24 May 2024, 12:00
Lisa Kuner

Populist AfD “sand in the gears” of German climate efforts

Photo shows German far-right populist AfD campaign poster in Brandenburg ahead of the 2024 local and EU elections. Photo: CLEW/Wettengel.
"No heater is illegal" - Germany's AfD has put a focus on climate and energy policy in its campaign for the 2024 local and EU elections. Photo: CLEW/Wettengel.

The far-right populist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) is Germany's only large party to unequivocally reject any action against climate change - but its impact on the country's efforts has been limited. The AfD has not yet entered national or regional governments, and all established parties have ruled out cooperating with the group. Researchers say the party's influence has mostly been confined to debates, causing further polarisation on climate issues. However, even as part of the opposition, the AfD has started to slow certain climate measures at the regional and local level, making it "sand in the gears" of the country's energy transition.

In short

Populist parties in Germany

  • Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) is a far-right populist party, critical of transition policies and rejecting the scientific consensus on human-made climate change. It is the 2nd biggest opposition party in federal parliament; in some state legislatures, it is the biggest opposition party. In addition, Bündnis Sahra Wagenknecht (BSW) is a new left-wing populist party which currently polls around 5 percent and is critical of Germany’s decarbonisation plans and shift away from Russian energy supplies.

Populists' impact on climate efforts

  • The AfD's influence is mostly on the discourse level as it is not governing, and other parties do not collaborate. However, in some cases, it has been able to slow down the energy transition as part of the opposition in regional or local governments. 

Key climate issues in the 2024 EU election in Germany

  • Voters see refugees and asylum as the biggest issue facing the EU, followed by international conflicts and then climate and environment, according to the survey ARD-DeutschlandTrend May 2024.

A vote in parliament in December 2023 brought the latest twist in the years-old saga surrounding the construction of wind turbines in the forests of the German state of Thuringia. With the help of crucial votes from the AfD, opposition parties – the pro-business FDP and conservative CDU - pushed through an amendment to the state's Forest Act: "Compensatory afforestation should not be carried out on land intended for agricultural use."

It may sound like trivial bureaucracy but, in reality, the amendment severely limits the use of forests for wind power expansion in the state. The Forest Act stipulates that before forests can be cut down and used for wind power expansion, a compensatory area must be found and reforested. If arable land and pastureland can no longer be used as compensation areas, it will be extremely difficult to find suitable areas in the state dominated by forests and agriculture.

The state executive has branded the changes unconstitutional and intends to file a lawsuit. It argues that it is not within the power of a state to regulate in this way, and adds that the rules would make it much harder for the state to reach the target of using 2.2 percent of land area for wind parks by 2032, which was set by the federal government. The law is currently in place and could slow the energy transition in the state.

The Thuringia Forest Act is one of only very few examples to date in which the AfD has directly used its legislative or executive power to influence Germany's climate efforts.

AfD's influence mostly confined to debates, causes further polarisation on climate issues

The AfD’s direct impact on political decisions is still limited and it remains isolated in the political spectrum. Other parties repeatedly invoke the so-called "firewall" to the right, ruling out any cooperation with the right-wing populists.

Above all, the AfD can influence the discourse.

Manès Weisskircher (REXKLIMA)

Most recently, even other far-right parties at the EU level are moving away: Following revisionist remarks by the AfD lead candidate for the EU elections Maximilian Krah, the French Rassemblement National (RN) led by Marine Le Pen's said it would not join in the same political group in the European Parliament after the elections.

"Above all, the AfD can influence the discourse," says Manès Weisskircher. He heads the REXKLIMA research group, which deals with far-right politics and climate protection at the Technical University of Dresden. This can make the party "sand in the gears" of the energy transition and slow processes, says Weisskircher.

The AfD's driving issue has always been, and continues to be, its anti-immigration stance. However, it has long since ceased to be a "single-issue party". The AfD rejects the science on human-made climate change, going against overwhelming empirical evidence. In its EU election manifesto, it says that the "claim of a threat through human-made climate change" is "CO2 hysterics", an "eco-socialist project" which reduces prosperity and takes away freedom. It wants to "abolish all climate laws at the national and European level, as well as stop the Green Deal”. True to the party's populist nature, it says that the EU climate law is a way for "Brussels" to directly "interfere in the personal lives of every citizen, bypassing national parliaments”.

Right-wing populist parties have scored significant electoral successes in Europe in recent years, and those opposing strong climate action are expected to fare well in two-thirds of EU member states at the European Parliament elections in June this year. The case of Germany is an example of how a rising populist party mainly targets the public discourse but is also able to prevent or slow climate protection measures, even as part of the opposition.

The AfD aims for an energy supply based on cheap fossil gas, and says fracking gas, nuclear energy and lignite should not be ruled out. It opposes "volatile" wind and solar energy. "Wind turbines pose a fundamental threat to plants and animals as well as an impairment of people's health and quality of life," writes the AfD.

AfD's extreme position on climate with little backing in population, but fits well with overall “anti” attitude

With only its views on the climate crisis, the AfD would have no chance of gaining much support among Germany's voters. Polls continue to show that an overwhelming majority sees environmental protection and climate change as important issues to tackle. In a survey from last year, for example, 90 percent of respondents said they find climate protection either "important" or "very important". Another survey found that around two-thirds of Germans think that the energy transition is progressing too slowly.

The AfD, with its extreme, anti-science position on climate and energy, differs from many other right-wing populist parties in Europe, explains Axel Salheiser. He is the scientific director of the Institute for Democracy and Civil Society in Jena, where he researches right-wing populism in the context of global ecological crises. "This is a purely ideological position" and the party is opposing an alleged "policy of control from above," the academic told Clean Energy Wire. "This denialist position makes the most strategic sense for the AfD," he says. Most AfD members probably do not believe these arguments themselves, but they fit in well with the overall "anti" attitude, he adds. In this populist line of reasoning, climate protection is framed as elitist and "left-green".

This reasoning also includes conspiracy narratives. Party members, for example, argue that climate policy wants to drive forward the "Great Reset" and "destroy prosperity". The AfD's top EU candidate Krah, whose aide is facing accusations he spied for China, is particularly fond of spreading such stories on social media. In short videos on TikTok, he warns against the EU's "climate voodoo" and claims that climate policy is making citizens poor. The AfD reaches more people on TikTok than all other German parties combined.

AfD targets individual climate measures

While overall support for climate action is strong in Germany, surveys show that people like some measures more than others. Policies such as subsidies to help households transition, or taxing the rich are often seen as favourable, but CO2 pricing or bans of certain technologies face more criticism.

Consequently, in addition to its ideological position, the AfD also targets concrete climate policy measures, often framing them as "eco-socialism". This criticism is much more effective than general denial, says researcher Weisskircher.

With its criticism of wind power or solar plants, for example, the AfD can reach many voters. Research has shown that support for the AfD – and the Greens – increased in municipalities where wind turbines were built, contributing to polarisation and fuelling political conflict.

“The party polarises with climate topics,” says Anika Taschke from the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation. The AfD could be found at every protest against wind turbines, which further heats up the political atmosphere around the topic, she says.

The AfD is not the only party using populist arguments around climate within political discussions in Germany. One example is the heated debate about the Building Energy Act (Gebäudeenergiegesetz) in 2023. The act aims to make heating across Germany more climate-friendly by transitioning to systems like heat pumps. An initial draft was heavily criticised, with opponents arguing that it would financially overburden citizens by forcing them to choose an expensive heat pump when installing a new system.

The debate was often framed as the green political elite in the capital Berlin proposing unrealistic and expensive provisions that burden ordinary people, especially in the countryside, where there is no chance to connect to district heating. The opposition party CDU jumped on the issue from the outset, talking of a "heating hammer" and emphasising how much of a burden the law places on citizens. The AfD only had to agree with this argument. In the end, the debate benefited the party in two ways: it raised the AfD's poll ratings, and the law was passed only in a significantly watered-down version.

AfD gains limited power to influence climate policy at the local level

The AfD was founded in 2013 as a euro-critical party. It quickly moved further to the right. The party gained real momentum with the arrival of refugees in 2015/2016. In the following years, it gradually moved into most national and regional parliaments, but it has not become part of a government at the national and state level.

The AfD is particularly strong in the eastern German states. Three of them are voting in state parliaments this autumn (Thuringia, Brandenburg, and Saxony). The AfD has a good chance of becoming the strongest political force in all three states, according to current polls, but would fail to win the absolute majority of seats necessary to govern.

In the local elections taking place in several regions before and parallel to the European election, the AfD is set to also gain further influence, as local parliaments and mayors are elected.

Officially, none of the established parties are cooperating with the AfD, and they have all also ruled out coalitions for the upcoming legislative periods. However, a recent report by the left-wing Rosa Luxemburg Foundation shows that cooperation with the party does occur in specific cases. Until now, climate and energy topics have not been the focus, although there are some cases where they have.

In 2020, the AfD in the city of Sonneberg, Thuringia, raised a motion for resolution titled “no wind turbines in Sonneberger Land”. It was adopted with the support of the CDU and FDP. While the resolution is not binding, it intensified the already difficult debate about wind energy deployment in the region. In another case in Chemnitz, the AfD voted in 2022 together with CDU, FDP and Pro Chemnitz against a “Mobility Plan 2040” that aimed to make transport policies more climate-friendly. The plan – which was the result of a long participative process – could not be implemented. 

Starting last year, the AfD also won first positions with executive power at the local level. In July 2023, Hannes Loth became Germany's first AfD mayor in the city of Raghun-Jeßnitz in eastern Sachsen-Anhalt. Climate policy was not a focus of his campaign programme. Shortly before, in June, Robert Sesselmann became Germany's first AfD district administrator in the district of Sonneberg. In his election campaign, Sesselmann said that he would abolish climate action policies. Now, almost one year later, media report that his ambition has faced many hurdles, not least a lack of jurisdiction. Many climate and other policies simply do not fall under the responsibility of a district administrator.

Until now, populists in Germany have had only sporadic impact on climate efforts. However, as polls indicate a higher share of votes in the upcoming elections at the EU, regional and local level, the AfD's influence on policy is set to grow – and with it the opportunities to obstruct climate policy.

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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