Climate policy has never played such a significant role in German history as it will in 2021. Even after one and a half years of a tumultuous epidemic, many voters plan to base their decisions on realistic climate policy. The backdrop of a very volatile election situation includes deadly floods highlighting the dangers of global warming in the middle of the election campaign, continuous climate protests, and rising pressure from industry to settle on a firm policy. Long-term chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative party has seen a historic loss in popularity, while the Greens have substantially extended their influence — only to relinquish the major competitor’s position to the Social Democrats. Whatever the outcome of the election, the country might face months of coalition negotiations. And that’s where the real challenges for climate policy begin.
Angela Merkel’s sixteen years as Germany’s chancellor will come to an end on September 26th when the country goes to the polls. The anticipated retirement of the European Union’s longest-serving leader has raised fears about the power vacuum that the crisis-tested Merkel may leave in international diplomacy. The departure of the still popular conservative leader has also resulted in an unusual scenario in German politics: an acting chancellor will not seek re-election. This set the stage for a head-to-head battle between three distinct parties and their chancellor candidates, which was a historic first. The Green Party established itself as a third main force, ending almost 70 years of bipartisan domination by the conservative CDU/CSU alliance and the Social Democrats (SPD), a shift in the balance of power that might lead to the country’s first tripartite governing coalition since the 1950s.
The Greens’ increase in popularity has been fueled by rapidly rising concerns about the impact of climate change and the country’s reaction to it, which has emerged as a yardstick for many voters’ election choices despite one and a half years of a very worrying epidemic. Weather extremes have increased in frequency and intensity in Germany, as well as the rest of the globe, since the previous election in 2017. Droughts in 2018 and 2019 sparked massive demonstrations organized by the Fridays for Future movement, which drew hundreds of thousands of people to the streets, particularly the youth. The deadly floods that devastated huge areas of western central Europe in July, killing over 200 people in Germany alone and mainly linked to global warming, refocused attention on climate change and assured that it topped voters’ concerns.
As a result, environmental groups, scholars, and media pundits have dubbed the 2021 election a “climate election.” As the campaign enters its last week, sociologist Bernd Sommer, whose research at the University of Flensburg focuses on the societal reception of climate policy, believes the name is still appropriate. This, according to Sommer, is attributable to two factors: He told Clean Energy Wire, “First, it’s evident that climate change and other environmental problems have substantially increased in importance for voters in recent years.” “Of course, this does not imply that everyone’s vote will be influenced by it. Parties, on the other hand, had to accept that many people take climate policy into account when voting.”
Climate demonstrations sparked a flurry of proposals in the governing combination of the CDU/CSU and the SPD, which were accompanied by tougher EU climate objectives. Measures that supporters of more stringent emissions reductions had been advocating for years, such as a climate action law, unwavering support for electric vehicles, national carbon pricing, or setting a date for the end of coal power, were announced just before the coronavirus crisis threw the political agenda into disarray. However, the package failed to persuade climate scientists and campaigners, and a landmark court judgment in April compelled the government to step up its efforts and push the deadline for total climate neutrality ahead by five years, to 2045.
The 2030 climate objective is already slipping away, and no one has a solution
However, a government draft report released just before the election found that the country is far from meeting this goal, and that if no additional action is taken, the country will miss its tightened 2030 emissions reduction target by a wide margin, adding a final blemish to Merkel’s mixed climate legacy. This, according to researcher Sommer, is where the ‘climate election’ takes on a second dimension. “This has less to do with voters and more to do with climate change physics.” The new administration will likely determine if Germany can still meet its agreed-upon commitment to reducing global warming in accordance with the Paris Climate Agreement.”
Conditions for a new government to succeed in this endeavor are far from perfect, with emissions rising at their highest rate in decades in 2021 following the economic slowdown induced by the coronavirus. To make matters worse, according to a German Institute for Economic Research (DIW) analysis of party election programs published in early September, none of them – including the Greens – have a coherent plan to ensure the country meets its own emissions reduction targets, with slow renewable energy expansion and too low carbon prices being major roadblocks.
This leaves only one conclusion for think tank Agora Energiewende: “The new administration must implement the most aggressive climate action program Germany has ever seen within the first 100 days.” Only if action is done at the start of the next parliamentary session – and if investments in clean technology and other measures are tripled in the long run – will the new climate objectives be met. “Whoever forms the next administration will have to begin a wave of investments – or risk failing to meet the objectives,” said Patrick Graichen, CEO of Agora Energiewende.