Is German climate leadership being sacrificed on the altar of coal?

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Germany's Garzweiler open-cast lignite mine is one of the biggest in the world. [Lukassek/Shutterstock]

The pre-election politicking currently going on in Germany should ring alarm bells among climate policy advocates, warns Julian Schwartzkopff. If Angela Merkel does not take personal ownership of securing a climate-compatible coal phase-out, she could jeopardise her legacy as “climate chancellor”, he writes.

Julian Schwartzkopff is policy advisor at the Berlin office of E3G, a global climate change think tank.

Angela Merkel is set to win the German election. She won’t, however, be able to govern alone. Whilst the CDU is set to become the strongest party by far, she will have to form a stable coalition to govern. 

The German Chancellor has always been at the forefront of the battle against climate change, but it is striking that she has chosen not to take a stance on coal power, which still accounts for 33% of German emissions as a whole and 40% of power generation.  

Granted, climate change has not been a deciding issue in this election and it would be unrealistic to expect Merkel to take a stand during an ongoing campaign. But if the coalition agreement to be worked out after the election does not include a commitment to address coal, that would be a bad sign indeed. 

If Angela Merkel doesn’t act soon, her trademark “wait-and-see” approach will fundamentally undermine German climate leadership at a time when it is needed most.

She is facing a challenge on the Energiewende – an ambitious set of policies aimed at phasing out nuclear power while rapidly increasing renewable energy generation – from a powerful group of actors.

Important CDU figures, the coal industry, trade unions, and Germany’s “coal states” of North-Rhine Westphalia, Brandenburg, Saxony and Saxony-Anhalt are all launching an assault on Germany’s climate targets in an effort to prolong the lifespan of the country’s remaining coal power plants and mines.  

It is clear that coal power has no future. To keep climate change below 2°C, 80% of global coal reserves can never be burnt. To have any chance at meeting the 1.5°C threshold enshrined in the Paris Agreement, we have to burn even less – a recent study by Climate Analytics has shown that all OECD countries need to phase-out coal by 2030. 

Industrialised countries must take the lead to demonstrate that a transition from a reliance on coal is compatible with continuing economic growth. It is therefore highly worrying that German proponents of coal want to continue burning the fuel until well into the 2040s, even until 2050, and that Merkel has not come out strongly against this.  

The pre-election politicking currently going on in Germany should ring alarm bells among climate policy advocates. The SPD-led Brandenburg state government is weakening its climate targets to keep lignite plants and mines in the state operational until well into the 2040s. 

Likewise, CDU-governed Saxony-Anhalt is demanding that lignite use be permitted until 2050. The energy sector union IGBCE, traditionally influential with the SPD leadership, shares this position. Together with Germany’s main utility association (BDEW), the four German “coal states” are also calling for new EU air pollution limits to be scrapped to enable German plants to keep running without the additional costs of installing NOx scrubbers.

Since Germany only accounts for slightly more than 2% of global emissions, the costs of climate action aren’t worth the reward, proponents of coal will often argue. But that fundamentally contravenes the spirit of the Paris Agreement.

By that logic, no action on climate change would be justified at all! To hear such arguments from mainstream voices in the world’s fifth-largest CO2-emitting country is disturbing. And that says nothing of the right-wing populist “Alternative for Germany” party, expected to gain around 10% of votes, which is outright climate-sceptic and argues that global warming is actually a good thing because CO2 helps plants grow faster.

Merkel is meeting this onslaught on German climate targets with her usual blend of pragmatism and patience. In a recent press briefing, she promised that she would make sure Germany delivers on its climate targets by stepping up energy efficiency retrofits in buildings. 

While this affirmation is welcome in principle, Merkel’s attempt to sidestep the coal controversy is profoundly worrying for people who care about the issue. Her Head of Chancellery Peter Altmaier has himself recently called the 2030 emissions targets for the energy sector into question.

Positive momentum for a coal phase-out is already gathering in Europe and elsewhere. The UK, Canada, France and Finland have unequivocally announced that they will end coal use by 2030 or earlier.

As things stand, Germany is notably absent from this club. This week the UK and Canada announced that they would work together to support the global transition away from a reliance on coal – an initiative with which Merkel and Germany should actively engage. 

On the other side, there are a number of states attempting to bring about a renaissance of coal. The US administration has come out very strongly in favour of coal, promising to bring back coal jobs, lower environmental regulations and promote the international financing of coal plants.

Turkey and Japan, and also some EU member states like Poland, are planning to build many new coal plants in the coming years. This new push towards coal is unlikely to find economic success, as coal in the US is being driven out of the power system by a combination of cheaper shale gas, renewables and energy efficiency, while Turkey and Poland are having a hard time finding interested investors without state subsidies.  

Germany has traditionally prided itself on its climate leadership, brokering deals at the international level while pushing ahead domestically with the Energiewende. This has been a startling success, increasing the share of renewables from almost nothing to over 30% today. 

In the run-up to the election, however, Germany’s climate targets have come under attack from within, as German emissions have started rising again. The country is set to miss its 2020 climate target by 10% if no additional action is taken. How, then, can the next German government ask other countries to reduce coal emissions when Germany is refusing to do the same? 

It has been known for a while that Germany is not on course to meet its 2020 climate target. The current government even adopted a “Climate Action Programme 2020” in 2014 to close the emissions gap. 

However, this has proved ineffective after additional measures to reduce coal emissions were watered down by industry lobbying. Energy companies will now be receiving hundreds of millions to shut off a handful of old power plants instead of being fined for emissions above a certain threshold. 

This does not seem like a workable model to shut down the rest of Germany’s 50GW of coal power plants, and the international community is beginning to notice. 

While Germany has achieved much under the leadership of “climate chancellor” Merkel, international observers can’t help but wonder to what extent Merkel will be able to get her way on climate action. Missing the 2020 target, or weakening climate ambition to protect its domestic coal industry, would send a catastrophic political message. 

Merkel can’t remain ambivalent in the face of forces at the international and domestic level fighting for a renaissance of coal. Germany has already come under criticism by the US administration, of all things, for not being serious about reducing coal emissions. 

Climate science and international responsibility demand swift action.

If Merkel does not take personal ownership of securing a climate-compatible coal phase-out within any coalition agreement following the forthcoming election, she is jeopardising her legacy as “climate chancellor” and running the risk of undermining the reason Germany has been so credible and effective on the international stage.

If she continues to do nothing about coal, she will tacitly be doing a lot to weaken German climate ambition.  

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