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How Germany Can Lead on Climate, Despite Setbacks

The country's clean-energy transition has stalled somewhat, but the Green Party's rise to power is spurring hopes for a quick phase-out of coal.
From left, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and OECD president Angel Gurria at COP21 on the outskirts of Paris on November 30th, 2015.

From left, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and OECD president Angel Gurria at COP21 on the outskirts of Paris on November 30th, 2015. 

When scraggly bands of anti-nuclear activists started demonstrating in German towns in the early 1970s, nobody realized it was the start of a powerful grassroots movement that would persist for decades and grow into a green political force now represented at many levels of the German government.

That evolution helped set the stage for the country's remarkable energy transformation in the climate change era. But as the world gathers in Bonn for COP23, the latest round of climate talks, Germany remains one of the world's biggest greenhouse gas polluters and has a long way to go to live up to its reputation as a climate champion.

A new political alignment emerging since the national election on October 15th could help propel German climate policy forward; and, given the vacuum created as the United States vacates its global role in climate policy, the German Green Party may play a key role in making it happen.

Last weekend, the movement rallied 25,000 people to protest on the streets of Bonn, where the world's climate diplomats are gathered to discuss some nitty-gritty details of the Paris climate agreement. At the same time, hundreds of other citizen-activists tried to blockade operations at the 15-square-mile Hambach open-pit lignite mine, where the quest for fossil fuels has led miners to dig down nearly 1,000 feet into the ground, making it the deepest man-made pit on Earth.

In parliament, the Green Party is poised to join a coalition government for the first time since 2005. As part of the coalition-forming negotiations, the party is insisting that the new government commit to shutting down all of Germany's older coal-burning power plants, which would get the country close to meeting its target of cutting CO2 emissions 40 percent by 2020.

While recent news reports have highlighted the chance that Germany will fail to meet that target, the Green Party's participation in the ruling coalition presents a huge opportunity for progress on climate action, says Christoph Podewils, of Agora Energiewende, a German energy think tank.

How Fast Can Germany Phase Out Its Coal?

It's high time for climate action, because Germany's emissions have not declined since 2009, according to Clean Energy Wire.

"The only option for Merkel to form a coalition is with the Greens, and they will only agree if there are serious measures in the government treaty to tackle the 2020 and 2030 goals," Podewils tells Pacific Standard. "It is the participation of the Greens that makes it serious. It's really kind of a power play," he says.

The Green Party wants the coalition agreement to stipulate that Germany must reach its climate targets for 2020 and 2030. Without that guarantee, the Greens won’t join the government, and Merkel has no majority without them. Polls show the base of the party overwhelmingly supports shutting down coal plants quickly, and the coalition agreement is subject to a vote by party members, Podewils says. Facing that much political and civic pressure, the next German Bundestag is likely to move swiftly on developing a plan to phase out coal, he adds.

If all of Germany's pre-1990 coal power plants are shut down by 2020, the country would come within 2 or 3 percent of reaching the 2020 target of a 40 percent CO2 cut, Podewils tells me, adding that Merkel is likely to re-focus attention on climate once a new government is set. In the last few years, immigration and refugee policy have taken priority, but many climate policy experts say Merkel will want to build a legacy of climate policy in her last term.

How Germany Can Remain a Global Climate Leader

Germany needs to move its domestic climate policy ahead to have international credibility and to keep pace with the changing global economy. The United Kingdom, for example, is phasing out all its coal plants by 2025 at the latest. And China aims to dominate the global renewable energy market, including e-mobility.

Even if the German government dithers on energy, most of the largest corporations in German industry say they don't want to have to play catch-up, which is why companies like Siemens are also urging a rapid shift away from coal. On the other hand, the fossil-fuel energy and automotive industries in Germany have been dragging their feet to some degree, using familiar and long-disproven claims that moving away from fossil fuel will hurt the economy. Hardly anyone in Germany buys that argument anymore, and critics say the two sectors still exert undue influence over the German government.

"There's pressure to underpin international leadership with national action," says Lutz Weischer of GermanWatch. Despite the ongoing coalition talks, Germany is still aware that the eyes of the climate world are on the country during the COP23 talks in Bonn.

Germany started the conference by upping its contribution to the international climate adaptation fund by 50 million euro ($58 million). Germany had already pledged 240 million euro, making it the biggest bilateral contributor, and, at a pre-COP press conference, Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks said Germany wants to make the fund "a firm part of the financial architecture of the Paris Agreement."

Making that extra money available immediately for adaptation in areas like agriculture, climate information systems, and catastrophic risk management is another way of showing global climate leadership, Weischer says, adding that it encourages other countries to follow suit.

As a senior world leader, Merkel and her government will also play an important behind-the-scenes—or, if necessary, visible—role in keeping the COP process on track. While no massive breakthroughs are expected in Bonn, the negotiators must make progress on the rulebook for implementing the Paris agreement, and well-applied German pressure can help keep the process on track.

What if Germany Keeps Moving to the Right?

But Weichser also acknowledges that the October election in Germany shifted the political landscape to the right. Along with the Greens, the neo-liberal Free Democratic Party is also likely to be part of the new coalition government, and the party has publicly said that it wants to make Germany's 2020 and 2030 goals negotiable—a position that doesn't mesh at all with the idea of increasing global ambition.

The shift to the right in the recent election came partly from voters in areas that will be affected most by the coal phaseout, which highlights the need for a just transition, Weichser says. Along with the FDP, the extreme-right AfD (Alternative für Deutschland) also garnered enough votes to reach parliament, though the party won't be included in the government.

"It's a reflection of a certain insecurity, and we need to have a plan for an organized coal phaseout, with support for the loss of jobs in affected regions. The gains of the AfD made people in the political elite realize that coal is going to end, and it's better to do it in a socially just way," Weischer says.

The AfD is openly skeptical of climate science and man-made global warming, a denialist posture that has become a hallmark of the extreme right around the world. And as nationalists, AfD members are similarly skeptical of the international solidarity needed to tackle climate change. Altogether, that means there will likely be more debates about climate policy in the next session of the Bundestag, but with little effect on policy outcomes, according to Weischer.