Germany's new government: Same old story for environment?

The coalition set to govern Germany finally has its action plan. But what does it mean for the environment? Climate, energy, mobility, agriculture: DW analyzes the results in four key fields.

The Social Democrats (SPD), along with the Christian Democrats and their Bavarian sister party the Christian Social Union (CDU/CSU), have agreed in principle on a coalition deal.

The SPD is expected to take control of some major portfolios, including finance, foreign affairs, labor — and environment, with current acting minister Barbara Hendricks likely to retain her position.

Read the full coalition agreement between the CDU, CSU and SPD (PDF in German).

The Greens, who tried to form an earlier coalition together with the conservatives and the pro-business Free Democrats following the September 24 election, have welcomed the new agreement — but said it had been cobbled together, and left too many gaps.

Nature and Environment | 01.02.2018

"Climate protection, the central future challenge, has been essentially sidelined," said new Green party leaders Annalena Baerbock and Robert Habeck in a statement.

So what are the provisional agreement's key points on the environment?

CLIMATE/ENERGY

A leaked draft agreement from January included broad, and broadly criticized, resignation that Germany's 2020 greenhouse gas emission reduction goals were already out of reach.

Contrary to this, negotiators have now agreed to do their best to stick with Germany's existing climate goals for 2020, and ramp them up for 2030 and 2050.

2017: Devastating effects of climate change

Sweltering heat

Unprecedented heat waves swept across the globe in 2017, leading to droughts, wildfires and even deaths. Australia started the year with temperatures near 50 degrees Celsius (122 Fahrenheit), the "Lucifer" heat wave brought the mercury above 40 degrees Celsius throughout Southern Europe in July and August and scorching heat hit India's most vulnerable people. Get ready for next summer...

2017: Devastating effects of climate change

Disappearing wonder

Earlier this year, scientists realized that coral bleaching in Australia's Great Barrier Reef was worse than first thought. In some parts of the UNESCO World Heritage site, up to 70 percent of the coral has already been killed. By 2050, scientists have warned 90 percent of the reef could disappear. Rising sea temperatures and ocean acidification are the main culprits.

2017: Devastating effects of climate change

Deadly combination

Armed conflicts are pushing millions of people to leave their homes or live in terribly precarious situations — and climate change is making it worse. A lack of natural resources increases the risk of conflict and makes life even harder for refugees. South Sudanese families, for instance, are escaping to neighboring countries like Uganda and Kenya — countries already suffering from drought.

2017: Devastating effects of climate change

World on fire

From New Zealand to Spain, from California to even Greenland: the world has seen a nonstop year of wildfires. Global warming has been blamed for the increased fire risk, and in some countries that risk has turned into reality. Wildfires engulfed large areas of Europe's Iberian Peninsula, causing death and destruction, while firefighters in California have had no rest for more than six months.

2017: Devastating effects of climate change

Record-shattering storms

Hurricanes Maria and Irma, which hit the Caribbean region in August and September, were two of the year's most damaging weather events. The list of deadly storms also included Ophelia in Ireland, Harvey and Nate in Central America and the US, and Xavier and Sebastian in Germany. Warming of the ocean surface has led to more evaporation, and that water may help fuel thunderstorms and hurricanes.

2017: Devastating effects of climate change

Melting Antarctica

In July, one of the largest icebergs ever recorded separated from the Larsen C ice shelf — one of Antarctica's biggest — reducing its area by more than 12 percent. While calving icebergs in the Antarctic are part of a natural cycle, scientists have linked the retreat of several Antarctic ice shelves to global warming and are closely monitoring potential long-term effects.

2017: Devastating effects of climate change

Struggle to breathe

Deteriorating air quality causes thousands of deaths around the world every year. India's capital, New Delhi, is one of the world's most polluted cities. In November, large parts of northern India and Pakistan were engulfed by a blanket of thick smog carrying harmful particulate matter. Schools were forced to close, and hospitals were full of people with respiratory problems.

2017: Devastating effects of climate change

Oceans at risk

The high levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere represent a major threat for our oceans, already in danger due to plastic pollution, overfishing and warming waters. Ocean acidification could make these waters — covering more than two-thirds of our planet's surface — a hostile environment for sea creatures. And without marine animals, entire ocean ecosystems are at risk.

2017: Devastating effects of climate change

Fierce floods and mudslides

Superstorms often trigger flash floods and mudslides. In late December, more than 230 people were killed when a storm hit the Philippines' second-largest island of Mindanao, a tragedy exacerbated by years of deforestation. In 2017, severe floods also hit countries such as Vietnam, Peru and Sierra Leone. European countries, including Greece and Germany, also felt the damaging effects of heavy rain.

A special commission will be expected to come up with an "action plan" by the end of this year on how to hit the 2020 targets "as fast as possible," with different sectors setting their own climate goals.

Plans to phase out nuclear power would continue. By 2030, the government wants a 65 percent share of renewables in the power mix. In 2019 and 2020, there will also be additional tenders for wind and solar power of four gigawatt capacity, and the eventual creation of an offshore wind energy testing area. 

Read more: Europe breaks own renewables record — but can't keep up with China

"Concrete measures must follow fast to harness the potential for greenhouse gas reductions and for the modernization of our energy industry," said Peter Röttgen, managing director of the German Renewable Energy Federation.

"The renewables sector will judge the coalition by whether or not this promise will be kept for all sectors."

Greenpeace Germany was more sharply critical. Coalition partners "lack the courage and foresight to protect the climate and the environment," according to Sweelin Heuss, the head of Greenpeace Germany.

"By giving up the climate target for 2020, the coalition parties are delaying the overdue withdrawal from coal," she added, saying such decisions were only being pushed further down the line.

Many environmental groups believe that without a coal exit, Germany is not likely to meet its 2020 climate goals.

Habeck also sharply criticized the agreement, pointing out how it lacks a firm timeline to phase out coal-fired power generation, or a commitment to carbon prices, despite calls in support of such a move from the business sector.

"We must make greenhouse gas emissions in these areas [transport, agriculture, and heating sectors] more expensive," said Stefan Kapferer, head of utilities association BDEW. "Otherwise, the transport sector will not be able to reduce emissions rapidly."

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MOBILITY

By 2030, the coalition government aims to invest in the rail network, doubling the number of passengers and increasing the share of goods transported by train.

Although Allianz Pro Schiene, which promotes the rail sector, welcomed the "gratifyingly concrete" plans, the VCD, an environmental transport non-profit group, warned that the approach to climate and advances in the transport sector were still "stuck in traffic."

Read more: EU Environment Commissioner rejects German plans to tackle air pollution

Leif Miller, managing director of the German environmental group NABU, called the coalition treaty "ambitious in nature protection, but without courage in transport and climate policy."

"With new record investment in transport projects, further habitats will become fragmented, and the inadequate approach to climate protection will put a lot of pressure on our ecosystems," he said.

In terms of personal transportation, the future government plans to give more support to electromobility and retrofit older vehicles to reduce diesel emissions, while increasing funding to find ways to reduce pollution from diesel engines. Here, Greenpeace faulted the plan for its vague promises and lack of concrete steps.

Dieselgate: A timeline

The disaster unfolds

About two weeks after Volkswagen admitted behind closed doors to US environmental regulators that it had installed cheating software in some 11 million of its diesel vehicles worldwide, the Environmental Protection Agency shared that information with the public. It was September 18, 2015. The ensuing crisis would eventually take a few unexpected turns.

Dieselgate: A timeline

The boss must go, long live the boss

Volkswagen's then-CEO Martin Winterkorn (above) had little choice but to step down several days after news of the scandal broke. In September, he tendered his resignation, but retained his other posts within the Volkswagen Group. Winterkorn's successor was Matthias Müller. Until taking the reins at VW, Müller had been the chairman at Porsche, a VW subsidiary.

Dieselgate: A timeline

Raiding headquarters

Regulators in the US weren't the only ones investigating VW. Authorities in Lower Saxony, the German state in which VW is based, were also scrutinizing the company. On October 8, state prosecutors raided VW's headquarters along with several other corporate locations.

Dieselgate: A timeline

Hell breaks loose

On January 4, 2016, the US government filed a lawsuit against VW in Detroit, accusing the German automaker of fraud and violations of American climate protection regulations. The lawsuit sought up to $46 billion for violations of the Clean Air Act.

Dieselgate: A timeline

Quit or forced out?

In March, the head of VW in the US, Michael Horn, resigned. In the initial days and weeks after the scandal broke, he was the one US authorities turned to for information. He issued an official apology on behalf of the automaker, asking for the public's forgiveness.

Dieselgate: A timeline

Settlement

On October 25, a US judge approved a final settlement that would have VW pay $15.3 billion. In addition, affected cars would be retrofitted with better, non-deceptive hardware and software, or else VW would buy them back completely from customers.

Dieselgate: A timeline

Imitators

When dieselgate first emerged in 2015, analysts said it was likely other car makers were also cheating tests. But it wasn't until 2017 that other companies were targeted in probes. In July, German authorities launched investigations into luxury car makers Porsche and Daimler for allegedly cheating emissions tests. Others, such as Audi and Chrysler, have also been hit by similar allegations.

Dieselgate: A timeline

Public still supportive

Despite dieselgate, VW has managed to keep the emissions scandal from utterly tarnishing its image. According to several polls, between 55 to 67 percent of Germans continue to trust the automaker. In the US, polls show that roughly 50 percent still believe the German company produces worthwhile vehicles.

Dieselgate: A timeline

Fuming over monkeys

In late January, however, VW suffered another heavy blow over reports that the company experimented on monkeys and made the animals inhale diesel fumes. To make matters worse, a separate experiment that had humans inhale relatively harmless nitrogen dioxide was revealed at the same time. Some media wrongly interpreted this to mean humans were also inhaling toxic fumes.

Environmentalists also criticized the lack of consequences for German automakers around Dieselgate, which has contributed to air pollution. "Advances in individual fields like public transport don't distract from the fact that courageous reforms are lacking," said Hubert Weiger, the head of Germany's version of Friends of the Earth, the Bund für Umwelt- und Naturschutz Deutschland (BUND).

Although the coalition paper seeks to avoid diesel bans in cities, it doesn't address what measures might be necessary to prevent release of air pollution from vehicles, such as retrofitting cars equipped with manipulated exhaust sensors.

AGRICULTURE

The controversial weed killer glyphosate, which was recently approved for use in the EU for another five years despite reported detrimental effects on insects and birds, will be phased out as soon as possible in Germany.

Patents on plant and animal genes will be banned, as will the cloning of animals for food production.

A new "animal welfare label" will be introduced to help guarantee better conditions at industrial farms, and food waste will be addressed by reviewing the current best-before dates on perishable products.

Joachim Rukwied, president of the German Farmers Association, praised the coalition agreement. But Weiger criticized the "lax, voluntary animal welfare label," saying it would bring "little improvement."

On glyphosate, Weiger also said the agreement came up short, and called for a binding phaseout date by 2021. "The future government must change its strategy and deliver an agricultural policy that protects biodiversity and insects, instead of further promoting agricultural deserts and industrial farming."

SPD members still have to approve the deal in a postal ballot, the results of which will be announced on March 4.

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