The Green Brief: Merkel’s climate ‘realpolitik’ legacy

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Angela Merkel began her political career at the German federal level as environment minister. “Global warming is, in my opinion, one of the most important environmental topics,” she said in a 1995 interview with Deutsche Welle.

Following her rise to power in 2005 as the youngest and first female chancellor in history, Merkel was dubbed the “climate chancellor” after she prioritised global warming during Germany’s G8 and EU presidency in 2007.

As EURACTIV reported back then, Merkel got European leaders to support an EU-wide goal of slashing emissions by 20% relative to 1990 levels. At the time, EU countries were already squabbling over the role of nuclear power, which Germany was legally obliged to phase out as part of its famous “Energiewende”.

The Energiewende was not brought about by Merkel, but by Germany’s previous government of social democrats and Greens. The then revolutionary feed-in tariffs to boost renewable electricity expansion had been put in place by her predecessors more than five years before.

As Merkel morphed into a “crisis chancellor” after the 2008 financial crisis and the subsequent eurozone crisis, climate change was knocked down on her priority list. 

Her climate track-record has since been marred by her heavy-handed intervention to delay EU rules for cleaner cars until after the German elections in 2013. The Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline was also given the green light under her watch.

In fact, many observers say that kicking the can down the road became the signature of her 16-year tenure as chancellor.

The decade following her 2007 election victory has been called a wasted decade for climate action: Germany’s once flourishing, world-leading wind energy industry was undermined by domestic opposition leading many to wonder where the Energiewende was going.

Despite all that, Germany has managed to expand renewable energy production from 5GW in 2005 to 130GW today.

Things really came to a head with the rise of the Fridays for Future movement in Germany.  Whether Merkel was pressured to push for further climate action by the movement or finally saw a turn in the political winds allowing for more ambitious climate action is a question historians will have to answer.

What can be said about the German climate protection law from 2019 is that it was initially pushed against all odds by the environment ministry. Merkel’s successor more than 25 years after her tenure did what the chancellor would not.

Merkel only gave her approval later, paving the way for the law which envisioned cutting emissions by 55% in 2030, which made a phase out of coal power necessary.

The negotiations over the date of Germany’s coal exit were the final stains on Merkel’s green legacy. Her government went against the recommendations of the expert group and German politicians finally agreed a 2038 coal exit date, much later than necessary to comply with the Paris Agreement.

Merkel’s climate law was subsequently ruled illegal by the country’s top constitutional court in a historic first. The government was forced to change the law and ended up increasing the country’s climate goal, from -55% to -65% emissions reduction.

To be sure, unforeseen events and realpolitik have sanded down the conviction of Germany’s climate chancellor. What Merkel leaves behind is a country that has barely started its green transformation. Germany only hit its 2020 climate targets due to the lockdown imposed in reaction to the coronavirus outbreak. A similar stroke of luck is unlikely to happen with the 2030 climate goals.

– Nikolaus J. Kurmayer

 

Top stories

 

This week’s stories

 

News from the capitals

ROME. Italians faced with 40% hike in electricity bills. Ecological transition Minister Roberto Cingolani warned Italians that they should brace for a 40% increase in their electricity and gas bills in the next couple of months. Speaking at a conference in Genova, Cingolani said “the government is committed to mitigating the costs of bills, to ensure that the international transition to more sustainable energies is rapid and does not penalise families”. Read more.

WARSAW. Poland free of Gazprom gas. On the eve of inaugurating the new Nord Stream 2 pipeline from Russia to Germany under the Baltic Sea, the Polish plenipotentiary for energy infrastructure, Piotr Naimski, has confirmed that Poland will become independent of the Russian gas supplies from 2023.

Naimski was hopeful about the prospects for the Baltic Pipe gas pipeline to be fully operational as of 1 October 2022. “We will not extend the contract with the Russian Gazprom”, he added at a press conference. Read more.

Czech-Polish negotiations over Turów mine hit stalemate. Negotiations between Czechia and Poland over mining in the Turów coal mine have now come to a stalemate, which Czech environmental organisations say is being caused by Poland’s unwillingness to solve the dispute and the passiveness of EU institutions. Read more.

ZAGREB. Facing an increase in electricity prices, businesses should be assisted with significant grants from EU funds for renewable energy sources, so that companies can start building solar panels, the Voice of Entrepreneurs (UGP) association has said. Read more.

HELSINKI. Finnish government survives internal row over emissions slashing plan. A compromise was finally reached Thursday after the Greens and the Centre Party – who are part of the five-party government and have a strong affiliation to the agriculture sector – could not agree on how to finance the country’s path towards carbon neutrality in time for 2035, which put the government at the brink of yet another crisis. Read more.

 

News in brief

Environment committee wins key climate files. The European Parliament’s environment committee has won the top negotiating position for seven pieces of climate legislation, EURACTIV has learnt.

That is potentially good news for the climate because, as the name suggests, the committee has a certain green bent. It also contains some big hitters, like the French committee chair Pascal Canfin and German MEP Peter Liese. Canfin is likely to be swinging for the French government as he comes from the ruling party. Liese, too, comes from the ruling party in Germany – although whether the CDU will keep hold of their power in the upcoming elections is yet to be seen.

Liese’s group in the EU Parliament – the European People’s Party – will take the lead negotiating position on four files: the revision of the European emissions trading scheme, including the controversial extension to road transport and buildings, as well as aviation (CORSIA), the climate social fund and the effort sharing regulation proposal, he told EURACTIV.

The socialist S&D will take care of the newly proposed carbon border adjustment mechanism while the Greens will deal with forestry and offsets under the LULUCF regulation. And the centrist Renew Europe will take the lead role in negotiating the CO2 emission performance standards for new passenger cars proposal.

Other files, including the renewable energy directive, energy efficiency directive and forest strategy are likely to be dealt with by other committees, like the industry, research and energy committee (ITRE) and the agriculture committee.

But the European Parliament has no timeline for completing the files, according to Green MEP Michael Bloss, who warned the negotiation process could take at least two years. Instead, he recommended that EU institutions focus on fast tracking certain elements, like the renewable energy directive and the energy efficiency directive, he said. (Kira Taylor | EURACTIV.com and Nikolaus J. Kurmayer | EURACTIV.de)

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Centre-right EPP muscles in on climate legislation by spending big. The European People’s Party (EPP) knows as well as anyone that being the rapporteur and lead negotiator of a report is a hugely influential position. So it splashed out to buy control.

The European Parliament uses its own kind of currency to hold an internal auction on which group gets to name the lead author of a report (the so-called “Rapporteur”). These points are assigned based on group size at the beginning of a legislative period and don’t renew until the next one.

After kicking out the Hungarian Fidesz party, one assumes that the EPP’s budget is around 180 points, to be used across all policy fields and over five years. But the EPP spent around 20 of those to obtain the rapporteur position for the climate legislation files in the environment committee alone, leading EPP MEP Peter Liese told EURACTIV. 

In other words, they spent 1/9th of their five-year budget on ensuring they will get to shape the Fit for 55 climate package. Spending points like this is impossible without backing from a group’s upper echelons, showing the importance the EPP leadership seems to put on the ETS reform. (Nikolaus J. Kurmayer | EURACTIV.de)

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Parliamentary negotiators reach agreement on role of gas in cross-border infrastructure. After nearly eight hours of negotiation, lawmakers reached an agreement on the draft parliament position on the TEN-E revision – or, for those not steeped in EU energy policy, rules covering investments in cross-border energy infrastructure. Gas has been a stumbling block all along for the file, including for EU ministers, who have already agreed their position.

Negotiations were quite hard with fossil gas the biggest stumbling block, Erik Bergkvist, the S&D negotiator for the file, told EURACTIV. The agreement – yet to be put on paper – will be good for the climate and the energy sector, he added.

“[The S&D’s] most important issue has been to keep TEN-E fossil free. It’s a compromise, but this has been our most important issue and we can stand behind the compromise and we can assess that this is a good compromise for the climate,” he told EURACTIV. The position will be voted on in the energy committee before it goes before the full Parliament. The negotiations on Monday point to there being a large majority for it, Bergkvist said. (Kira Taylor | EURACTIV.com)

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Study reveals climate anxiety in young people. A study of 10,000 young people across 10 countries found that 75% of young people view their future as frightening and 64% feel that governments aren’t doing enough to avoid a climate catastrophe. The research, under review in the scientific journal, Lancet Planetary Health, is the first to look at how perceived government inaction is impacting young people. It also found that young people in the Global South express more worry and a greater impact on their daily life. Read the report here.

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German city announces faster coal phase out. The city of Hannover in Germany has become the latest entity to announce an earlier coal exit date. The municipal utility Enercity will decommission its combined heat and power coal plant in 2026 – more than a decade earlier than Germany’s coal exit date of 2038.

“The closure of Hannover’s Stöcken coal plant underlines once again that Germany’s coal exit is woefully slow and out of step with reality,” said Fabian Hübner, Europe Beyond Coal Germany campaigner. “When the new German government takes over, its first responsibility should be to bring forward the national coal phase-out to 2030, restore Germany’s reputation on climate action, and give certainty to communities and municipalities.”

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European Commission approves Greek measures to increase competition in electricity market. Under EU antitrust rules, the European executive has made measures proposed by Greece to allow competitors of the state-owned electricity incumbent to purchase more electricity on a longer-term basis legally binding. It follows the European Commission and Union courts finding inequality of opportunity in Greek electricity markets. More information here.

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UK ‘ditched’ climate pledge to secure Australia trade deal: Greenpeace. Greenpeace has accused the British government of lying to the public after leaked emails seen by the environmental group appeared to show backtracking on climate commitments to secure a trade deal with Australia. In the correspondence, Greenpeace UK on Wednesday (8 September) said senior ministers Liz Truss, David Frost and Kwasi Kwarteng “are named as agreeing to ditch references to the temperature commitments in the Paris Agreement on climate in order to get the Australian trade deal ‘over the line’.”

In response, the government insisted it “will not sign trade deals that compromise our high environmental protections”. Prime Minister Boris Johnson wrote to environmental NGOs promising that any deal with Australia would “include a chapter on trade and environment which not only reaffirms commitments to multilateral environmental agreements, including the Paris Agreement, but also commits both parties to collaborate on climate and environmental issues.”

But Greenpeace said “details from the leaked email demonstrate that what Boris Johnson wrote in that letter was a lie”. “The reality of the government’s plans to bulldoze over the Paris Agreement temperature commitments… completely undermines trust in the government as host of the upcoming UN climate summit, COP26,” it added. (AFP) 

 

Opinions

 

Upcoming events

21 SEPTEMBER. Fit for 55 on all fronts? Can Europe lead innovation in green maritime? Join Maria Spyraki, member of the energy committee in the European Parliament, Christophe Tytgat, Secretary General, Sea Europe, and Ukko Metsola, Director-General, Cruise Lines International Association Europe to discuss how the EU can decarbonise the maritime sector, and lead in green maritime innovation. Programme and registration here. (Supported by Cruise Lines International Association)

29 SEPTEMBER. Is green hydrogen really carbon neutral? As the EU moves away from its dependency on fossil fuel, hydrogen is expected to play a key role in our future energy systems. Join the debate to discuss how. Programme and registration here. (Supported by Environmental Defense Fund)

30 SEPTEMBER. COP 26 – can renewed political will result in concrete actions? With a month to go until the big climate summit, join Jytte Guteland from the European Parliament’s environment committee, María Mendiluce CEO of We Mean Business, Simone Tagliapietra, senior fellow Bruegel and more to discuss what solutions are needed to reach global decarbonisation. Programme and registration here. (Supported by Iberdrola)

 

On our radar

15 SEPTEMBER: State of the Union speech. We’ll be keeping an eye out for any nuggets of information on energy and environment policy during President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen’s speech as she opens the next plenary in the European Parliament.

21-23 SEPTEMBER: Informal meeting of transport and energy ministers. The ‘Fit for 55’ package will no doubt feature prominently during the meeting.

14 DECEMBER: Fit for 55 – part 2. Following the publication of its huge package of climate proposals in July, the European Commission is expected to table more energy-related files, including regulations on natural gas, and proposals on the circular economy.

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