Knuckling Under: Is Germany's 'Climate Chancellor' a Failure?

By Dirk Kurbjuweit and Christian Schwägerl

A year after pitting herself against the world's leaders over climate change, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has backed down and gone silent on key environmental policies. It seems that the one opponent she can't bear confronting is the German voter.

The German chancellor in Greenland: Once a hero to environmentalists worldwide, Angela Merkel is faltering badly on climate change policy.
REUTERS

The German chancellor in Greenland: Once a hero to environmentalists worldwide, Angela Merkel is faltering badly on climate change policy.

This is the so-called "climate chancellor?" This woman who, at the International Transport Forum in Leipzig, spoke enthusiastically about the nearby air freight hub, economic growth and the transport of goods? Who suddenly seems awkward and at a loss for words when it comes time to talk about climate protection? Who has stopped offering answers on the subject and only asks questions, like: Does it make sense to subsidize electricity from renewable sources? Is it fair to expect the owners of older cars with high CO2 emissions to pay higher taxes?

This is the same "climate chancellor" who opposes a speed limit on German autobahns and wants the European Union to exempt large, German-made sedans from its emissions restrictions. In fact, Angela Merkel has even stopped talking about the German goal of reducing CO2 emissions by 40 percent by 2020. Instead, she mentions values of 20 or 30 percent.

What is happening here? This cannot possibly be the same Merkel who pressured European leaders in Brussels to agree to mandatory climate protection goals, who managed to squeeze a small concession on climate protection out of US President George W. Bush at the 2007 G-8 summit in Heiligendamm, and who was behind a decision reached at the government guesthouse in Meseberg outside Berlin to implement a comprehensive government climate protection program. Brussels, Heiligendamm and Meseberg: Three places where Merkel gained the reputation of being hell-bent on saving the world in 2007.

That was only last year, and yet it was a completely different era -- and Merkel a completely different chancellor. At the time, newly released figures on global warming were still fresh in people's minds. Nowadays, citizens are paying more attention to the drastic rise in energy prices. And what does Merkel do? What she has always done. She fine-tunes her policies to conform to the times so as not to adversely affect her approval ratings and protect her position as chancellor.

She has even allowed German states to jettison a key element of her climate policy. The basic measure of Germany's vehicle registration fee, engine size, will not be switched to CO2 emissions, as she originally envisioned. This is only one of many examples. It is now uncertain whether the German government will be able to reach its goal of reducing emissions by 40 percent by 2020. This would require saving 270 million tons of CO2.

At last week's United Nations Convention on Biodiversity, Merkel once again portrayed herself as the savior of the rainforest, promising billions of euros for conservation. It was a clever move for Merkel, because it diverted attention away from her crumbling climate protection goals. As the political mill grinds away in the background, ton after ton of carbon dioxide savings are being lost. For Merkel, this also represents the loss of a crucial pillar of her chancellorship. If she were still the chancellor she was in Brussels, Heiligendamm and Meseberg, she would be fighting the general decline of German climate policy. Yet she has made no such effort.

Graphic: Climate Protection Measures
DER SPIEGEL

Graphic: Climate Protection Measures

Climate policy today is a completely different animal than it was in those illustrious days. On Friday of last week, the Bundestag, Germany's federal parliament, debated climate protection in the automotive and air transportation industries. The chancellor was absent. Not a single cabinet minister attended the debate, nor were any of the parties' parliamentary leaders present. Forty of the Bundestag's 612 members, or less than seven percent, were in attendance.

When Green Party member of parliament Winfried Nachtwei opened the debate, he paused after his first few strong sentences, expecting applause from his fellow party members. Only one clapped, while the others apparently had their minds on other things. Nachtwei begged the members of his Green Party: "I would appreciate if you would listen to what I have to say."

The job of saving the earth, once a matter for the chancellor herself, has been delegated once again to state secretaries, backbenchers and minor officials. It has lost its oomph and momentum, and the entire affair has clearly been made to conform to the chancellor's priorities. Germany's contribution to climate protection is gradually entering the realm of the vague and the unclear. Apparently, that's Merkel's favorite state of affairs two-and-a-half years into her chancellorship.

The German government had in fact resolved to state specific figures defining the number of tons that could be attributed to each measure. The conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), have apparently abandoned that effort.

"We are opposed to negotiating with the Social Democrats over individual CO2 reduction levels in tons," says Katherina Reiche, the deputy head of the CDU/CSU parliamentary group. Reiche maintained that it isn't even possible to precisely calculate CO2 emissions in advance. But it is precisely comments like hers that pave the way for cheating and self-deception.

Michael Glos is Germany's business-friendly economics minister. On the environment, he's not so good.
AP

Michael Glos is Germany's business-friendly economics minister. On the environment, he's not so good.

At least there is a new great white hope, a new star of environmental protection movement: the chimney sweep. According to the German Economics Ministry, headed by Michael Glos (CSU), saving the world's climate is now up to the chimney sweep. The Environment Ministry, headed by Sigmar Gabriel (SPD), had hoped to force homeowners to insulate older buildings and replace old furnaces -- a concrete, predictable and painful step. The CDU and CSU, however, consider such policies too dictatorial.

Instead, the conservatives prefer to pin their hopes on the chimney sweep who, under their plan, would offer owners and renters of older buildings suggestions on how they can help protect the climate. In other words, whether Germans will manage to save 31 million tons of home emissions will depend primarily on their chimney sweeps. But no one knows how much CO2 a tip from a chimney sweep can save. In fact, any random number is possible. Perhaps the government should introduce a tonnage regulation. And perhaps whoever manages to convince people to achieve the greatest emissions savings should be named chimney sweep of the year -- and join Chancellor Merkel for a photo op at the chancellery.

The German Economics Ministry has always been skeptical of concrete climate policy. But now it seems officials there could best be described as radically skeptical. Until January, the ministry was home to at least one state secretary who showed some enthusiasm for the euphoria over climate protection. But Glos fired Joachim Wuermeling.

This is unlikely to happen to his successor, Jochen Homann. Sources at Gabriel's Environment Ministry claim that Homann's posture in meetings is "like that of the Soviets in the Cold War." The German "Mr. Nyet" does indeed seem somewhat stiff and rigid, although he does wear a silver armband.

Homann insists that he fully supports the climate protection program, "but not the eco-whip by any means." Instead of compulsory measures, says Homann, there should be incentives and voluntary agreements. He is opposed to granting tenants additional rights to take action against excessively high heating costs. "We cannot turn the citizens into climate protection police," he says.

Environment Minister Gabriel repeatedly makes a big production out of his efforts to impose as little a burden as possible on citizens, especially those of lesser means. However, the tenants' rights fight only intensified the battle between the environment and economics ministries, which is crippling the government.

Staffers at the Economics Ministry say that Gabriel's officials are pleased when the citizen suffers. In return, the Environment Ministry maintains that the Economics Ministry does everything in its power to prevent anything that works. The relationship between Glos and Gabriel, the most important relationship in Merkel's cabinet when it comes to climate policy, isn't working.

The chancellor is also gradually losing her tons of saved CO2 emissions in the transport sector. Merkel's original plan called for savings of 34 million tons of CO2 using tools like the new automobile registration tax, which is meant to encourage drivers to buy more fuel-efficient models by taxing vehicles based on CO2 emissions rather than engine size. But this will, in all likelihood, not be ratified. If it were, Merkel would be dealing with two furious groups: the owners of old beater cars, who would have had to pay higher taxes, and the state governors, who would be concerned about losing their revenues.

Merkel lacked the guts to confront the state premiers or the owners of older cars with the hard realities of climate protection. Instead, she knuckled under, as she has done so many times before. As a result, she had to remove the second part of the Meseberg packet from the cabinet's agenda last week, which was a disgrace. The program is expected to be revived on June 18, but no one is certain that this will indeed occur. "We can be happy if we get the whole thing taken care of during the last week of meetings in 2009," Environment Minister Gabriel warned, even before the automobile tax debacle.

Article...
  • For reasons of data protection and privacy, your IP address will only be stored if you are a registered user of Facebook and you are currently logged in to the service. For more detailed information, please click on the "i" symbol.
  • Post to other social networks

Keep track of the news

Stay informed with our free news services:

All news from SPIEGEL International
Twitter | RSS
All news from Germany section
RSS

© SPIEGEL ONLINE 2008
All Rights Reserved
Reproduction only allowed with the permission of SPIEGELnet GmbH




European Partners
Facebook
Twitter