Why Germany lost its way on climate policy

The Greens’ drive and plans will be essential if Germany is to regain a leadership role on European climate policy.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel deserves to be applauded for many things. Transformational leadership is not one of them. With few exceptions, she and her successive cabinets since 2005 have largely opted to manage the status quo. This is particularly true for climate policy, in which the gap between lofty goals and political reality has often been so large that one could drive a fleet of German dieselgate cars through them. The next government will have to do better on climate policy – to bring about Europe’s green transformation and allow Germany to regain its long-lost credibility as an environmental champion.

In all likelihood, Germany will fail to meet its 2030 climate goal to reduce carbon emissions by 55 per cent compared to 1990. When Josef Janning assessed Germany’s disappointing climate policy in September last year, it still looked as though Germany would not even clear the bar on its 40 per cent goal for 2020. Thanks to the coronavirus, though, the country might accidentally scrape by after all. The pandemic has suspended Germany’s public life and, consequently, much of its economic activity, causing a significant decline in emissions. Once the economy kicks into gear again, however, there will be a sharp increase in emissions – just in time for next year’s Bundestag election.

Much about future German climate policy will depend on how the Greens fare at the ballot box. They are currently polling at around 20 percent of the vote, more than double the share they received in the last Bundestag election. Since 2018, European public opinions polls have shown a growing recognition of the climate crisis as the most serious problem facing the world. The Greens’ approval ratings have risen in parallel with this. According to ECFR’s latest EU Coalition Explorer – a survey of policy professionals and expert observers of European politics – climate policy has climbed since 2018 from tenth place to third place among 20 policy priorities. In the survey, German experts rank it in second place. After more than 15 years in opposition, the Greens might capitalise on this new climate awareness to form part of a governing coalition next September.

After more than 15 years in opposition, the Greens might capitalise on this new climate awareness to form part of a governing coalition.

The Greens have praised the European Green Deal for generating momentum for EU climate action. They have drawn public attention to the climate crisis with an urgency that is often lacking in national and European politicking over budgets, national rebates, and carbon-intensive industries – as was on full display at July’s European Council summit. The Greens’ members of the European Parliament recently pushed for ambitious EU goals: an end to fossil-fuel subsidies by 2025, a 60 per cent reduction in carbon emissions by 2030, and a mandatory interim target for 2040. Still, the Greens see the main obstacle to climate action as being reticent national governments, including the current German one.

Globally, emissions-reduction targets have had little effect so far. If current trends continue, the international community will come nowhere near the Paris Agreement target to prevent the global average temperature from reaching more than 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. But, rather than taking on the challenge, Merkel’s fourth cabinet is engaged in navel-gazing at best and climate obstructionism at worst. Her minister of transport wasted tens of millions of euros on an autobahn toll project that, predictably, was blocked by the European Court of Justice. His time would have been better spent ensuring that Germany’s automotive sector did not fall further behind its competitors on innovative, climate-friendly forms of mobility. Not to mention the mess that is Germany’s digital infrastructure – for which he is also responsible, and which is increasingly important for developing energy-efficient transportation systems and electrical grids. Merkel’s minister for economic affairs and energy, meanwhile, applies the spaghetti theory of policymaking to climate issues: throwing proposals at the wall to see what sticks. Only, nothing sticks.

Evidently, the Greens’ drive and plans will be essential if Germany is to once again assume a leadership role on European climate policy. Still, they should prepare themselves for some tough love from the young climate activists who have made Germany an epicentre of the Fridays for Future movement. Once in government, the Greens will have to compromise on their own and the activists’ convictions. The clash between these convictions and realpolitik is currently on display in the state of Hessen, where a Green government minister has been forced to clear a 300-year-old forest to implement a federal autobahn construction project.

Beyond the daily grind of government politics, it will be interesting to see whether the Greens succeed in making social justice more prominent in the climate debate. They have consistently emphasised this aspect of Europe’s green transformation and the need to move beyond the extractive business model that industrialised nations still depend on to a large extent. While it is less on the nose than it was during the imperial age, market capitalism continues to extract resources from the periphery to generate wealth at the centre. At the same time, industrialised nations export many of the social and ecological costs of their activities – in the form of human rights violations and environmental degradation – to poorer parts of the world. The European Green Deal will not bring an end to extractive industries by itself. On the contrary, even the Greens expect industry innovation to power the green transformation to some extent.

Europe should take responsibility for these social and environmental problems, by mitigating them through regulation and pricing that accurately reflects their costs. Decoupling wealth generation from resource extraction and ensuring that the European Green Deal achieves a socially just transformation – within the European Union, as well as between the bloc and the developing world – is the main challenge facing all European political leaders, not just Germany’s Greens.

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


ECFR Alumni · Project Assistant Rethink:Europe

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