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11 Jun 2021, 08:00
Julian Wettengel

On her way out, Merkel could set stage for Germany as even more progressive climate partner

Germany's Merkel and other world leaders at the G7 summit in Elmau in 2015. Source: The European Union.
During her 16 years in office, German chancellor Merkel has built herself up into a recognised international stateswoman. Having hosted the G7/G8 twice and the G20 once she is a veteran of these groups. Source: The European Union.

As the global fight against climate change gains momentum with more and more countries updating their emissions targets, a green surge is washing over Germany’s national election campaign and sets the scene for the country to become a more progressive partner in the international climate space. Government and opposition outbid each other to make sure they can provide the country’s next leader, as “Climate Chancellor” Angela Merkel steps down after 16 years in office. Political analysts believe that Germany will continue to be a reliable partner over the coming months and likely a more progressive ally in the fight against global warming after the September vote. Merkel will have her “last hurrah” at the upcoming G7 summit before becoming a lame duck leader in autumn. Germany’s next leader will face big tasks such as working out the country’s position in the US-China-EU triangle. At the same time, the country will also get ready to take over the G7 presidency next year – a “sink-or-swim challenge” for the next chancellor. [Update adds Merkel comment that Germany would contribute more to climate finance]

Note: A slightly edited version of this article also appeared on China Dialogue.

Content:

  • A green shift in Germany
  • Germany will only become greener
  • Germany as a “champion of multilateralism”
  • How will the next German government manage the U.S.-China-EU triangle?
  • “Merkel’s last hurrah” as Germany focusses on election
  • Merkel as a lame duck
  • G7 presidency will be a “sink-or-swim challenge” for the next chancellor

 

A growing demand for more ambitious climate action is pushing German parties to outbid each other in this year’s national election campaign and is setting the scene for the country to become a more progressive partner in international climate diplomacy.

For the first time ever, climate policy is at, or near, the top of German voters’ concerns in the national election. A recent landmark climate ruling by the country’s constitutional court has pushed Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government to pull forward Germany’s goal of climate neutrality to 2045 and update the climate action law. The experienced conservative chancellor is not running for re-election and judging by current polls, the Green Party looks set to become part of the next federal government – either as junior partner, or – less likely – as the leading party that will provide the next chancellor from its ranks.

This ‘green shift’ will influence Germany’s position in the world, says John Kirton, director of the G7 Research Group, and co-director of the G20 Research Group at the Trinity College in the University of Toronto. “Clearly the new leadership, regardless of who the chancellor is, is likely to want to do more of what the Green Party has long said it wants to do,” he said.

“I would expect significant advances in Germany’s leadership on climate change,” said Kirton, adding that this will not go unnoticed by close partners. “Germany’s partners will be reading the polls.”

2021 is a crucial year for global climate action, ringing in what U.S. climate envoy John Kerry has called the decisive “decade of action”. The U.S. has come back to the international climate table at full force under president Biden, rallying countries around the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees. Major economies including China, the U.S., the UK, Japan, the EU and Germany have announced more ambitious climate targets, but combined plans still fall short of what is needed. The upcoming summit meetings of the world’s largest economies and top emitters – the G7 on 11-13 June and the G20 in October – will pave the way for the COP26 UN climate change conference in November.

A German government official said Germany will support the UK’s aim to make the G7 summit a climate boost for COP26. Negotiations on the final communiqué text were ongoing among the governments (10 June), so the official provided few specifics. Among the topics to be discussed would be climate finance. At a press conference one day before the summit, Merkel said Germany would contribute more to international climate finance. "Germany has doubled its climate finance since 2015, so we are doing very well, but we will contribute even more," she said without providing details. Merkel had recently disappointed civil society hopes by not announcing more public money for climate change mitigation and adaptation in the global south.

CO2 pricing would also be discussed “as a very important multilateral issue”, regarding which the G7 summits had accomplished little until now, said the official. “We hope for a better impulse from this summit.”

A green shift in Germany

Before the last national election in 2017, Germany hosted the G20 summit in Hamburg, where Merkel pulled off a “solid” diplomatic success on climate policy by closing the ranks of all G20 members except the United States under then-president Donald Trump. The summit presented the chancellor with an opportunity to show off her international credentials to voters two months before national elections. Following failed talks for a new government coalition including the pro-business Free Democrats and the Green Party at the time, Merkel’s conservatives had reforged their existing alliance with the Social Democrats, making sure that German foreign policy kept its continuity.

This time could be different. The Green Party has surged in the polls and is currently tied with Merkel’s conservative camp – or leading in some polls. It is unclear whether this trend will translate into votes in September, but the Greens have for the first time a realistic shot at the German chancellery – and thus being the driver of a strong decarbonisation agenda. Even if the Green Party leader Annalena Baerbock does not win the top spot, current polls indicate that a government coalition without the Green Party is unlikely.

There is a growing understanding internationally that any future German government is likely to be very green, even if it isn’t one led by the Green Party.

Jennifer Tollmann, E3G

The Greens’ surge is connected to a general pro-climate shift in Germany’s society and political landscape. Heat waves and droughts in past few years and the rise of the Fridays for Future student climate movement have catapulted climate change to the top of citizens’ concerns, forcing political parties to act. MPs and government representatives have upped their rhetoric and increasingly tried to show themselves as climate action leaders. Merkel’s ruling coalition in 2019 introduced a policy package which included a major climate law, a carbon price for transport and heating fuels and a plan to exit coal-fired power production by 2038 at the latest.

After Germany’s constitutional court recently ruled the government’s efforts insufficient in a landmark verdict, parties switched into full election campaign mode and outbid each other with proposals. This led to the government pulling forward Germany’s target year for climate neutrality to 2045.

Germany will only become greener

Political analysts agree that this green shift is bound to translate into Germany’s international actions. “There is a growing understanding internationally that any future German government is likely to be very green, even if it isn’t one led by the Green Party,” says Jennifer Tollmann, senior policy advisor for climate diplomacy and geopolitics at think tank E3G. “So there is an understanding among partners like the U.S. that they are likely to see more action on climate rather than less,” she said.

Traditionally, German foreign policy positions don’t tend to change with a change in government. “From a government point of view, you don’t see the kind of tabula rasa that you do with the U.S.,” said Tollmann. In Germany, a lot of senior officials remain, which creates a certain amount of consistency, she added. This allowed the government to navigate the time between elections and the swearing-in of a new government more gracefully.

If the Greens were to lead the next government the country will enter somewhat uncharted political waters at the top level. Chancellor candidate Annalena Baerbock has made clear she wants all policies of a new federal government to make climate action the yardstick. She and her party oppose the contentious Russian-German gas pipeline Nord Stream 2 which has been backed by the German government. “We cannot finalise this project,” she recently said at a virtual event of the Atlantic Council. If the project is still under construction when the next government takes office, the pipeline’s fate could be sealed.

The Green party’s foreign policy approach is still in flux, as demonstrated by an internal row over possible arms deliveries to Ukraine. However, the head of the Munich Security Conference Wolfgang Ischinger recently told German Tagesspiegel that the Green Party “does not seek to break with the lines of German foreign, security and European policy that have been tried and tested for decades."

The foreign partners can be prepared for Germany to remain very present as a player, or rather to step it up a notch.

Susanne Dröge, SWP

Susanne Dröge, a senior fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), agrees. “A government with the Greens will challenge its partners more,” she said. But partners do not have to be concerned about any abrupt changes in Germany’s positions on climate when a new government takes office. “The foreign partners can be prepared for Germany to remain very present as a player, or rather to step it up a notch.” She expects that Germany will position itself even more strongly in international climate policy in the coming years. “Reliably, continuously committed, and as a model country that manages to reconcile economic growth and climate policy.”

A government official told Clean Energy Wire that as the consensus among Germany’s parties on international climate policy is strong, Germany is a reliable partner in this policy area. “So that’s what I get reflected in negotiations with my conversation partners.”

This will be even more the case if Merkel is succeeded by the conservative CDU party leader Armin Laschet. The premier of Germany’s most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia, and a former member of the European Parliament is seen as a centrist likely to follow Merkel’s moderate course. In one of his first speeches as CDU leader he said he aimed to readjust the relationship between the state, the economy and ecology. “I want climate prosperity,” he said, putting an emphasis on European cooperation and adding that this pledge was central to his bid to become chancellor candidate.

Germany as a “champion of multilateralism”

Germany’s national energy and climate policy have always influenced its international actions. Certain aspects of the country’s Energiewende – the shift away from fossil fuels without relying on nuclear energy – have been an export hit. Over the years, the government has advertised the ramp-up of renewables, and more recently Germany’s climate action law and the carbon price on transport and heating fuels as success stories.

Kirton noted that Germany has been a leader and mediator in these fields among both the G7 and G20 nations. However, he sees some imperfections in Germany’s climate policy: the country was slow to decide to abandon coal, it should have agreed to keep existing nuclear plants for longer, and should not support a major fossil fuel project like the contentious Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline.

In more general terms, the German government has long put a lot of emphasis on European and global cooperation, portraying itself as “a champion of multilateralism”, says E3G’s Tollmann. Merkel herself has held high the idea of multilateral cooperation, especially after Trump was elected U.S. president, prompting some pundits to go as far as calling her the new “leader of the free world”.

“The world is a community of destiny, be it global health, be it issues of climate and environmental protection, or sustainable development – there is certainly no lack of great challenges that the world faces together,” Merkel said in May. She cautioned that “multilateralism is not to be taken for granted” and highlighted the upcoming G20 summit in Italy as a key chance for cooperation on climate. “I expect a very strong message from the G20, particularly since its members are responsible for about 80%of global greenhouse gas emissions,” she said. 

The German government has often shown a knack for facilitating cooperation and seeking compromise. It frequently mediates, builds coalitions and is a key interlocutor for countries such as Turkey. Germany has a decent amount of weight in the world and is a key driving force within the European Union. Germany’s international actions are well coordinated with and embedded in the EU.

How will the next German government manage the U.S.-China-EU triangle?

Without the EU, Germany is a weak player in the relationship with China and the U.S., said SWP’s Dröge. “This is about the triangle of the largest economic areas and Germany has to coordinate with the EU again and again, because the balance of power is in a state of flux.” The great challenge for the next German government and the EU will be working together with the U.S. to show a clear position vis-à-vis China while at the same time keep signalling openness on climate action.

Tollman says it is very important for Germany to remain one of the countries that maintain a dialogue with China, playing a mediating role in the debate about infrastructure investments in third countries, such as under the Belt and Road Initiative. “Competition is good, but aggression is bad because it is a distraction from that race to the top that we want it to be. Germany plays an important role in keeping it more on the competition side of things."

Think of climate change and biodiversity, as well as other global challenges – without China we will not be able to tackle those challenges.

Angela Merkel, German chancellor

Merkel has been a key player in these efforts. Together with French President Emmanuel Macron she had a call with Chinese leader Xi Jinping several days before Joe Biden’s Climate Leaders Summit. and the three leaders agreed to work more closely on climate change. At the Global Solutions Summit Merkel reiterated countries needed to continue to aim for cooperation. “Think of climate change and biodiversity, as well as other global challenges – without China we will not be able to tackle those challenges,” she said.

Her successor will have to work hard to establish the same kind of relations with leaders.

“Merkel’s last hurrah” as Germany focusses on election

During her 16 years in office, Merkel has built herself up into a recognised international stateswoman and an impactful player in forums like the G7 and G20. Having hosted the G7/G8 twice and the G20 once she is a veteran of these groups.

Kirton says Merkel’s skill in finding compromise among world leaders has its roots in Germany’s political system which is always run by a coalition government and where the federal states have a say in l the country’s legislation. “Keeping all those rabbits in the same hat is an extraordinary political skill, and leaders from countries with different systems such as France or Russia are just not raised knowing how to do that.”

Merkel has been nicknamed "Climate Chancellor" for her long-standing international engagement on emissions cuts. However, whether she intends to use her last months in office to live up to that reputation is a question of how much she’s willing to spend her political capital, says Tollmann. “She doesn’t see climate policy as her baby as much as we’d like her to by branding her climate chancellor.” Judging from her speeches and statements Merkel sees her legacy more broadly in keeping multilateralism alive and going, adds Tollmann.

It’s also a question of how much Merkel and her government will be able to focus on international issues over the coming months. Ahead of the elections parties’ campaigns will mostly focus on domestic policies, said Dröge. “German politicians' own climate policy in the election campaign is using up all the capacities that would also be needed in foreign policy right now,” she said.

According to Tollmann, the government will give only “very targeted attention” to international climate talks during the election campaign. “We need to be realistic that we’re working with limited bandwidth here. But it is also an extraordinary international year, and given Germany’s role as a champion of multilateralism, they will be forced to step up.”

Heeding calls to step it up internationally could become a part of the ongoing election campaign, if Merkel wants to show off what she and her government are capable of, said Kirton. “Merkel doesn’t want to be remembered as the last CDU chancellor who couldn’t hand over the country to a successor from her own party, but was replaced by this brand-new Green Party candidate.” The UK G7 summit in Cornwall will likely be seen as Merkel’s “last hurrah”, says Kirton. “The Cornwall summit is the biggest outing she’s got to lead again the way she so effectively has in the past.”

Merkel as a lame duck

It typically takes more than 30 days from election day to the swearing in of a new government, and the outgoing government is asked to stay in place for that period. That means Merkel could still be in power for both the G20 summit in Rome in October and COP26 November – albeit as a lame duck. After the recent Franco-German Council of Ministers, Merkel reassured Germany’s partners that her government would “very intensively” drive forward its international commitments, despite the election campaign.

“The question of the lame duck always arises -- many heads of state and government have been in that position -- but I don't think it's a big problem for Germany,” said Dröge. Should Merkel attend the G20 after the election, she would certainly negotiate hard on Germany’s behalf.

However, she would no longer have the same legitimacy and power vis-à-vis other heads of state, said Kirton. “Even if she’s still the German chancellor, none of her fellow leaders will know that she’ll be able to go home and say ‘look, fellow party members, you’ve got to comply with the commitments I made’.”

“She will have far less real political authority than she has had so far,” says Kirton. “She will be more like wisdom from the past, maybe a mentor, possibly a mediator, but it’s tough to be a leader when everybody knows you’re for sure on your way out.”

G7 presidency will be a “sink-or-swim challenge” for the next chancellor

It will be some time before Merkel’s successor has her level of clout – if she or he ever gains it – but there will be little time to transition as Germany takes over the presidency of the G7 in 2022. The next chancellor will have to step up to the geopolitical plate quite quickly.

“Nobody has that [Merkel’s] weight from day one, but the G7 presidency role will make them have to establish that weight quickly,” said Tollmann. “It will be a bit of a sink-or-swim challenge for them, because they will have to grip that group, which the UK has explicitly positioned as an engine to keep 1.5° within reach.”

Leaders are increasingly narrowing in on aiming to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, instead of the 2°C also mentioned in the Paris Agreement, as scientists say the effects will be much more severe with the latter. Tollmann said that the structures the next German leaders builds around them will be crucial to help promote this goal. “Are we going to see something like a ‘climate czar’ à la John Kerry?”

The UK has put down a lot of good foundations which the German G7 presidency can build on.

Jennifer Tollmann, E3G

International partners can be sure that whoever wins the next German election will be greener, said Kirton. “Macron, Biden, Trudeau, Johnson and the others can absolutely do what Merkel agrees now, and then always up it if her likely successor wants to do a bit more soon.”

What’s on the plate for Germany’s presidency? By that stage the Covid -19 pandemic will likely be under control in G7 countries and the focus will be on building back better – and in a sustainable way, according to Kirton. He has a somewhat bleak view on what the United Nation’s climate summit in Glasgow can do. “As the world will probably have to conclude that COP26 didn’t deliver enough”, Germany could use the G7 as a forum to push for more climate action next year, he said. 

Tollmann said Germany should take over the baton from the current UK presidency. “Germany needs to continue establishing the G7 as an engine for decarbonisation and keeping 1.5° within reach.” She sees the big task left for the G7 to change in the areas of sustainable finance and changing economic framework conditions.

“Germany has to push on all of that techie stuff that is actually really important to do, because it shifts the behaviour of markets around the world,” she said, and added:

“The UK has put down a lot of good foundations which the German presidency can build on.”

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