At a snail’s pace: German inactivity becomes a climate burden on Europe

One week after climate talks at UNGA and the unveiling of the government’s new climate plan, Germany’s gap between lofty goals and actual initiatives is still striking

The fight against climate change seems to have taken centre stage in German politics, as suggested by three recent events:

  1. When nominating the key figures in the European Commission she would soon lead, Ursula von der Leyen put special emphasis on climate policy, assigning the portfolio to Frans Timmermans, the social democratic Spitzenkandidat in the last European Parliament electoral campaign.
  2. A fortnight later, Germany’s coalition government – comprising Christian democrats and social democrats – engaged in a painfully long process of negotiating a package of climate policy measures that took a new approach to curb CO2 emissions.
  3. Days later, Chancellor Angela Merkel and a handful of ministers from her cabinet travelled to New York for the UN Climate Summit, met with Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, and confirmed Germany’s pledge to climate neutrality by 2050 alongside, alongside 75 other nations.

According to recent polls, climate change is at the top of the agenda for most Germans – and clearly above migration as a topic of concern. This reflects the dominance of the western German view: among respondents from eastern Germany, climate change ranks in second place, after migration. Faced with shrinking support for traditionally dominant parties, and under public pressure, the current political leadership has come back to an issue that shaped Merkel’s early years at the helm of government.

In 1994 she was appointed as the federal minister for the environment, prompting her first steps into the sustainability debate. In 2007, two years into her first term as chancellor, Merkel visited Greenland to see the erosion of arctic glaciers for herself. Earlier that year, she had put her weight behind the European Union’s 20-20-20 commitment – to reduce energy consumption and CO2 emissions by 20 percent and to increase the share of renewables in the energy mix to 20 percent by 2020. The media named her “climate chancellor”, an image that was reinforced by her abrupt decision to recommit to phasing out nuclear power generation in her country after the Fukushima reactor catastrophe of 2011.

Leaders in Berlin tend not to lead when it is unclear who – if anyone – will follow them

Since then, nothing much had happened in Germany’s environmental policy. Unlike their counterparts in smaller northern European nations, German politicians appear to find it very difficult to create a paradigm shift. It is not that German leaders shy away from stating ambitious goals on issues that seem to alarm the public, it is the actual policy changes that pose a problem. On track to miss its declared environmental goals for 2020 and even 2030, the grand coalition government was nonetheless quick to commit to carbon neutrality by 2050. Given German leaders’ attentiveness to well-functioning systems and structures, the gap between lofty goals and precise measures on energy, emissions, and the environment is striking.

The coalition’s latest reform package perfectly illustrates Germany’s political dilemma. A policy adjustment, if not a major overhaul, had become necessary to avoid a total loss of credibility on the climate issue. Some social democrats talked up an agreement on climate policy reform as a make-or-break challenge for the government. The outcome serves as a textbook example of consociational politics.

Germans care about climate change but favour energy-hungry SUVs over other kinds of vehicles. They expect to see change, but do not expect this change to hurt. Thus, both coalition parties were keen to create a paradigm shift and win back credibility by introducing the principle of carbon pricing across the board. Yet the government will only introduce the new system in 2021 and, even then, will do so at a very moderate level. Most experts recommend prices of around €50-70 per tonne of CO2 to begin with (a measure Sweden introduced several years ago) and around €130 per tonne to decarbonise the economy at a sufficient rate. In contrast, the German programme will begin with a price of €10 per tonne. Given that this would raise gasoline prices by just three cents per litre, it seems that French President Emmanuel Macron’s struggle with the gilets jaunes (yellow vests) movement scared Berlin. Subsidies for German commuters will rise, so they will feel little need to change their behaviour in the coming years. Nonetheless, the government will also subsidise the introduction of fuel-efficient gas heating systems in private homes – which should reduce consumption.

Such is political reform in the final phase of the Merkel era: factoring in the costs of pollution to the environment, but in the softest form possible – to avoid agitating or alienating the public. Germans will feel they are protecting the environment yet still miss the targets and commitments the German government has set on their behalf. Leaders in Berlin tend not to lead when it is unclear who – if anyone – will follow them. At the same time, they do not seem determined to win over the public, but rather seek to sense the boundaries of public acceptance and thereby avoid stepping over the line. Germany’s leaders are all too familiar with the paradox in which public angst about the future combines with public reluctance to change course. While they may be right in their approach to lower the threshold to change as much as possible, their choices will also mean that the largest population and the biggest economy in the EU will be a drag on rather than a driver of the bloc’s sustainability agenda.

For the EU, this German impulse is dangerous. Even when confronted with major crises, the German response will be cautious and focused on small steps. A lack of German support, however, makes policy change almost impossible. Radoslaw Sikorski’s remarkable speech in Berlin in 2011, in which he urged Merkel to take bold steps to protect the euro, echoes in the present debate – but apparently not in the carpeted hallways of the chancellery. Then foreign minister of Poland, Sikorski concluded his appeal by stating: “I fear German power less than I am beginning to fear German inactivity.”

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Head, ECFR Berlin
Senior Policy Fellow

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

We will store your email address and gather analytics on how you interact with our mailings. You can unsubscribe or opt-out at any time. Find out more in our privacy notice.