A bimonthly magazine on international affairs, edited in Germany's capital

Tepid on Climate Change


Following years of German inaction, a government commission has drawn up a timetable for phasing out coal. But Angela Merkel’s record on climate has been mixed at best.

© REUTERS/Wolfgang Rattay

During Angela Merkel’s 2019 New Year’s video address, images of brown, drought-stricken fields shot by German astronaut Alexander Gerst from the International Space Station were faded in to remind viewers of “the vulnerability of the basis for life.” Climate change was a Schicksalsfrage, a question of fate, Merkel exclaimed. An issue that demanded bold international action.

A few weeks later, it looked as if Germany might actually be doing its part. On January 26, the government-appointed coal commission—consisting of 28 representatives of government, unions, industry, and environmental NGOs—presented its plan to phase out coal by 2038. Though the commission’s plan still needs to be enshrined in law, it was lauded far and wide for taking all interests into account. While taking a major step towards climate change mitigation, it also foresees spending €2 billion per year for the next two decades to cope with the loss of coal mining jobs in affected regions. Patrick Graichen, the director of think-tank Agora Energiewende, said it “showed that large social conflicts can still be solved together in Germany. It is therefore a great moment for our political system.”

The “coal consensus” is a late success for Merkel’s climate policy. Too little, too late, perhaps: even if the new deal is fully implemented, Germany will only meet its own 2020 emissions targets by 2025, according to Agora Energiewende. A vast amount of work has yet to be undertaken by the country if it is to fulfil its commitments under the Paris agreement. And the debate about coal has raised questions about Merkel’s climate legacy.

Noble Words

Judging only by her words, one could be forgiven for mistaking Merkel for a veritable climate warrior. She has been grappling—at least rhetorically—with climate change since the beginning of her political career. As environment minister under Chancellor Helmut Kohl, she presided over the first UN climate conference (COP1) in Berlin in 1995. At the time, she wrote in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung: “With good reason, it is expected from governments and politicians that they no longer close their eyes to the pressing scientific findings that climate protection requires rapid and vigorous action.”

Ever since, Merkel has hammered home that message at international summits, earning her the nickname “climate chancellor.” At the G8 summit in Heiligendamm in 2007, for example, she persuaded oil-loving US President George W. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin to accept the latest IPCC report recommending emissions cuts to prevent the earth from warming by more than between 1.5 and 2.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. At the 2015 Paris UN Climate Change Conference, Merkel was credited with working tirelessly behind the scenes and getting skeptical leaders such as Putin on board with the final agreement.

Missed Targets, Tarnished Reputation

In late 2018, the government announced it would miss its own 2020 emissions targets. Instead of the 40-percent reduction of greenhouse gases over 1990 levels that had been its initial target, Germany would only achieve a 32-percent drop. Emissions had stagnated at 11 tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) per inhabitant, higher than the EU average of 8.4 tons. In a report in December, the government blamed unexpected growth, both of the population and the economy, for the lack of progress. Having given up on trying to reach the 2020 target, the government said it would concentrate on meeting its 2030 goal of a 55-percent reduction over 1990 levels.

Why isn’t Germany meeting its targets? For one, the Energiewende, or energy transition, set in motion by Gerhard Schröder’s SPD-Greens coalition, is running out of steam. It was once the world’s most ambitious renewable energy program. Germany’s renewable energy feed-in tariffs were copied the world over and sparked a wave of innovation in wind and solar technology at home, with some impressive results: renewables now account for 40 percent of German electricity, up from 10 percent when Merkel took office in 2005.

However, Germany is not committing to the investments necessary to make the Energiewende sustainable in the long term. From 2021, subsidies for wind and solar energy will end completely. Over the past few years, the number of new wind turbines installed on land has dropped radically due to new restrictions on their size and location and political resistance at the local, state and federal levels. The result has been job losses in what was once lauded as one of Germany’s most innovative industries. The systems that store power when the sun is not shining and the wind is not blowing, as well as the high-capacity “electricity autobahns” to transport power from the wind farms of the North Sea to the industrial south, have not received enough government support, a deficit some critics blame on Merkel’s Economy Minister Peter Altmaier, who is not a big fan of the Energiewende.

Merkel’s about-face on nuclear power also played an important role. Upon becoming chancellor, Merkel moved to “phase out the phase-out” of nuclear power set in motion by her predecessor. But following the 2011 Fukushima accident she abruptly reversed course and decided to shut down all nuclear plants by 2022, even faster than under the previous government’s plan. Since nuclear power was CO2-free and provided the baseload electricity required by German industry, massive continued investment is required in renewable sources as well as in relatively clean gas plants. But this has yet to occur to a sufficient degree. As nuclear plants have been taken offline in recent years, the baseload has been increasingly covered by lignite or brown coal.

Slow Retreat from Coal

Under the new “coal consensus,” lignite will be mined and burned for another 19 years. Lignite emits more CO2 than virtually any other fuel. Open-cast lignite mines bring with them huge environmental and social costs, from sinking ground water to the destruction of villages and the forced relocation of tens of thousands of people. For a “climate chancellor,” Merkel has had a very friendly relationship with the coal industry. In 2006 she even laid the first stone of a brand new RWE lignite power plant in the western town of Neurath.

As the coal commission convened last year, environmentalists stepped up their anti-coal activism. In the Rhine region there were massive protests against the planned clearance of the Hambach Forest for the expansion of a lignite mine. Since the fall, German high school students, inspired by Swedish 16-year-old Greta Thunberg, have been staging “school strikes for the climate.” On a cold January Friday, about 10,000 Berlin teens skipped school to protest outside the building where the coal commission was holding its final meeting.

Under the commission’s proposals, all coal plants would be closed by 2038. €2 billion per year or a total of €40 billion over 20 years would be invested in coal regions. Utilities would receive billions in compensation. Altmaier said the plan would result in a 55-percent drop in emissions by 2030 over 1990 levels. New subsidies would keep consumer energy prices affordable. Both industry and unions welcomed the deal.

But not all are happy. Greenpeace Germany director Martin Kaiser, who took part in the negotiations, said that under the plan, Germany aimed to keep warming below 2 degrees Celsius, while the Paris agreement stipulates a maximum of 1.5 degrees Celsius. “This won’t be achieved by a step-by-step phase-out of coal-powered plants by 2038,” said Kaiser. For Germany to be in line with Paris, emissions must be reduced by 70 percent by 2030, not 55 percent.

Karen Pittel of the ifo Center for Energy, Climate and Resources said “the compensation for power plant operators and the planned relief funds for electricity prices would cause the cost of the coal phase-out to rise further.  A chance for fundamental reform of energy and climate policy has been missed.” The phase-out would make the Energiewende—which, according to Pittel, will already cost €1 trillion by 2050—even more expensive.

Too little, too late, too expensive. But perhaps better late than never in an era when the likes of US President Trump sing the praises of “beautiful clean coal.”

Cars Are King

The area where Merkel will find it hardest to make progress is transportation, Germany’s “problem child,” at least in terms of climate change and pollution. Road transport emissions in the EU have risen by more than 20 percent since 1990. And in Germany itself, the car industry employs a million people and enjoys an annual turnover of more than €400 billion. Over the past two decades German automakers pushed “clean diesel” as the way to reduce CO2 from cars rather than investing in alternative fuels and electric motors. Indeed, diesel is taxed at lower rates than gasoline, encouraging the purchase of diesel-guzzling SUVs and negating the positive impact of diesel’s lower CO2 emissions. The “Dieselgate” scandal—in which Volkswagen and other German carmakers were found to have installed illegal software in diesel cars to keep emissions artificially low during testing—laid bare the lie of “clean diesel” in 2015.

Nevertheless, Transport Minister Andreas Scheuer still goes to great lengths to protect the car industry, even questioning the validity of EU air quality standards because of a critical paper signed by German lung specialists. When a transport commission tasked with devising ways to reduce CO2 emissions proposed a speed limit of 130 kilometers per hour on the autobahn, Scheuer criticized it as going “against common sense.” That put him at odds with the 63 percent of Germans who favor a speed limit, according to a survey published by by DIE WELT newspaper in January. Scheuer was once again speaking the language of the car giants. Unsurprising in a country with a powerful auto lobby and in which senior politicians in the CDU/CSU and SPD have been known to take on lucrative jobs in the industry upon leaving office.

Another effort to clean up transportation—putting a million electric cars on German roads by 2020—will fail miserably. In 2018, a total of 100,000 electric and hybrid plug-ins were registered in a country with 46 million cars.  Merkel’s governments simply have not invested enough in charging stations or committed to the necessary financial incentives to boost sales in electric models. As countries around Europe name end dates for the sale of combustion engines, Germany hangs on to gasoline and diesel, protecting its flagship industry in the short-term and yet risking its future.

Now What?

A so-called climate protection law being pushed by Environment Minister Svenja Schulze is supposed to be passed this year. The law will bundle a series of measures, ensuring Germany’s emissions will be lowered to achieve the government’s goal of a 55-percent CO2 reduction by 2030 compared to 1990s levels. Meanwhile, as Germany simultaneously phases out coal and nuclear energy, it will have to produce a lot more electricity through renewable sources and “back-up” natural gas plants. No one really knows how much power a full transition to electro-mobility would require. One estimate puts it at 120 terawatt hours, requiring the equivalent of 20 new gas-fired power stations. Other problems that could nullify German climate efforts are the rapid growth of air travel and electricity used for IT.

According to a 2018 Hamburg University study, “climate change is an important factor in the voting behavior of about 40 percent of Germans.” It is perhaps no surprise that the Greens, who have the most aggressive climate policy of any party, are enjoying record support, polling at about 20 percent. The next government could very well be a CDU-Greens coalition, creating a chance to take more radical but necessary steps toward fulfilling the targets of the Paris accord and ending a decade and a half of Merkel’s wishy-washy approach to climate change.