Dangerous Dynamics

How German hesitation endangers global climate action

by Felix Heilmann


In 2007, Angela Merkel, chancellor of Europe’s largest economy, was described as the world’s first ‘climate chancellor’ when she travelled to the melting Ilulissat Glacier in Greenland to showcase the political importance of climate change. Eight years later, Germany chaired the historic G7 summit at which the world’s major economies committed to a complete decarbonisation before 2100. Moreover, during this entire period, Germany continued to implement its energy transition, or Energiewende, from fossil fuels to renewables, making it a climate champion both domestically and internationally. This is one interpretation of Germany’s role over the past decade in the global fight against climate change.

More recently, however, a second, strikingly different narrative about Germany has surfaced. Consider, for example, former US Vice President and global climate leader, Al Gore, who in 2018 warned that Germany is losing its climate edge. A few weeks later, the media portal Bloomberg ran a major story about Germany’s failed climate goals. So which of these two interpretations is true? Is Germany a global climate champion or is it failing to deliver on the bold promises of Angela Merkel’s early chancellorship? A close examination of past and recent developments shows that both interpretations are partly true. This is a worrying conclusion insofar as Germany’s flawed perception of itself as a climate leader is increasingly used to avoid making the decisions needed for effective climate action, stalling progress both domestically and globally. 


In 2007, the year in which Merkel became Germany’s first 'climate chancellor', renewable energy sources supplied 14 percent of Germany’s electricity mix; nuclear energy supplied 22 percent; and lignite coal supplied 24 percent. Fast forward 11 years, and the ruling coalition government consisting of Merkel’s Conservatives and the Social Democrats has officially conceded that Germany’s 2020 climate target will not be met. The delivery gap is, indeed, considerable: Germany’s 2020 target was to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 40 percent below 1990 levels, but in 2017, only a reduction of 27.7 percent had been achieved, largely as the result of the decline of inefficient industries in the country’s east after German reunification. Carbon emissions have decreased by a mere seven percent since 2007, and, even worse, did not decrease at all since 2014.


These statistics stand at striking odds with Germany’s international reputation as a pioneer in the global fight against climate change. There is some reason to celebrate German leadership, though: The country’s early investments in renewable energy played a crucial role in making renewables more affordable. In the first half of 2018, renewables contributed to over 40 percent of Germany’s electricity, a significant achievement for a major industrialised economy. 


But these grounds for celebration are matched by just as many causes for concern. Germany is in danger of fully losing its leadership position in the race for the low carbon economies of the future, and risks being unprepared for future political and economic developments. With climate change increasingly recognised as a highly important topic on the global stage, greater international scrutiny will make it more vital than ever for Germany to deliver on its climate pledges. Furthermore, economic dynamics, such as the rising price of European emission certificates, make it even more important for countries such as Germany to actively enact climate policies so that they can keep pace with the global low-carbon transition and avoid being locked in with unprofitable high-carbon assets in the near future. The coal sector and the car industry, both strongly connected to Germany’s identity, are most responsible for Germany’s climate problems and deserve a closer look. 


With its policy on coal, for which no phase-out date is yet set, Germany has isolated itself from international partners such as the UK and France, which have joined together in a ‘Powering Past Coal Alliance’. The persistence of dirty coal is directly related to the failure of the energy transition to deliver significant emission reductions. In 2017, lignite burning contributed 23 percent of German electricity, just one percentage point down from 2007. This is the result of the parallel nuclear phase out process, which is due to be completed in 2022, with renewables largely replacing nuclear. This highlights a major lesson from the German energy transition for similar efforts worldwide: an energy transition can only be successful if it is implemented in a way that considers the entire energy system. It is not sufficient to just add renewables to the energy mix; dirty fossil fuels need to be actively phased out too. 


Germany’s efforts to wean itself off nuclear energy should not be condemned too quickly, though. To a considerable extent, the country’s energy transition is the result of Germany’s traditionally strong anti-nuclear movement, which has established a culture of politicising energy production and of opposition to large-scale fossil power projects. The ‘energy democracy’ approach to the energy transition, which emerged from the anti-nuclear movement centred around bottom-up energy cooperatives and decentralised local ownership, has successfully spread the benefits of the transformation across wide parts of the German population, increasing public support for the project. Today, Germany is home to Europe’s largest renewable energy industry, and has, at 330 000, the highest number of renewable energy jobs in Europe. Furthermore, opposition to nuclear energy remains one of the most important reasons why Germans support the continued energy transition. 


As the highly needed next step in the energy transition, a so-called ‘Coal Commission’ tasked with devising a roadmap for phasing out coal was set up in June 2018, composed of stakeholders from government, industry, trade unions, academia, regions, and civil society. Such multi-stakeholder forums are an established and somewhat unique way of dealing with challenges of societal importance in Germany and have in the past also been used to guide the nuclear phase out. The low-carbon transition of the coal regions is a strongly politicised issue, though, and their fate and that of the workers currently employed in the coal sector dominate the coal phase out debate. The approximately 20,000 remaining coal workers are highly unionised and politically effective, exerting significant political pressure for extending coal lifetimes. At the time of writing, it is unclear on what exactly the commission will agree, but it is highly likely that it will involve significant payments to affected regions to compensate for the negative impacts of phasing out coal, and that, due to the commission’s composition, the agreed phase out date will be dangerously late, breaking the requirements of the Paris Agreement. 


Another traditionally strong sector that has positioned itself as a structural roadblock to climate progress is the car industry. Car manufacturing remains at the heart of German industry and is still engrained in the national identity. Even though the diesel scandal sparked widespread outrage, it did not result in a paradigm shift, and political actors still try to protect the domestic high-carbon car industry. The transport sector is the only sector of the economy which has not decreased its emissions at all since 1990, showing that action is urgently needed. Moreover, German manufacturers are lagging behind on various key technologies related to the industry’s ongoing transformation. It has, for example, been estimated that the skills of German manufacturers in building battery cells for electric vehicles are up to ten years behind those of other manufacturers. If the car industry does not manage to change course and begin to drive low-carbon innovation, it will continue to be a major hurdle to Germany’s climate delivery, and will be outpaced by other manufacturers, significantly endangering a sector at the heart of the national economy. 


Taken together, these developments have opened up a gulf in perception. On the one hand, Germany still regards itself as a climate leader, both domestically and internationally. On the other hand, its domestic failures are noticed by international actors, which undermines Germany’s global climate leadership. This dual perception of Germany’s climate role is dangerous as it is contributing to the stalling of action both at home and abroad. Germany is adopting a hesitant approach to domestic climate action on the grounds that it is already doing much more than other countries, while at the same time the international community, discouraged by Germany’s apparent failure to progressively adapt and implement climate policies, is scaling down its ambitions. 


It is thus of crucial importance, both domestically and globally, for Germany to reassert itself as a climate leader. The Coal Commission’s result, which will feed into a federal climate law that is expected for 2019, could be one part of this move. Moreover, with Germany’s upcoming tenure in the UN Security Council, there is scope to increase international pressure so that Germany takes on more responsibility in the multilateral world order and starts to show climate leadership both at home and abroad once more.


Illustration by Jasmine Yang


Felix Heilmann reads for a BA in Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Balliol College, University of Oxford. He is the president of the Oxford Climate Society.

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