German economy and environment ministries clash over coal commission

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The "Growth, Structural Change and Employment" commission is a key instrument for designing a roadmap that is to lead to the phase-out of coal-fired power production in Germany and therefore helps the country to achieve its climate targets and accelerate its energy transition, better known as the Energiewende. [wsf-s]

The German ministries for economic affairs and energy (BMWi) and environment (BMU) are clashing over who should lead a highly strategic future commission that is tasked with preparing the country’s coal exit.

On 27 March, Economics and Energy Minister Peter Altmaier from the Conservatives (CDU) referred in a speech held in Dusseldorf to Germany’s climate protection plan and said the leadership over the “coal commission” which this plan considers should be attributed to his ministry.

“That makes sense,” said the CDU politician. Environmental organisations and the ministry of environment should also be able to contribute, he added. “But we’ll talk about that within the federal government.”

The new minister of the environment, the social-democrat (SPD) Svenja Schulze, who comes from North Rhine-Westphalia, a land known as the coal and steel region in Germany, reacted swiftly.

“The statement by Economy Minister Altmaier that the sole responsibility for the structural change commission should be in the ministry of economic affairs is irritating,” said the SPD politician, adding that a decision has not yet been taken in the government.

Strategic positioning

The commission, officially named “Growth, Structural Change and Employment”, is due to start work before the summer break and should submit results by the end of the year, Altmaier added. This should include a date to exit from the brown coal. “We do not have much time to lose,” warned the economy minister.

The commission is a key instrument for designing a roadmap that is to lead to the phase-out of coal-fired power production in Germany and therefore helps the country to achieve its climate targets and accelerate its energy transition, better known as the Energiewende. It is also to draft a follow-up plan for mining regions’ economic future. These tasks affect both ministries equally, Schulze argued.

Arne Jungjohann, a senior energy analyst based in Stuttgart, told EURACTIV that the end results of this commission will strongly depend on who is going to lead it and underlined its highly strategic position within the Federal government.

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Schulze received support from SPD environmental politician Carsten Träger, who said that,  because the structural change should be organised and socially compatible, the SPD would also have to be involved in this process. “That means a joint lead by the ministry of the environment and the ministry of economic affairs.”

That would facilitate and accelerate the coal phase-out, Träger added.

Energy minister vs environment minister

Berlin-based non-profit organisation Clean Energy Wire explained that Chancellor Angela Merkel had chosen her close ally and current head of the Chancellery, Peter Altmaier, as the next economy and energy minister.

“This puts a political heavy-hitter in charge of shaping Germany’s Energiewende at a time of crucial decisions and potential conflicts. In the past, Altmaier irked the renewables industry and environmentalists during his short tenure as environment minister. But he also earned respect from all business sectors and across party lines for his deep knowledge of the topic and ability to broker compromises,” the NGO wrote in a fact sheet.

As for Germany’s new environment minister, Svenja Schulze, she is a new face in Chancellor Merkel’s fourth cabinet, Clean Energy Wire specified, adding that “the Social Democrat inherits a range of well-known challenges – from coal emissions to air pollution by diesel cars”.

“The country’s top climate policy official will face the difficult task of pushing her agenda on climate and energy against a group of more powerful Conservative ministers, while an internal re-organisation means her own ministry will have fewer competencies than under the last government. Schulze has shown that she is capable of achieving her goals, but climate activists say she has to prove where her loyalties lie,” Clean Energy Wire wrote.

Angela Merkel was sworn in for a fourth term as German chancellor on 14 March, after the longest period of coalition-building in post-war Germany  –  nearly six months since the election.

The new government stated in its coalition agreement that it wants to continue the Energiewende in a “clean, secure and affordable manner” and make sure Germany remains a pioneer in climate protection.

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