave the coalition if nothing happens on climate."

Saving her legacy could prompt Merkel to push for ambitious policy, says MCC's Knopf. In the 2017 national election campaign, Merkel had promised that Germany would find ways to meet its ambitious target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent by 2020 – only to later cede to the reality that it will likely be missed by a wide margin, and water it down in the 2018 coalition treaty.

Knopf says that "Merkel has an interest in delivering on climate, and thus saving her own legacy” at the end of her reign. "From a climate protection point of view, we can only profit from this."

All texts created by the Clean Energy Wire are available under a “Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International Licence (CC BY 4.0)” . They can be copied, shared and made publicly accessible by users so long as they give appropriate credit, provide a link to the license, and indicate if changes were made.
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