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Climate is Germany’s top issue no matter who governs
after elections

Climate is Germany’s top issue no matter who governs

4 min. 01.10.2021 From our online archive
Even fossil-fuel lobby groups urge tackling climate change, while advocating policies that entrench their businesses like rapid hydrogen fuel conversion
Co-leader of Germany's Greens and the party's candidate for chancellor Annalena Baerbock leaves after giving a statement following a meeting on Thursday with the leadership of the Free Democratic Party in Berlin, Germany
Co-leader of Germany's Greens and the party's candidate for chancellor Annalena Baerbock leaves after giving a statement following a meeting on Thursday with the leadership of the Free Democratic Party in Berlin, Germany
Photo credit: AFP

Germany is headed for weeks and maybe even months of uncertainty over who will govern Europe’s biggest economy. But one outcome is already clear: tackling climate change will top the new ruling coalition’s agenda.

While an initial burst of support for the Greens wasn’t enough to to win them the most seats in parliament, the party still finished with its best-ever result and will likely be part of the next government. Polls show concern over global warming has become the most important issue for German voters — even ahead of the coronavirus pandemic.

“This was a climate election. All major parties promised more ambitious climate policy during the campaign,” said Christoph Bals, policy director at Bonn-based nonprofit Germanwatch. “Whoever will form the next coalition government, voters and civil society will hold them to account for delivering on these promises.”

That the Greens managed to shift the conversation so strongly is an encouraging signal to advocates around the world, who have made climate change a top issue in elections from Norway to Canada. Yet support for the party in opinion polls dropped more than 10 percentage points under leader Annalena Baerbock, a political novice who made several blunders early on, showing the challenges of running a Green campaign that has mainstream appeal. 

The Greens, who  finished third in the voting, will probably end up in a coalition with the Social Democrats and business-friendly Free Democratic Party, neither of which are willing to spend aggressively to cut emissions. The Social Democrats, known as the SPD, are under pressure from unions to move slowly to avoid job losses in energy-intensive industry. The FDP would rather leave the green transition to the market than impose regulations. 

"We need a coalition for climate protection and energy transition as soon as possible," Kerstin Andreae, the chairwoman of the German Association of Energy and Water Industries, said in a note Monday. She called for the new leaders to clear the way for more renewables and the expansion of power grids, and to address high energy prices by eliminating electricity levies.

Leading up to the election, the Greens’ early success and a ruling from Germany’s highest court prompted Chancellor Angela Merkel to move the nation’s target for reaching net-zero emissions five years earlier, to 2045. How quickly the government moves to meet that target will depend on how successful the Greens are at operating within the new bureaucracy. 

There’s also a risk that momentum could be blunted in the short term by soaring energy prices in Europe. 

"Whenever the new government is formed, the question is really: What can it do?” said Hanns Koenig, head of  Aurora Energy Research’s Berlin office. “High energy prices might benefit renewables, but not much as we might think.”

Still, the election is likely to bolster German action on the international stage. Coalition negotiations will coincide with United Nations-sponsored climate talks in Glasgow in November. Leaders attending the gathering, known as COP26, are expected to agree on more ambitious policies to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius, and on a finance mechanism that helps developing nations adapt.

Germany, the world’s sixth-largest polluter, traditionally plays a prominent role in these talks. Its team of veteran negotiators is among the few large enough to be in all meetings and cover the dozens of issues being discussed. That’s expected to remain unchanged even under a caretaker government led by Merkel.

Whatever coalition is eventually formed “will probably lead Germany toward more ambitious positions,” said Peter Betts, an associate fellow at London’s Chatham House policy institute and a European Union lead negotiator at COP meetings from 2010 and 2016.  “German negotiators will know that and this will help them push some positions a bit harder — and major negotiating partners will know that too.”

Still, political uncertainty at home might dissuade German negotiators from taking strong positions on more specific issues such as phasing out internal-combustion-engine cars, Betts said.

Next on the agenda after COP26 in Glasgow will be the next round of the Group of Seven meetings, to be hosted by Germany. The country’s climate focus will probably solidify the G-7 as an engine for climate action, according to Jennifer Tollmann, a senior policy advisor for climate think tank E3G in Berlin. 

Ultimately, the Greens’ influence on the national discourse is here to stay. It’s even prompted fossil-fuel lobby groups to voice support for tackling climate change, while advocating policies that would entrench their businesses, such as speeding the development of a hydrogen market.

“The voters' decision is a clear mandate for change,” said Timm Kehler, chairman of German lobby Zukunft Gas. “Change means progress and that is good for Germany, because the energy transition also needs progress.”

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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