Can Angela Merkel, the So-Called “Climate Chancellor,” Hold Germany to Its Greenhouse Targets?

On Sunday, September 24, Germany finalized voting in its 2017 federal elections. Citizens were able to vote by mail ahead of Sunday’s election or they could chose to efficiently breeze through a voting center, make a physical “X” next to, first, the local direct candidate of their choice. And then make a second mark next to their preferred party, of which this year there were six main choices—though many other candidates and parties shared the ballot.

Unlike U.S. elections, Germans don’t face long lines and don’t have to confront messy, confusing ballots where they are also asked to make myriad conflicting decisions on state and local issues, county clerks, or sheriffs. And despite voting only on paper, German media and election officials were able to safely project winners within a few percentage points. Presumably paper ballots also helped reduce Russian influences and potential hacking. Additionally, almost 80% of eligible voters voted. (Note, in an effort at full disclosure, this author also voted in the German Federal elections for the first time.)

Merkel Remains in Power

Though results were more or less known a few hours after polls closed at 6 p.m., final tallies weren’t determined until Monday morning. Though its clear that current Chancellor Angela Merkel and her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party, winning 33% of the vote, will be able to lead the next government, what the make up of the final governing coalition will be remains a lot more complicated.

The government is led by a chancellor who is elected out of Germany’s Parliament, or Bundestag. The general election determines both the size and membership of the new Parliament. Since no party received a clear majority, the CDU is seeking to form a coalition government with two relatively unlikely partners, the free-market Free Democratic Party (FDP) and the liberal Greens.

Dubbed the “Jamaica Coalition” because the colors of the parties involved match the colors of the Jamaican flag, virtually all observers predict that talks for Germany’s first three-party-government are likely to become difficult, taking weeks or even months. While the CDU lost ground in this election, both of its smaller coalition parties gained votes, with the Greens reaching 8.9% and the FDP garnering 10.7%.

Merkel has so far served three terms and will almost certainly serve out a fourth. Known in many circles as the “Climate Chancellor,” she has strongly embraced the Paris climate treaty and has been a driving force internationally in getting other nations to back it and similar initiatives.

Its clear she maintains a strong disdain for President Trump. However, while advancing the Energiewende and the decision to phase out nuclear power under her watch, Germany, mainly because of its continued reliance on both lignite and hard coal for power generation, is in serious danger of missing its own targeted CO2 emissions cuts of 40% compared to 1990 by 2020. Indeed, by the end of last year, it had only reduced 28% with emissions actually starting to climb. However, in a clear nod to environmental voters just days before the election, Chancellor Merkel promised that her government “will find ways to meet our target” in the future.

Despite this, the Energiewende and energy policy in general—outside of the continuing fallout from “Dieselgate” and a looming push to switch towards electric vehicles in the near future—has really not been a part of this year’s campaign cycle. Instead, most of the focus continued to be on refugees, social and international security, and education. Though each party does have a policy around both the Energiewende and the future of coal, only the Left (Die Linke, who despite also winning 9.2% of the vote, were not asked to join a coalition) and the Green Parties have set a clear date to phase it out or put forth a succinct plan for how to handle the imbroglio.

Prior to the election, the government was made up of a Grand Coalition between the two most popular parties, the center right CDU and the center left Social Democratic Party (SPD). But this year’s biggest losers were the SPD, dropping down to only 20.5% of the vote, its worst showing since World War II.

Immediately after the polls closed, the SPD announced that it was ending the Grand Coalition and would instead take on the role of leading the opposition. This is crucial as the biggest winner in this year’s election was the far right Alternative for Germany (AFD), which received 12.6% of the vote. However, with the SPD’s announcement, it has blocked the AFD’s hope of taking any leadership role at all. Indeed, all parties, including the CDU, have stated unequivocally that they will not work with the AFD in any capacity, meaning that, although the AFD will be present in government, it will likely have very little influence.

Agreeing on the Problem, Falling Out over the Solution

While all of Germany’s major parties do agree that human-fueled climate change is happening and a major push needs to be made to take gas emissions to zero, the central question is when. In terms of energy policy, this really revolves around Germany’s continuing coal dependence and the need for a coal phase-out like the UK and other countries are doing. This is where the main differences lie between the parties in the Jamaica Coalition.

“The Greens say by 2030, while CDU says it has to happen but don’t really say when,” said Niklas Höhne, a founding partner of NewClimate Institute, and special professor of mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions at Wageningen University, Netherlands, in an interview with Deutsche Welle. While the Greens will likely push to implement a phase-out, the FDP wants “to reshape the whole environmental policy toward less regulation. They want to get rid of the support for renewable energy that has been so successful in Germany over the past decades. And they don’t want Germany to do more than Europe as a whole.”

However, its clear that a new Jamaica government will have to try to write a coal exit into their coalition agreement, otherwise the climate targets will not be reached and the Greens will have to answer to its own base. During the post election discussions broadcast nationally last night, Clean Energy Wire (CLEW) reported that prominent Green politician Winfried Kretschmann, who serves as prime minister in the federal state of Baden-Württemberg, said it was important not to draw red lines before talks had even started, stressing that “certain things are particularly important” for the party. Among these is “a quick end of coal-fired power production,” Kretschmann said.

However, with the FDP, “the chancellor will have a possible partner, who has lambasted as evil, state control sector targets in climate policy such as closing down many lignite-fired power plants. They also oppose clear targets for a transport transition. The Greens can’t—after what they promised in their campaign—simply enter into a coalition that doesn’t tackle the coal phase-out and a transition in the heating sector. After what Angela Merkel said during her campaign, she now has to quickly shut down a large number of lignite power plants and boost building insulation,” said Christoph Bals, policy director at Germanwatch.

Indeed, the “Jamaica coalition talks will provide complex dynamics across different policy fields, including energy and climate. Merkel will have to square the circle between the FDPs ‘reasonable’ energy policy and the Greens’ demand to shut down the 20 dirtiest coal power plants. It will be difficult, but not impossible,” said Arne Jungjohann, senior energy analyst and a consultant for the German Green Party in a post election interview with CLEW.

Projected number of Parliament seats by party affiliation:

  • CDU/CSU – 246
  • SPD – 153
  • AFD – 94
  • FDP – 80
  • Die Linke – 69
  • Greens – 67
  • Other parties – 0

Lee Buchsbaum (www.lmbphotography.com), a former editor and contributor to Coal Age, Mining, and EnergyBiz, has covered coal and other industrial subjects for nearly 20 years and is a seasoned industrial photographer.