Group photo of the 2016 G20 summit in Hangzhou, China. Source - European Union 2017.
05 Jul 2017 | Julian Wettengel

Germany faces balancing act in climate leadership role

The pressure on Germany to take global leadership on climate action has been constantly mounting since US President Donald Trump decided to take the United States out of the Paris climate agreement. Ahead of the G20 summit in Hamburg the chorus of environmental groups, NGOs, business leaders and politicians calling on Chancellor Angela Merkel to rise up to the challenge has been growing ever louder. Yet foreign policy experts say the largest country of the European Union faces a balancing act when driving climate policy, which has developed into an important area of foreign policy.

In few areas is the United States’ policy change – the move away from multilateral problem solving – more visible than in international climate policy. After years of ambitious international climate activity by former US President Barack Obama – which in 2015 was crucial to reach the landmark Paris Agreement, now in force and signed by 195 countries – Trump used his first months in office to change his country’s course, and decided to take the United States out of the accord.

For some foreign policy observers, the new role is obvious. “Germany must become a global leader on climate change control,” John J. Kirton, co-director and founder of the G20 Research Group, told the Clean Energy Wire. Chancellor Merkel should push those leaders committed to the Paris agreement to “put their money where their mouth is” while continuing to engage with the United States. [Read the full interview with Kirton here]

All climate policy experts agree that Trump’s decision pulled one of the most important players away from the global climate negotiating table and left a diplomatic and financial void difficult to fill. In the run-up to the G20 summit in Hamburg this week, foreign leaders and NGOs have called on Germany and Chancellor Merkel to take the lead in uniting the remaining G19 on climate.

“The gap is there, no doubt about it,” Susanne Dröge, senior fellow for Global Issues at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), told the Clean Energy Wire. Former President Obama and his administration had put a lot of effort into bringing countries like China and India on board in climate negotiations, for example in the run-up to and at the Paris climate conference in 2015. “The US foreign ministry did a great job back then,” said Dröge.

Merkel and her administration have said that Germany is committed to the implementation of the Paris accord and would keep climate high on the Hamburg summit agenda while emphasising that Germany was not acting alone, but together with its European partners.

Changing foreign policy role

The new US president’s approach has been turning many areas of foreign policy upside down.  “The Trump administration is not interested in continuing the past US foreign policy in its consistency. Much that was customary in the past is now challenged. What was predictable before, is now unpredictable,” Dröge said.

The end of former US President Barack Obama’s tenure last year in connection with the UK’s vote to leave the European Union and the rise of right-wing populists such as France’s Marine Le Pen prompted newspapers around the world and observers to look for someone who could fill the vacancy in defending Western values.

After the G7 and NATO summits in May of this year, Merkel – who is running for re-election this fallsaid that Europe could no longer completely rely on its allies and must take its fate into its own hands, hinting at a changed international picture, but stopping short of taking on responsibility beyond the EU.

The question of what exactly Germany’s role in the world should look like has been lingering both domestically as well as internationally to varying degrees since the end of the Cold War and the country’s reunification in 1990. SWP’s Dröge said that the current situation did not suggest an entirely new role for Germany: “It’s mostly about topics that were already in the air, such as the need to take on more responsibility internationally. So, it’s more about speeding things up that were already debated.”

Climate policy as a foreign policy tool

Yet when Trump announced the US Paris Agreement pull-out, this was noticed far beyond the climate communities, Dröge said. “It was truly a foreign policy topic.”

Merkel – who has been dubbed “climate chancellor” for her long-standing engagement for emissions cuts and climate protection – also sharply criticised Trump’s decision to pull his country out of the landmark Paris accord. Ahead of the G20 summit, the country has engaged in a flurry of diplomatic initiatives, including a drive to cooperate more closely with China on climate issues.

“Climate policy has become a foreign policy tool over the last years and the Paris Agreement gave this trend another strong push,” said Dröge. “Global and national engagement to help developing countries in coping with climate change is on the rise. It is linked to enabling economic growth and more jobs, and thus also to preventing migration pressures. Industrial countries have linked their foreign policy agenda to common interests in the field, be it bilaterally or with a view to common interest in third countries,” Dröge said.

Germany already uses this tool, she added. “Especially in critical situations as we see it with the current US climate policy, Germany includes climate policy issues across the board of international talks,” said Dröge. Whether this would continue depended on a number of factors, including the country’s domestic climate performance, the coal phase-out, and the general elections this year.

Filling the US gap in international climate policy – only with European partners

Germany has been a climate policy leader for many years now, said Dröge. “If you look behind the scenes of the Paris climate conference negotiations, you can see the German influence, and where Germany’s role is important. Be it about designing the Green Climate Fund, or facilitating cooperation with developing countries under the Paris Agreement - the Germans are very proactive.”

But the government was hesitant to throw itself into the diplomatic limelight. It rather emphasises coordination with its EU partners, said Dröge. “There’s always a lot of reservations on the part of Germany because climate diplomacy and climate policy are treated as European topics, not as something that Germany wants to take up on its own.”

It is the right thing to do, to avoid undermining the EU in times like these, said Dröge. “I don’t expect the federal government to suddenly do things differently to exert influence on other countries. Everything will continue according to the usual patterns and in the usual channels, but maybe with more speed now.”

Her view is echoed by Joachim Krause, director of the Institute for Security Policy at the University of Kiel (ISPK), who agrees that the European Union needs to act jointly. "Germany's options to really be effective and produce results on an international scale are limited. We can only be effective together with our European partners, such as France, and within the framework of the European Union," Krause told the Clean Energy Wire.

Leading by example - German credibility at stake

According to Dennis Tänzler, director International Climate Policy of Berlin-based think tank and public policy consultancy adelphi, Germany’s climate diplomacy has shown itself to be very flexible in the past, in finding a new route for a successful climate accord after the failure of Copenhagen. Germany’s leadership was always based on implementing successful, innovative climate protection approaches domestically, he said. “With all its achievements but also deficits, this concept of ‘leading by example’ has always created a high level of credibility,” Tänzler told the Clean Energy Wire.

Recent rising emissions endangered Germany’s credibility internationally, so the country needs to do its homework, said Tänzler. Germany earnestly trying to live up to its own targets “would have more impact than many an international initiative.”

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