Climate Chancellor?

How green is Angela Merkel?

The chancellor has fought for international climate agreements but critics say she has let industry profits win out at home. What will another four years of Merkel mean for Germany's battle against carbon emissions?

Deutschland | CeBIT 2012 (picture-alliance/dpa/F. Gentsch)

The German elections are just around the corner and polls suggest Angela Merkel will secure a fourth term as chancellor. But what does that mean for the country's push to go green and fight global warming?

Merkel has been dubbed the "Climate Chancellor" for her high-profile efforts to push for international climate agreements. Yet analysts fear her tendency to compromise climate principals in favor of industry profits could mean another four years of Merkel doesn't bode well for German efforts to reduce its own emissions.

"We have much to thank Ms. Merkel for when it comes to international climate protection," says Christoph Bals, climate expert at the environmental and development organization Germanwatch.

"She was a key player at the first climate conference in Berlin in 1995, when she was still Germany's environment minister."

Angela Merkel greets Volkswagen boss Martin Winterkorn (AFP/Getty Images/T. Schwarz)

Merkel greets Volkswagen boss Martin Winterkorn

As chancellor, she persuaded US President George W. Bush to agree to the 2-degree Clesius limit on global warming at the 2007 G8 summit.

And in 2015, she put decarbonization on the international agenda by eliciting pledges from the G7 leaders.

More recently, she came head-to-head with climate-change denier Donald Trump at the G20 summit this year, and was credited with rallying other nations to leave the US starkly isolated as it announced to step back from the Paris Agreement.

German emissions undermine credibility

Yet Merkel's climate record at home is distinctly lackluster in comparison, says Bals, who has followed German and international environmental policy closely over the last two decades.

"Merkel's approach has been opportunistic and she has regularly given in to the industrial wing of her party," he told DW, citing Merkel's 2013 intervention to block tougher EU limits on vehicle emissions, which Bals says happened "under pressure from her party, which has close links to the car industry."

Claudia Kemfert, energy and climate expert at the German Institute for Economic Research, agrees.

"On the world stage, Merkel fights for international climate agreements, while at home she misses her own climate targets," she said. 

Infografik Verpasst Deutschland das Klimaziel ENG

In fact, Germany is set to fall well short of its 2020 target of cutting its greenhouse gas emissions by at least 40 percent compared to 1990. By 2016, it had cut emissions by just 28 percent compared to the 1990 baseline. Experts say only radical new measures could make closing the gap possible.

"It's a huge blow to Germany's international credibility," says climate researcher Mojib Latif of the Helmholtz Center for Ocean Research in Kiel.

"Germany won't be taken seriously anymore. It doesn't look good if you make a big announcement and then don't follow through."

Germany's push for renewable energy has seen its share in electricity production rise to around a third. But emissions haven't always fallen - partly because the country still gets much of its power from coal, and particularly lignite, which is mined domestically.

Resistance to the energy transition

Environmentalists say a swift exit from coal is essential, and needs to be combined with the growth of renewable energy, energy efficiency and a climate friendly transport system that makes use of electro-mobility.

But Kemfert, who has written a book about the power struggle between the old and new energy worlds, says fossil fuel companies are defending their profits aggressively.

"Merkel isn't against an energy transition," she told DW.

"Unfortunately, she has listened too much to lobbyists."

Infografik Deutschland verliert Vorreiterrolle beim Klimaschutz ENG

"There is a close connection between politics and industry," Kemfert added.

Latif says Merkel's center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) doesn't carry the blame alone. The junior partner in the current "grand coalition" government, the Social Democratic Party (SPD), has also resisted calls for a deadline to give up cheap, carbon-heavy coal.

"Both parties in the coalition are holding back climate protection, above all with the coal exit," Latif says. "Politics tends to pursue short-term interests over long-term interests."

Kemfert agrees there is considerable resistance to the energy transition within the CDU, SPD and the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP).

Everything to play for

While the CDU is way ahead in the polls and looks set to take the largest share of the vote, the balance of power in government and parliament remains open, with many voters still undecided.

Climate killer chancellor - Protestors demonstrate against Germany's lignite industry (DW/G. Rueter)

"Climate killer chancellor" - Protestors demonstrate against Germany's lignite industry

One possibility would be a coalition of CDU, FDP and the Greens. The economically liberal, pro-business FDP aren't seen as climate champions, yet Kemfert says this so-called "Jamaica" coalition could offer some hope.

"If the Greens were responsible for the energy transition, Merkel would not have held it back so much," Kemfert says. "Merkel would be more likely to act on her convictions if the Greens had a say in it. In other party constellations, the opposition would be overwhelming."

Whichever parties take power, energy and climate expert Volker Quasching urges the new government to act swiftly.

"There is no time to keep muddling through the energy transition," he told DW. "Without decisive measures it will hardly be possible to achieve climate protection in this short window of time."

"Continuing to cosy up to the corporation just isn't an option," he added.

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