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Climate activists have transformed German politics

This is Merkel’s last chance to show she’s the climate chancellor. But her record isn’t good enough

Adam Ramsay
Adam Ramsay
14 October 2021, 10.31am
Flooding caused devastation across Germany in July 2021
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Harald Tittel/dpa/Alamy Live News

Two days before the recent German election, crowds gathered in cities across the country, demanding serious action on climate change. After catastrophic floods this summer, and protests from school climate strikers and anti-coal activists in recent years, climate breakdown overtook COVID as the issue of most concern to German voters, according to pollsters tracking attitudes in the run-up to the vote.

Earlier this year, Germany’s constitutional court found that the country’s climate targets weren’t ambitious enough, forcing Angela Merkel’s government to adopt stricter climate targets for 2030, and neutrality by 2045. The case, brought by young climate activists, is just one way that the Fridays for the Future movement, and those around it, have transformed German politics.

As one journalist covering the election told me, you used to have to look hard for discussion of climate policy in Germany. This time, it was a central feature of almost every party’s manifesto and a keystone in the press coverage of the vote.

The question of what impact that will have on the carbon cycle is being discussed as I write.

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For decades, much of the country has been powered by lignite, dirty brown coal that the Ende Gelaende civil disobedience movement has long mobilised against. In the current coalition negotiations between the Social Democrats, the Greens and the Free Democrats, the question isn’t whether these power stations and the mines that come with them should close. The issue will be how, and how fast. Will it be required by the state, or left to the market forces of the EU’s emissions-trading scheme? Will a final closure date of 2038 remain, or will it be brought sooner?

That this has become a significant political issue is a powerful demonstration of how social movements can shift the very ground on which political battles are fought. Merkel herself has admitted that school strikers have forced her to be much more ambitious.

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The negotiations over the next government are likely to last at least until the end of the year, meaning Merkel will remain Germany’s leader through the Glasgow talks, and is likely to use the conference as a last chance to present herself as ‘the climate chancellor’.

At the conference, Germany will negotiate as part of the EU block, which has struggled to agree on a position in recent weeks. While wealthier western European countries tend to want carbon-reduction targets to apply within five years, poorer states in eastern Europe prefer ten-year targets. Announcing the conclusions of internal EU negotiations last week, the Council of Ministers produced a classic fudge: “The council expresses, with a view to reaching consensus in Glasgow, its preference for a common time frame of five years”.

The difference between five and ten years might not seem much. But it’s important to remember that greenhouse gases going in the atmosphere are more like a bath than a shower: it’s the total volume that matters, and all of the physical evidence is that the bath is about to overflow. The best evidence is that, if the world continues to emit at its current rate for the next eight years, then it’s likely that warming will pass the 1.5°C that we must stay below.

In this context, it’s likely that Merkel will try to portray herself one final time as the tough leader forcing the EU into a consensus. Her problem, though, is that the German example is far from perfect. As I explained last week, Germans are sitting on higher per-capita historic emissions than any other country on earth apart from the US and UK.

The country has seen an impressive surge in renewable energy: in 2003, wind, solar and hydropower were responsible for 17GW of Germany’s power. Last year, it was 120GW. But this has largely been on top of, rather than instead of, its coal consumption: in 2003, coal was responsible for 49GW. In 2020, that was 44GW. It’s a bit like Germany has attempted to go on a diet, not by giving up burgers, but by also ordering a salad on the side: total energy production has almost doubled in that time.

And in recent years, German manufacturers have been actively outsourcing many of their emissions to the very countries that are now reluctant to cut them, with, for example, factories of the major German car companies a common sight – and a significant set of employers – across Hungary.

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The German target to achieve net-carbon neutrality by 2045 is one of the best in the world, but it also isn’t really enough: that’s when scientists estimate that the world needs to get to net zero. But Europe’s biggest economy has – like Britain and the US – used up more than its fair share of carbon wealth already, and if it keeps burning until the last minute, it creates no space for less developed countries to catch up.

The recent elections were the best ever for Germany’s Green party, which got 15%, while polls earlier in the year showed the party doing even better and, for one brief moment, leading. The coalition negotiations are very likely to produce a government that includes both Greens and Social Democrats, the latter of which know that their final victory came from luring their historic voters back from the brink of voting Green. This government won’t just lead Germany for the next four years. It will, in reality, be leading the EU into the decade in which a radical reduction of carbon emissions must happen.

If it succeeds in doing so, it will be because of the political pressure skillfully generated by a new generation of climate activists, who have refused to let their future be boiled away.

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