Many paths to carbon neutrality: Who are the contenders for Merkel’s successor?

Three contenders are vying to succeed Angela Merkel as German chancellor in the most unexpected federal election in decades, which will determine Europe’s largest economy’s next steps toward carbon neutrality. Following a recent shift in public opinion, Social Democrat Olaf Scholz has surpassed Merkel’s conservative bloc’s Armin Laschet and the Green Party’s Annalena Baerbock to become the new favorite to follow in Merkel’s footsteps following the national elections on September 26. Climate and energy policy is a major campaign topic, since climate change has been a major concern for Germans even throughout the epidemic. All three candidates have pledged to make the country carbon-neutral by 2045, but they have different plans for how to get there.

On September 26, Germans will go to the polls to elect their next government and a successor to Angela Merkel, who will leave the Chancellery after 16 years in power. The country has firmly set sails for carbon neutrality by 2045, and the next leader will be required to pursue that legally mandated target – but the election outcome might be important for the speed with which the energy transformation takes place this decade.

Because the three candidates’ parties, Armin Laschet’s and Merkel’s conservative CDU/CSU bloc, Olaf Scholz’ Social Democrats (SPD), and Annalena Baerbock’s Green Party, are neck-and-neck in opinion polls, the election is being dubbed the “most volatile and unpredictable federal election in recent memory.”

Because no one party wins an absolute majority in elections, Germany is usually ruled by coalitions — it is presently headed by a conservative-SPD partnership. However, polls show that the country will see its first federal government coalition of three political camps since the 1950s, since none of the three major parties has been able to establish a clear lead.

As a result, voters are confronted with a bewildering assortment of prospective alliances. Many Germans are still undecided, adding to the ambiguity. A three-way coalition also implies protracted and difficult discussions that might take months before a new administration is formed. Until then, the existing administration will continue to serve as a caretaker government. Germans elect their parliament, which subsequently selects the chancellor once a coalition agreement is reached.

Despite the unpredictable nature of this election, the Merkel government’s approach to combating climate change and other concerns is unlikely to be significantly altered. This is because, under Germany’s consensus-based political system, all major parties promote policies that are quite similar to those of many other nations. Merkel’s popularity suggests that most people want style and content to remain consistent.

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Following unusually disastrous floods, heatwaves, and droughts in Germany, which were largely blamed on rising temperatures and sparked enormous climate protests spearheaded by the Fridays for Future movement, German voters are more concerned about climate change.

All three candidates claim they are dedicated to achieving the stated government goal of making the country climate-neutral by 2045. Nonetheless, the outcome of the election will influence the pace and breadth of climate policy as well as the country’s historic energy transformation in the coming years, since a deeper examination of the contenders reveals substantial variations in approach.


Olaf Scholz is a member of the Social Democratic Party (SPD)

On the last stretch of the election campaign, German finance minister and vice chancellor Scholz has emerged as the obvious favorite to succeed Angela Merkel. Scholz would receive more than 40% of the vote if Germans could directly pick the country’s next chancellor, compared to less than 20% for the conservatives’ Laschet and the Greens’ Baerbock.

Many people feel Scholz, 63, best exemplifies Merkel’s treasured values of prudence and stability, having served as employment minister in a previous Merkel administration. The former mayor of Hamburg, Germany’s second largest city, is known for being robotic and uncharismatic, earning him the disparaging moniker “Scholz-o-mat.” Most voters, however, credit him with a strong track record as finance minister, where he oversaw Germany’s massive funding package to aid businesses and workers during the pandemic, as well as the implementation of a sustainable finance strategy to better align this important sector with overall climate policy.

Scholz hasn’t made a name for himself in terms of energy and climate policy, but he promised a “immediate fresh start” after the elections and called for a focus on renewables expansion, including a new law to ensure industry has enough renewable electricity to decarbonize over the next few decades. “As chancellor, I will guarantee we pick up pace in the first year,” Scholz said last month, adding that he intends to speed up wind turbine and other investment clearance procedures.

Climate change is also a big element of his party’s electoral platform, which calls it the “task of the century.” The SPD has stated that it will support contentious climate action measures such as a general speed restriction on German highways, which has been opposed by most lawmakers and has been advocated mostly by the Green Party. The SPD does not exclude out moving Germany’s coal phase-out date from 2038 to a year earlier. It emphasizes the importance of socially fair climate protection policies that simultaneously benefit the economy. “Climate protection is an industrial project for the SPD, not a re-education course,” Scholz stated, implying that voters will not be required to make significant behavioral changes.

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Scholz’s actual climate views, though, are questioned by environmentalists. He has consistently put industry interests above environmental concerns, suggesting that Germany should adhere to its present coal-phasing timeline rather than publicly advocating for a speedier exit – though he later softened his stance, underlining that 2038 would clearly be the earliest practicable date. “We’ve reached clear agreements that are vital for the businesses, the employees, and the area as a whole. And these agreements are in effect and should be adhered to “Scholz declared this during a campaign visit in the coal-mining area of East Germany. Climate experts estimate that Germany will need to phase out coal by 2030 at the earliest to meet its climate goals.

Scholz also turned down the Green Party’s request to raise the price of CO2 emissions from transportation more quickly than currently anticipated in order to safeguard the environment. “Those who continue to turn the gasoline price screw show how little they care about residents’ necessities,” Scholz added.

Conservatives (CDU/CSU) Armin Laschet

Laschet began as Merkel’s heir apparent, but his party has lost ground in the polls as a result of a lobbying scandal involving many MPs, allegations of mishandling the coronavirus epidemic, and Laschet’s poor response to the catastrophic floods in July.

The 60-year-old premier of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populated federal state and the historic center of industry and coal mining, is viewed as a Merkel supporter who also represents Merkel’s moderate approach.

Laschet, on the other hand, fails to inspire his party’s supporters. He confronts a dual challenge: retaining former Merkel supporters while also resolving an internal power struggle over the conservatives’ party identity. Friedrich Merz, a conservative CDU hardliner who challenged him for party leader, and Markus Söder, Bavarian state premier for the sister party CSU, who only reluctantly supported Laschet’s candidacy after losing out in the conservative alliance’s contest for the top candidate, had preceded his bid for chancellor by infighting with his CDU/CSU rivals Friedrich Merz, a conservative CDU hardliner who challenged him for party leader, and Markus Söder, Bav

Despite his support for Germany’s planned transition to a hydrogen-based economy, Laschet’s climate policy reputation is dominated by pro-industry positioning in the country’s coal exit negotiations, as well as his regional government’s heavy-handed eviction of a camp of environmental activists opposing a coal mine expansion, which was carried out under a false pretext and violated the law, according to a recent court ruling.

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Laschet, who has used his father’s employment as a coal miner to emphasize his working-class roots and reliability, has also been chastised for his large salary payments to coal firms and his support for a recently completed coal plant. He has warned against “excessive” climate action that would frighten industrial businesses away with high electricity prices and stringent regulation, limiting Germany’s economic prospects.

Green Party’s Annalena Baerbock

Baerbock is her party’s first-ever candidate for chancellorship, but the Greens have slipped behind Scholz’s Social Democrats and Laschet’s conservatives following a brief surge in voter support that saw them briefly lead in the polls earlier this year. Baerbock apologized for blunders that contributed to her party’s decline in popularity: she had to modify her public curriculum vitae many times and had neglected to explicitly reveal certain payments from her party while serving as its head.

Even if they do not win the elections, surveys show that the Greens will almost certainly be a member of Germany’s next administration. Between 1998 to 2005, the party transitioned from radicalism to centrism, and it was a member of a federal government.

Baerbock is a 40-year-old professional politician known for his caution and dedication, although he has no prior experience in administration. She earned notoriety during Germany’s coal departure discussions as a climate specialist and member of parliament for the eastern German coal state of Brandenburg. She is frequently regarded as “media-savvy and charming,” in contrast to her opponents.

Baerbock, the only female contender to follow Merkel, stated in her nomination speech that she wants to make climate action “the benchmark for all sectors” in order to meet the Paris Agreement’s goals. “Action on climate change is a challenge for our time, a task for my generation.”

Among the main parties, the Greens’ electoral platform on climate change is the most aggressive. It asks for a transition to 100 percent renewable energy by 2035, a coal phase-out by 2030, and a prohibition on the sale of new CO2-emitting automobiles by that year. The Greens have also suggested a climate ministry that would have veto power over other ministries.

The Greens, on the other hand, are accused by Germany’s climate movement, which includes the student protest movement Fridays for Future, of not doing enough to meet the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.