German Economy and Climate Minister Robert Habeck: "Dissatisfaction, fears and anger need an outlet."

German Economy and Climate Minister Robert Habeck: "Dissatisfaction, fears and anger need an outlet."

Foto: Peter Rigaud / DER SPIEGEL

German Economy Minister Robert Habeck "We Have Gained Control Over the Crisis"

Last year, it looked like Russia's war in Ukraine was going to plunge Germany and Europe into a deep recession and a winter of gas shortages. Things have turned out differently, says Economy Minister Robert Habeck. But major progress is still needed on climate protection.
Interview Conducted by Martin Knobbe und Gerald Traufetter

DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Habeck, in 2022, you had to beg the emir of Qatar to sell Germany natural gas, coal-fire power plants had to be brought back online and you were forced to extend the lifespans of nuclear power plants in the country. As a member of the Green Party and as German economics and climate minister, it must have been an awful year for you.

Habeck: The year was primarily awful for the people in Ukraine, those who had to die in Vladimir Putin’s ludicrous war, who were tortured and who lost sons and daughters. The main thing for us is: We, as a government, had to navigate a constantly changing and worsening crisis. In a short amount of time, we were able to assemble regulatory packages, mobilize huge amounts of capital, nationalize companies and build up a new natural gas infrastructure. It was all quite challenging. But because of that work, we are in a far better position today than we could have imagined.

DER SPIEGEL: Your popularity has dropped significantly. Some accuse you of neglecting the climate crisis. Others blame you instead of Vladimir Putin for the fact that energy costs have spiked. Does that bother you?

Habeck: No. It’s normal for a government to be blamed for situations that it isn’t responsible for creating. The war in Ukraine is still unfathomable and inflation is noticeable. People are worried about their futures. Dissatisfaction, fears and anger need an outlet.

DER SPIEGEL: Are there still moments that bring you pleasure? Or is everything just extremely trying?

Habeck: The year was extremely trying for many in the government, in parliament, in the municipalities and states and in companies. But we were able to see over and over again that the hard work was worth it. That we were making progress. When Russia tried to plunge the European natural gas market into chaos through Gazprom Germania, we nationalized it and took over control of the company’s operations. It was a move made under intense pressure. I can remember thinking during the press conference: That was a good retaliatory move.

DER SPIEGEL: How do you turn off every now and then? Do you read books, pet wild horses or maybe take a long shower?

Habeck: Very funny! I read a lot. Last year it was mostly work-related stuff. But I was able to pick up a novel over Christmas. And when I’m being efficient, I’ll fit in a run before going to work, and certainly on the weekend. I’ve learned to extract great strength from small moments.

DER SPIEGEL: Early on in the crisis, you warned that all of us in Germany had to save energy. Now, it looks as though we are going to get through the winter with very few problems. Were you too alarmist?

Habeck: On the contrary. In summer, there was a real danger that we would run into shortages in the winter. Putin had suspended natural gas deliveries, and we were very worried that supply chains could collapse, making it impossible to produce goods necessary for our daily lives. That could have really brought down the entire European economy. But we have gained control over the crisis. Inflation is still high, but it has noticeably weakened of late. According to the data we currently have, the recession will be milder and shorter than we initially thought. Things could have turned out differently.

DER SPIEGEL: Why are we getting off so easily?

Habeck: Because the country has shown what it is capable of. We filled our natural gas repositories and quickly established an infrastructure for LNG, liquefied natural gas. We bolstered the economy and German households with billions of euros. And: Germans reduced natural gas consumption. They turned down the temperature and are no longer heating their entire apartments.

Robert Habeck: "The country can mobilize great strength."

Robert Habeck: "The country can mobilize great strength."

Foto:

Peter Rigaud / DER SPIEGEL

"I certainly don’t want to blindly place my faith in the market taking care of everything and that the coal-fired power plants will go offline on their own."

DER SPIEGEL: But did you not ultimately foist too heavy of a burden onto the population? Not everyone is handling the challenge equally well.

Habeck: The high prices are extremely difficult for a lot of people, which is why we put together the large relief packages. The brakes on electricity and natural gas prices will show their effect this year. But despite the burden, people have demonstrated that they are capable of great solidarity. That contravenes the narrative that Germans have about themselves: That we are all just individualists who think only about ourselves. No, people are prepared to make due with less so that we as a country get through this in good shape. The country can mobilize great strength. Still, I am bothered by the fact that some members of the young generation appear to be losing hope.

DER SPIEGEL: How have you arrived at that conclusion?

Habeck: Twenty-somethings these days are really thinking about whether they want to have children. It is a debate that I know from my own youth. It was gone for 30 years, but now it’s back. It’s understandable, the climate crisis has become reality.

DER SPIEGEL: The hopes of many of these young people were pinned on politicians like yourself. And now they are realizing: Even with the Green Party as part of the government, Germany is going to fall short of its climate goals.

Habeck: Let’s wait and see. The numbers are preliminary. We currently have 8.8 gigawatts more of coal-fired power online than originally planned, as part of our effort to ward off a natural gas shortage. Still, we are already seeing that the expansion of renewable energies works, as do measures to save on energy consumption.

DER SPIEGEL: What, then, is your message to the younger generations? Last year was an exception, and now we are back on the climate protection track?

Habeck: The focus is now on making a decisive difference in the coming years so that the country is climate neutral by 2045. By then, the young people about whom we are speaking will perhaps have started a family. They will have to live with the consequences of the past. Today, we have to take steps to safeguard their future freedoms.

DER SPIEGEL: What does that mean for your policies?

Habeck: To invest all our strength in accomplishing the transformation of our energy system. That's my job. But from the point of view of society, there is even more at stake: People must be able to have faith that the entire country responds to their concerns and needs. And last year showed us that such a thing is possible. That it is possible to take a step forward even if it might be a bit painful. That we don’t just go for a jog, but are prepared to run a marathon and deal with the pain that involves. If we, as a society, were able to brave the gas crisis, then we can also be successful in curbing the climate crisis. This experience will hopefully strengthen faith in democratic participation and engagement.

DER SPIEGEL: Yet there are currently significant protests, primarily driven by young climate activists, in Lützerath, the village just west of Cologne that is to be razed to make way for an open-cast coal mine. Doesn’t that show that this faith you are talking about is no longer there, particularly not in your party?

Habeck: Young people have the feeling that the generations that came before them are making their lives difficult. They are frustrated that everything is going so slowly. I can totally understand that. And protests need symbols and places. There continue to be many good reasons to demonstrate for more climate protection, even against the Green Party as far as I’m concerned. But Lützerath is the wrong symbol.

DER SPIEGEL: Why?

Habeck: Lützerath is the last place in the Rhine region that will have to make way for lignite mining. As such, Lützerath is not a symbol that open-cast lignite mining is continuing as before, it marks the end. We have pushed up the phaseout of coal in the Rhine region by eight years, to 2030. That has always also been a goal of the climate movement. And for good reason. For my part, I certainly don’t want to blindly place my faith in the market taking care of everything and that the coal-fired power plants will go offline on their own. The agreement allows us to plan for the future. Because of that, investments are now being made in climate-neutral energy supplies, in hydrogen-fired power plants. Yes, two coal-fired power plants belonging to (the electric utility company) RWE are going to be left online for a bit longer than originally planned. That isn’t something I’m proud of, but it is unavoidable because Putin is waging war against Ukraine, and we are having to face up to the resulting energy crisis. And yes, we were unable to save the uninhabited village of Lützerath, though I have to point out that the razing was approved long before the phaseout agreement and authorized by the courts.

DER SPIEGEL: Still, there is a bitter aftertaste: Lignite mining is continuing despite the Green Party being a part of the government.

Habeck: We have saved five villages and farms with around 450 inhabitants. The Hambacher Forest is safe. The amount of coal authorized for exploitation through open-cast mining has been halved by the agreement.

Police clearing the village of Lützerath this week to make way for an open-cast lignite mine.

Police clearing the village of Lützerath this week to make way for an open-cast lignite mine.

Foto: David Klammer / DER SPIEGEL
Protests in Lützerath: "Lützerath is not a symbol that open-cast lignite mining is continuing as before, it marks the end."

Protests in Lützerath: "Lützerath is not a symbol that open-cast lignite mining is continuing as before, it marks the end."

Foto: David Klammer / DER SPIEGEL

DER SPIEGEL: What specifically are you planning on doing this year to move forward on climate policy after no progress was made last year?

Habeck: That’s not actually true either. We did quite a bit, particularly when it comes to driving forward the expansion of renewable energies. A boom in solar is underway; when it comes to wind power, we have made it through the low point. For offshore, we have a timetable for expanding from 22 to 30 gigawatts. Feed-in tariffs in accordance with the EEG renewable energy act have been increased, we have sped up the planning and approval process, achieving a significant breakthrough in the EU to do so, and we have obligated German states to make more land available for wind turbines. It all takes time, but the tempo has noticeably increased.

DER SPIEGEL: Still, you have to pick up the pace substantially in 2023 if you want to fulfill your promises.

Habeck: Yes, and we are working to do so every day. And we are systematically addressing energy efficiency and savings. We can achieve a lot with renewable energies. But the challenge will become more surmountable if we reduce our energy consumption. That is why a law regulating energy efficiency has already been drafted and will be voted on by the government. And we will present a law that promotes the transition to heating systems that run on renewable energies. I also hope that we can make progress in the transport sector, which we weren’t able to achieve in 2022.

DER SPIEGEL: The Free Democrats (FDP) are also part of the governing coalition under Chancellor Olaf Scholz of the Social Democrats (SPD). Is the FDP a reliable partner when it comes to making Germany’s transport sector more climate friendly?

Habeck: I think that (Transport Minister) Volker Wissing (FDP) wants to shape the transformation. But the room to maneuver is limited by the coalition deal. That deal didn’t take advantage of the regulatory options.

DER SPIEGEL: Such as the idea of imposing a speed limit on the German autobahn ...

Habeck: ... and the financial and tax-policy contingencies were also not taken advantage of. Volker Wissing is operating with his hands tied, but he knows that he must produce results. The transport sector has to make progress.

DER SPIEGEL: The fact that he recently reopened the debate in Germany over the extension of the lifespans of nuclear power plants and justified doing so by referring to the need to charge electric automobiles with CO2-free electricity must have infuriated you.

Habeck: For me, the debate ended with the chancellor’s strategy decision (last October).

DER SPIEGEL: Wissing doesn’t just want to invest money in refurbishing the railway network, he also wants to build more highways. Are you going to go along with that?

Habeck: If we want to protect the climate, then we can’t be constantly creating new incentives for more automobile traffic. Good offers must be made available for people to turn to buses and trains for their mobility needs. Volker Wissing has understood that and after the 9-euro ticket (a scheme from June to August 2022 according to which passengers could travel for an entire month for just 9 euros on all local transportation and regional trains), he pushed for the 49-euro ticket. In isolated cases, it could certainly make sense to close up gaps in the highway network. But we should not just blindly implement every road-construction project that was ever dreamed up. That’s not good for the environment and it’s not good for the climate.

DER SPIEGEL: Some in your party categorically reject extending the autobahn network by even a single kilometer.

Habeck: The main focus is accelerating planning and determining what the priorities are. Refurbishing autobahn bridges are a priority, without question. But if everything has the same priority at the same time, then there are no priorities anymore. Whether that makes things go faster? I have my doubts. I also doubt that we have enough construction workers to do everything at the same time.

"In the 2030s, we will perhaps have replaced a third of our natural gas consumption with climate-friendly hydrogen."

DER SPIEGEL: Germany is at risk of falling behind when it comes to expanding hydrogen infrastructure. Is this warning, which comes from climate economists like Ottmar Edenhofer, justified?

Habeck: For the past, yes. But we are currently in the process of catching up – through the expansion of renewables, the production of green hydrogen from green energy, the development of infrastructure, and through partnerships with other countries. Hydrogen will be needed in all places where we will not be able to directly replace fossil fuels with electricity. In the production of steel, for example, but also for power plants that safeguard our electricity supplies. Last year showed that we can get there faster.

DER SPIEGEL: Faster, but not fast enough, right?

Habeck: Prophecies of doom won't bring us further, only hard work will. This year, we will pass regulations to ensure that the electrolysis facilities necessary for hydrogen production are only established at sites that make sense for integrating them into the power and hydrogen networks. We then have another seven years to install electrolyzers with the capacity of 10 gigawatts for the production of hydrogen, an output that is equivalent to around eight nuclear power plants. In the 2030s, we will perhaps have replaced a third of our natural gas consumption with climate-friendly hydrogen.

DER SPIEGEL: A climate-friendly production process for steel, to name one example, is likely to be far more expensive than conventional methods. How do you plan to protect German producers from cheaper competitors?

Habeck: The production of green steel will become increasingly competitive because, relative to conventional steel, producers emit less CO2 and can thus sell their emission certificates. Beyond that, we provide financial support for the production of steel, for example, through climate protection deals. In parallel, the European Union is working on the Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism to ensure that imports that are harmful to the climate do not have an advantage over climate-friendly products.

DER SPIEGEL: A tariff, in other words ...

Habeck: ... which protects the European internal market. We shouldn’t imagine, though, that we are the only ones introducing CO2-saving production methods and that the rest of the world is just waiting around for our innovations. China is strongly investing in green steel for the automobile industry. They will take over the market if we aren’t careful. And the same thing is happening in the U.S. It is no longer an ecological race, but an economic one.

DER SPIEGEL: The U.S. has introduced the Inflation Reduction Act, a $430 billion package of subsidies, part of which is to focus on efforts to make the economy more environmentally friendly. Much of that money is subject to the condition that companies must produce in the U.S. How can Europe keep up?

Habeck: First of all, it is a good thing that the U.S. has sent a clear signal that the economic future is green. But we, of course, also have to ensure that Europe doesn’t fall behind. That is why we are in close talks with our partners in the U.S., and that is why the EU is negotiating. And we have seen that the Biden administration has already loosened up some protectionist regulations. The requirement that electric automobiles be outfitted with batteries made in the U.S., for example, doesn’t apply to leased vehicles, and there are quite a lot of those in the U.S. That means that they can be imported from South Korea, or from Germany. Talking with the Americans is worth it.

"If we all work together, we can achieve astonishing things."

DER SPIEGEL: The subsidy budget, though, is enormous and will likely attract a number of foreign companies to the U.S., including from Germany.

Habeck: We must indeed actively work to ensure that Europe is an attractive location for the new industry. To do so, we must create support mechanisms and become faster – also when it comes to the approval of aid. It is no longer enough to financially support the research and development of new products, we must also focus on the expansion of production capacity. Solar panels, heat pumps, wind turbines, semiconductors, batteries: All that must be produced en masse in Germany as well. That is why we in Europe are currently developing the Clean Tech Act.

DER SPIEGEL: The U.S. and China are moving ahead. On our continent, the war is continuing and we are realizing that our economic model no longer works. Amid this darkness, where is the good news?

Habeck: The good news is: If we all work together, we can achieve astonishing things. That is the lesson we learned last year.

DER SPIEGEL: Does your optimism also apply to Ukraine?

Habeck: The war is oppressive for all those who must live through it. Horrific. But the Ukrainian army is holding up. Putin is no longer conquering territory, rather he is losing it.

DER SPIEGEL: Which is partly due to the constant military assistance provided by the West. Is it not logical, indeed obligatory, to follow up the delivery of Marder infantry fighting vehicles with Leopard battle tanks?

Habeck with DER SPIEGEL journalists Gerald Traufetter (left) and Martin Knobbe in his ministerial office: "I will certainly travel to Ukraine again – at the appropriate time."

Habeck with DER SPIEGEL journalists Gerald Traufetter (left) and Martin Knobbe in his ministerial office: "I will certainly travel to Ukraine again – at the appropriate time."

Foto: Peter Rigaud / DER SPIEGEL

Habeck: In this government, there is a confidential framework within which such discussions are held. This confidentiality has thus far not been broken, and I would like to keep it that way.

DER SPIEGEL: You were one of the first who spoke out in favor of delivering weapons to Ukraine. Can we not assume that in these confidential meetings, you are expressing your support for the provision of battle tanks?

Habeck: It was a long path from no weapons to the first rocket-propelled grenades to self-propelled artillery and now to the Marder. That shows that we are continually adjusting the support we provide.

DER SPIEGEL: How will the war develop in the future?

Habeck: Nobody can say with any degree of seriousness. But the resilience of the Ukrainian army and its strategic abilities have surprised many. At the same time, Putin is prepared to sacrifice many thousands of his soldiers. My hope is still that a military situation is reached that enables Ukraine to define the end of the war. And which allows the country to restore its territorial integrity.

DER SPIEGEL: You were one of the earliest supporters of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Are you still in touch with him?

Habeck: There is an intimate exchange with many members of the cabinet. He came to Berlin in 2019 as Ukraine’s freshly elected president. We saw each other again in Kyiv in May 2021. He has always been open and engaging.

DER SPIEGEL: All of which speaks for an upcoming visit?

Habeck: I will certainly travel to Ukraine again – at the appropriate time.

DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Habeck, we thank you for this interview.

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