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

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.
Von Dirk Kurbjuweit und Christian Schwägerl
The German chancellor in Greenland: Once a hero to environmentalists worldwide, Angela Merkel is faltering badly on climate change policy.

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.

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.

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.

Merkel is Mercedes' Chief Lobbyist in Brussels

When it comes to cars, the only thing Merkel has lost is her credibility. She is already the chief lobbyist for Mercedes, BMW, Audi and Porsche in Brussels, where CO2 limits for the European Union are currently being negotiated. New Franco-German talks on the issue are scheduled for next week.

France, which tends to manufacture smaller cars than Germany, wants to see emissions limits imposed that would make things difficult for large, powerful, German-produced sedans. Merkel, for her part, wants to put a stop to the limits, a move that would be good for the German automobile industry but bad for the climate.

Part of the effort to protect the domestic auto industry is the elimination of a rule that would require manufacturers to disclose the gas mileage on all car models . This would have enabled customers to determine at a glance whether a particular model is a gas guzzler. This much transparency was apparently incompatible with industry interests.

Technological limitations presented another sticking point. Only last year, Merkel's government sold biofuel and biodiesel as environmental and technological blessings. But the government had not done its homework. First, it was revealed that the engines in millions of older vehicles would not be capable of handling higher percentages of biofuel. The coalition government in Berlin was loath to require  owners of older cars to switch to the more costly higher-octane Super Plus gasoline, which contains less bioethanol and would be the only gas their cars could run on.

Global food shortages also make it seem obscene for Western drivers to be driving cars powered by fuel derived from crops that people in poor regions would like to eat. The fact that Greenpeace has found that biodiesel contains palm and soybean oil, most of which comes from forest land cleared to make way for cropland, has only undermined the chancellor's claims  that biofuels could be produced in an environmentally friendly manner.

Now the biofuel strategy is in limbo and expansion beyond current levels seems more than questionable. This too will cost several million tons of CO2, on paper.

Posted CO2 savings that have been eliminated are only partially replaced in calculations. Besides, in some cases it is unclear whether a posting truly holds up under scrutiny. Take wind energy, for example. When he lost the battle to introduce a biofuel quota, Gabriel promptly introduced more wind-based power to offset the loss. Although wind turbines are still being built in large numbers, the curve is beginning to flatten. Moreover, there is an absence of investors for the most important linchpin in the expansion, the offshore wind parks far out in the North and Baltic Seas. The expansion of renewable forms of energy is expected to contribute 54 million tons of CO2 savings by 2020, or just shy of one-fifth of the total amount. But in the case of wind, not everything is falling into place as expected.

The government has not even managed to ensure that consumers can gain access to electricity generated by wind turbines. Many hundred kilometers of new power lines are needed to transport electricity from the plants in northern and eastern Germany to the country's south, where a number of nuclear power plants are scheduled to be gradually phased out. The necessary expansion of the power grid has been held up by citizen protests, red tape and costs.

To address these problems, Economics Minister Glos supports a law that is now scheduled to be part of the cabinet resolution on June 18. But because he fears citizens' initiatives against new power lines, Environment Minister Gabriel advocates the installation of underground power lines, which are several times as expensive as overhead lines. The conflict has made potential investors nervous for months.

The entire structure of Merkel's climate policy is faltering. The relevant SPD ministers feel insufficiently supported by Merkel. Transportation Minister Wolfgang Tiefensee wants Merkel not to abandon plans to modernize the automobile tax. "When it comes to climate protection, rising energy prices must spur us on and not slow us down. Getting away from oil is the only response to high prices that makes sense," says Tiefensee. But Gabriel complains that "we can no longer accept the fact that Merkel allows herself to be celebrated as the climate chancellor, while the rest of her team is steadily mowing everything down."

But why can the rest of the team mow everything down in the first place? Because Merkel comforts herself with the thought that German climate policy still looks good compared with the rest of Europe, and that the government can always add additional taxes later on if the currently approved measures prove to be insufficient.

She isn't interested in fighting for the idea that an effective climate policy means making sacrifices, nor has she ever been. In the spring of 2007, after her success in Brussels, Merkel did not discuss the burdens. She is more capable of asserting herself with other heads of state than with German voters. She is reluctant to hurt voters suffering from high energy costs. But when it comes to the dramatic aspects of climate change, nothing has changed since 2007.

Thus, a more precise picture of this chancellor is gradually taking shape. She abandons her own convictions when she feels that they would force her to impose unreasonable demands on the public. This has been her strategy in social policy so far, and now she hopes to make it succeed in environmental policy.

Meanwhile, officials at the Economics Ministry are already devising plans for a redemptive "Plan B," which would save the world without the need for political intervention. "We can depend far more than before on the momentum of energy prices," says Homann, adding that millions of citizens are already taking trains instead of their cars. "Huge CO2 savings," says Homann, will occur naturally. There is a strange logic behind this: The world has to consume more energy so that prices will go up, and so that energy consumption can go down. Politics can be so straightforward.

-- Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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