Germany must stay the course on climate change

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

Lord Deben (John Gummer). [PRASEG/Flickr] [Gummer]

German Chancellor Angela Merkel must stay firm in the face of those in her country who are challenging the consensus over climate change and transition to low carbon energy, writes Lord Deben (John Gummer).

Mrs. Merkel must not weaken the 2020 climate target, as some demand, because it would destroy her legacy from the Kyoto Protocol, and damage the chances of a global climate agreement in Paris next year. 

Lord Deben (John Gummer) is a Conservative member of the United Kingdom House of Lords, chairman of the Committee on Climate Change, the statutory advisory body to the UK government, and a former UK Environment Secretary.

It is hard to overstate the importance of Germany’s consistent commitment to tackling climate change.

As Europe’s most populous nation, its biggest economy and its biggest investor in clean energy, Germany sets the tone for action on the wider European stage, and hence on the world stage.

Would China have made its recent game-changing announcement to peak greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 if Europe were reneging on its commitments? No.

Would Europe maintain its world-leading position if Germany faltered? Again, no.

For entirely understandable reasons, the idea of European and world leadership does not always sit easily in German hearts. But on climate change, it is a reality.

Making a new global climate pact that will genuinely turn the tide of rising emissions is undoubtedly the hardest task facing governments across the world.

But a golden opportunity is now before us. In just over a year’s time, ministers will meet in Paris to seal such a pact. We cannot miss this chance.

At this critical moment in history, therefore, it is absolutely vital that Germany stays the course and maintains its commitment to cutting its own emissions in 2020 and beyond.

Two remarkable women

During my political career I have been fortunate enough to work with the two most remarkable female politicians of our time.

Under Margaret Thatcher, I served as minister for agriculture and food. Later, as UK Environment Secretary, I worked closely with Angela Merkel to secure the Kyoto Protocol, the first international agreement to reduce carbon emissions.

The two leaders share several traits. As scientists, both understood the realities of climate change and the logic of acting upon that information. As strong women, they showed a consistency that many of their male counterparts did not. As patriots, both wanted what was good for their countries.

Mrs. Thatcher was the first leader of a major nation to call for a United Nations treaty on climate change. Mrs. Merkel played a major role in turning the treaty into something that would actually reduce emissions.

The politics of Kyoto were as difficult as can be. Major countries such as the US were ambivalent about the wisdom of reducing their emissions. The divide between developed and developing worlds was much starker than it is now.

The situation demanded consistency, commitment, understanding and leadership. Mrs. Merkel was among the politicians who showed exactly these qualities.

As a result, we have the Kyoto Protocol, an impressive and influential step towards the eventual goal of a universal treaty constraining greenhouse gas emissions. And next year, in Paris, governments have the chance to finish the job.

No place for special pleading

Germany, like other European nations, has overwhelmingly accepted the scientific evidence on climate change and the economic evidence in favour of the low-carbon transition.

But in both the UK and Germany, the consensus is now being challenged.

In the UK, the main challenge to evidence-based policy comes from the political far right and is framed around austerity and climate scepticism. In Germany, it is from the left and from utilities whose business model is under threat, couched in the argument that Germany should not reduce coal-fired generation.

In both countries, the outcomes are the same: arguments for delay, and special pleading.

What German citizens and politicians may not realise is that German politics on climate and energy is held in high regard outside the nation because of its consistency and long-term vision.

With the Energiewende, Germany has chosen a policy that is entirely adequate for reducing emissions, and that reflects the will of the people. When tackling climate change and developing renewable energy command overwhelming public support, but nuclear and CCS do not, the Energiewende is actually a victory for democracy as well as for the climate.

In the end, it will also be a victory for German industry and German citizens. Costs of energy will fall; innovation will reap rewards to German companies; dependence on imported fossil fuels will be virtually eliminated.

And the consistency of policy keeps the cost of the Energiewende down, because investors react well to consistent policy.

Temporary fix?

The cheapness of coal compared with gas has now led to a crunch point. With so much coal-fired generation in the mix, meeting the target of reducing emissions by 40% by 2020 will, as things stand, be missed.

So the choice now before the government is whether to regulate coal-fired generation or to weaken the 2020 target.

Choosing the coal option would mean giving into special pleading. It would win votes in certain regions – but only for a time. The Energiewende means that coal mines will have to close at some point, as they did in the UK under Mrs Thatcher. Germany’s prosperity and foresight means that the transition, for miners and their families, can be sensitively managed.

By contrast, choosing to weaken the climate target would lower the credibility of Germany in the outside world. It would be seen as weak leadership, reducing the confidence of business, and – critically – destabilising the global agreement that is founded on Mrs Merkel’s Kyoto legacy and which is now in the process of being built.

The stakes could not be higher. If there is no global agreement in Paris next year, the chance may not come again, at least in my lifetime. We will have condemned our children to struggle with the effects of catastrophic climate change, simply because we didn’t take the action we knew was necessary and right. That must not happen. For herself and for the world, Germany must stay the course.

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