Is Germany losing its role model status on climate?

Until recently, Angela Merkel was known as the "climate chancellor" and Germany had a squeaky-green image. But now it looks like the country will miss the goals it pledged in Paris. Could a future government change that?

These are difficult days in Berlin, as coalition talks among Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU), the allied Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU), the economically liberal Free Democrats (FDP) and the Greens have failed. On Sunday, the FDP walked out of negotiations. (It's called aJamaica coalition government because the most prominents parties' colors are black, yellow and green, respectively.)

One of the biggest sticking points is climate protection — and a a coal phase-out.

Germany's goal is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent by compared with 1990 levels by 2020. The government decided on that number almost 10 years ago — but now it looks like this ambitious plan will fail.

According to the current figures released by Germany's Environment Ministry, Germany will be able to reduce its emissions by a maximum of 34.7 percent by 2020. CO2 emissions from power plants have barely decreased over the past few years. And industry emissions have even increased slightly.

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Infografik Karte Climate Change Performance Index 2017 ENG

And, yet, Merkel is still tagged as the "climate chancellor" even as it becomes apparent that Germany won't reach the goals it set in 2015 at the Paris climate conference.

"Germany was and is a leader in international climate diplomacy," Lutz Weischer, who works on global climate policy for the environmental nonprofit Germanwatch, told DW. "So, on the international stage, 'climate chancellor' isn't unjustified."

Role model abroad

For many international organizations, Germany is still a role model when it comes to climate action.

"The German government plans to be coal-free by 2050, and it's working hard, together with local actors, to achieve that goal," said Danny Sriskandarajah, secretary-general of South Africa's Civicus organization.

Many COP23 delegates appreciate the financial help that Germany has been providing. Most recently, Merkel promised 100 million euros to support poorer countries.

"We are very happy to hear that Germany is releasing more money for funds," said Evans Njewa, the financial coordinator for the bloc of the world's 48 "least-developed countries."

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Germany also continues to be instrumental in the conference of parties process.

Powering past coal

Regardless, Germany's green image has suffered in recent years. At no other climate summit has coal been a bigger issue than in Bonn.

On Thursday, the UK and Canada announced an anti-coal alliance with more than 20 countries and states. Their coal: to completely divest from coal in the coming decade. That puts Germany under pressure.

"All eyes are on Germany's domestic policy as well now," Weischer said.

Many of the countries in the new Powering Past Coal Alliance were not big coal users anyway; some rely heavily on nuclear energy. Divesting is easier for them than it is for Germany, which started its phase-out of nuclear energy after the Fukushima disaster in 2011, and where coal traditionally makes up almost half of the energy mix.

The new government

Though other countries are planning to phase coal out, the German delegation at COP23 was not able to make any promises. Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks will only hold her position until a new government finally forms — which might still take a while.

That's also one reason why Germany hasn't joined the Powering Past Coal Alliance.

"We were asked if we wanted to join," Hendricks said. "I asked for their understanding that we couldn't decide this before the new government has formed."

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The Environment Ministry stressed that the coalition talks had had no impact on the work of the German delegation.

'A way to go'

The commitments that the German delegation could not make are the ones that would have been crucial, Weischer said. Chancellor Merkel knows this as well. She admitted that things weren't going according to plan in her speech at the climate conference on Wednesday.

"Our goal for 2020 is ambitious," Merkel said. "Now, at the end of 2017, we know that we have quite a way to go till then."

Environmental groups were disappointed. They had hoped for a clear announcement of a coal phase-out in Germany.

"She couldn't really say anything concrete," Weischer said. "But she really should have said that she'll do anything to reach the climate goals."

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All Jamaica parties had emphasized that they stand behind Germany's climate goals — but they disagree on how to reach them. The CDU, CSU and FDP want smaller reductions in CO2 emissions and coal power than the Greens do.

On Friday, negotiators said there had been some progress on climate action. Greens politician Jürgen Trittin said parties had made headway on some climate issues, including the coal phaseout.

Maybe the process was helped along by a paper released by the German Economic Ministry, stating that less coal power would be better for a more stable power grid.

The internal paper also shows that Germany could do fine without some of its coal power plants. That's why Greenpeace is calling for a total of 17 gigawatts of coal power to be taken offline over the next three years. That roughly equals all 14 coal power plants in Germany's most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia.

FDP negotiators were apparently unwilling to go that far, as evidenced in the failure of the negotiations.

And now, the question remains wide-open: Can Merkel win back her title of "climate chancellor"?

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