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Germany’s next vote is a climate election

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Germany’s next vote is a climate election

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By Gernot Wagner

(Bloomberg) –

After 16 years under the leadership of Angela Merkel, Germany votes for a new chancellor in late September. Economic recovery and post-Covid immigration are all on the ballot. But there is no doubt that this election is a climate vote.

One example is the dramatic rise of the Green Party, compared to 8% in polls three years ago, to compete for chancellor under the leadership of Annalena Baerbock, 40, from the London School of Economics. The Greens have been in government before, but have never been chancellor. For weather watchers, such a victory would send significant signals far beyond the German borders.

Since climate ranks unusually high among national political considerations, I asked German energy economist Claudia Kemfert to help me figure it all out. Kemfert is a prominent figure in national debates on climate policy, and although we are both native German speakers, she preferred to converse in English – “that’s simpler,” she said – only to change for the occasional idiom that has no equivalent.

Kemfert threw his hands in the air when asked what will happen in September: “Who knows, it’s campaign bullshit season.” Or in a German phrase, loosely translated: “Every day, there is a new sow that crosses the city.” There is always some scandal of the moment that captures the news cycle. The day we spoke, they were allegations that Baerbock was somehow associating himself with slave masters, invoking vivid images of Nazi ideology and speaking of an Aryan “master race”, because he had obtained a master’s degree from the LSE.

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For Kemfert, Germany’s climate approach is largely a matter of speed toward decarbonization and the finer details of who pays for what, rather than the American-style debate about whether climate change is real. Merkel’s successor at the head of the Conservatives, Armin Laschet, “will continue the energy transition,” Kemfert said. It wouldn’t be as ambitious as under a green chancellor, but Germany’s parliamentary system mandates a coalition government, making it almost certain that post-election climate policies would be a combination of partisan positions.

The small neoliberal Free Democratic Party, for example, will not be in a position to claim the chancellorship. But some of their positions may well be reflected in the eventual government, they should be asked to help form a governing coalition. In line with its libertarian leanings, the party is against imposing solar panels on new buildings while focusing on the role of technologies such as synthetic fuels.

This focus on research and development of new technologies, rather than the deployment of existing ones, is somewhat similar to elements of the Republican Party in the US who claim to want to reduce carbon emissions in the future. But it would only delay the inevitable.

In Germany, unlike the US, any delay would have to conform to a national carbon reduction law. “The law is the law,” says Kemfert, pointing to a German high court ruling in April that required the government to accelerate its decarbonization plans. The court was enforcing Germany’s 2019 Federal Climate Change Act.

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Surprisingly, Merkel’s government reacted almost immediately by increasing emissions targets for 2030 to 65% below 1990 levels, up from 55% before the ruling. The government also advanced its five-year net zero emissions target to 2045.

Kemfert notes how this rapid movement suggests that the government had been ready to set more ambitious goals from the start. “These kinds of changes don’t usually happen almost overnight,” he says. His hope now is that a new government can set an even more ambitious goal than 2045.

Under Merkel’s leadership, Germany has undergone one of the most significant energy transformations. A country dominated for decades by coal power now gets about half of its electricity from carbon-free sources. Among large developed economies, only the UK has managed a faster exit from coal, although the British switch adopted natural gas. Germany made a deliberate push for renewables, backed by ambitious policies like power fees, which guarantee favorable long-term contracts for wind, solar PV and other renewable producers.

Not everything is rosy in Germany. Kemfert notes that much of his country’s decarbonization strategy so far has focused on transforming the power sector. That alone cannot achieve Germany’s goals.

Next are transportation and domestic heating, supported by carbon prices that are expected to rise from the current € 25 ($ 30) per tonne of CO₂ to between € 55 and € 65 per ton in five years. For transportation, 65 euros would translate to about $ 0.75 per gallon. That creates predictable political debates in a relatively car-dependent Germany. It also shows the way forward for others, potentially including the US.

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Germany has been successful with its sector-by-sector approach to climate policy, with the EU Emissions Trading System as an important backbone. Germany adopted specific and highly technocratic policies at first, and now its early push for renewables allows for ever-increasing ambition.

German Stoicism, even from the top, certainly helped. Chancellor Merkel was famous for saying “We can do it!” – “We can do it!” – in the face of the 2015 refugee crisis. The same three words could be applied to the country’s approach to energy transition. German stoicism in action.

Gernot Wagner writes the Risky Climate column for Bloomberg Green. He teaches at New York University and is a co-author of Climate Shock. Follow him on Twitter: @GernotWagner. This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

© 2021 Bloomberg LP

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