An agenda for Germany’s ecological modernisation

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The speed and scale of coal-phase out was one of the main sticking points in coalition talks between German parties. [Shutterstock]

No matter which parties will eventually form a coalition, Germany’s next government will continue with an agenda of ecological modernisation, writes Arne Jungjohann. Based  on exploratory coalition talks, he explains how such an agenda could look like. 

Arne Jungjohann (@Arne_JJ) is a Senior Energy Analyst based in Stuttgart, Germany. Along with Craig Morris, he co-authored Energy Democracy, a history of Germany’s energy transition. As a political scientist, Jungjohann also researches how parties form governments and coalitions.

After exploratory talks to form a new coalition broke down on Sunday (19 November), Germany enters a period of uncertainty. It seems unlikely that Chancellor Angela Merkel will attempt to form a minority government which would be the only alternative to snap elections in spring of 2018. Until then, the minister of the former Grand Coalition from CDU/CSU and SPD will stay in office and keep the government running.

Together with migration, climate change was the top contagious issue of the negotiations between Merkel’s Christian Democrats, its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP) and the Green party. For some time it looked like the four parties were aiming at holding their own centres, not downplaying their strengths.

It was a strategy of focusing on differences. For the Greens, ecology was and is the centre that they must hold. Of course, a Greens-based government couldn’t declare less climate protection than a government without them.

Even though the exploratory talks broke down, they provided some worthwhile insights. Most of all they dispelled the myth that all German parties are truly committed to fighting climate change. Paying lip services to climate targets is not enough. Especially the FDP was not ready to agree on robust policies for reaching them. Climate is still party politics in Germany.

Second, most Germans support the Energiewende [energy transition] and want the government to shut down coal plants, even if it would cost more. The talks showed them there was only one party standing up for this position. Especially in the talk’s early stage conservatives and Liberals were fighting tooth and nail to protect the interests of the coal industry, and only slowly gave in. Overall the talks boosted the Green Party’s credibility as the political force for bringing the Energiewende on track.

Third, the parties eventually came close to an agreement on climate change which includes sticking to the government’s national and international climate targets, accelerating the expansion of renewables, and starting a coal phaseout by shutting down generation capacity of at least five Gigawatts by 2020.

And lastly, the talks brought Greens and Conservatives closer together. Just some weeks ago the FDP was seen as the conservatives’ natural ally. Not anymore. Both Greens and conservatives put the blame on the failing talks more or less on the FDP. Both had left their comfort zone to find compromises.

They experienced that they could work together in difficult times. This lays a foundation for future cooperation between the Greens and conservatives and thus improves the outlook for Germany’s transition to renewable energy.

No matter which parties will eventually form a coalition, Germany’s next government will continue with an agenda of ecological modernisation. Exploratory talks indicate it could look like this:

    1. First, simplify the complicated mess of various ecological taxes, levies and surcharges. Getting rid of the electricity tax and reducing excessively high grid fees would provide space for a carbon floor price. This would allow the German Chancellor to join forces with French President Emanuel Macron who pushed for the idea.
    2. Second, a robust coal phaseout would need to become the centrepiece of the energy transition. Countries such as Italy, the UK, and the Netherlands already lead the way. Germany can follow the path, and given its record net electricity exports it can easily shut down a dozen coal plants without risking blackouts.
    3. Third, renewable energy needs to grow faster. Now that most wind and solar projects are auctioned, the – admittedly misinformed – talk of “subsidies” is finally over. And renewables are cheaper than ever.
    4. Fourth, building renovations need to be stepped up in the heat sector so that renewables can make up a larger share of supply. Industry can begin to make more of its own energy again, and waste heat from these distributed generators should be recovered and used in district heat networks.
    5. Finally, the coalition should seize the opportunity for a true mobility transition. Across the globe, cities and governments are banning diesel cars and are rolling out the red carpet for electric mobility. Germany falls behind. If German carmakers aim to continue selling cars to California, India, and China, they will have to play by the rules made there.

It will take some months for Germany to sort things out and form a new government. The current managing government will shy away from taking major political decisions.

However, ministers and civil servants will keep matters running and prepare the energy and climate policy for the incoming government as outlined above.

In addition, the Bundestag, Germany’s lower house, could pass resolutions with a simple majority and request the government to take next steps. The Greens have already announced to prepare a resolution for starting a coal phaseout.