German Chancellor Angela Merkel normally uses her Web site as a forum to talk about the positive. In the past, she has dedicated her weekly video Podcast to the grand opening of Berlin's Bode Museum or used it to express her anticipation of Christmas. In one address, the German chancellor said she was proud to report on two young German scientists who had developed a mathematical formula to decode how soccer players make the ball curve after it flies off their feet.
Germany continues to make climate change a priority. But will it be enough?Foto: DDP
This light-heartedness made the images released by the German Chancellery in recent days all the more shocking. Merkel appeared for her latest Internet address to the nation looking somber and dressed completely in black. Thick eyeliner made her gaze seem all the more dramatic.
This time the chancellor had some truly bad news to announce: The world could in fact be coming to an end. "The most recent reports we have received on changes in the earth's climate are more than alarming," she said in a low voice, adding that it "is not sufficient to simply set targets for ourselves." And for anyone who still couldn't see the gravity of the situation, Merkel's site featured a dramatic image of an industrial landscape; smokestacks belching clouds of smoke to darken a blood-red sunset.
Top of political agendas
The Earth on the brink of disaster, the world nearing destruction -- never before has an administration confronted the German public so bluntly with the dangers of global environment catastrophe as Germany's governing coalition has lately. Since early February, when a UN panel presented its report on climate change and concluded that the Earth could heat up dramatically within only a few decades, the topic is back at the top of many political agendas.
Much of the renewed attention goes back to a presentation on the economic consequences of climate change given by Nicholas Stern, formerly the World Bank's chief economist, last October. According to Stern's gloomy prognosis, global warming could shrink the world's gross domestic product by between 5 and 20 percent.
Stern's warnings were affirmed a few weeks ago in a report by the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). According to estimates by the 2,500 participants from 130 countries, the world is heating up more rapidly than previously believed. Experts expect sea levels to rise by up to 59 centimeters (almost two feet) by the year 2100, with some even expecting the oceans to rise by twice as much. At that level, flooding would threaten more than 20 major cities, including Shanghai, New York and London, and about 200 million people would likely have to be relocated.
For awhile, the earnest, 1990s environmentalist seemed on the verge of extinction. Now, though, it seems everyone has become concerned about our natural world. Hardly a day passes without the release of some new, surprising conclusions about protecting the environment. According to recent opinion polls, the fear of climate change is firmly established in second place among worries plaguing Germans -- behind economic concerns.
Now is the time to take action
Politics has taken notice. Environmental policy, once the realm of cranky backbenchers, has become a hot topic among the political elite practically overnight. Michael Glos, Germany's minister of economics and technology and a member of the conservative Christian Social Union (CSU), attended a two-day conference in Brussels on the issue of hazardous emissions. In a video message to a conference of experts in Washington, which included participants from 114 countries as well as a number of US lawmakers, German Chancellor Merkel urged that now was the time to take action.
On the advice of party chairman Kurt Beck, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) leadership agreed to devote an entire party conference to the issue as soon as possible. SPD parliamentary leader Peter Struck even suggested that his fellow party members head to the nearest movie theater to watch "An Inconvenient Truth," a documentary film by former US Vice President and committed environmentalist Al Gore.
And while Renate Künast, the Green Party's leader in the German parliament, tries to convince Germans to buy gas-saving Japanese cars, Edmund Stoiber, the head of the CSU, wants the entire Bavarian state government -- cabinet ministers and their staffs -- to convene for a symbolically significant meeting at the weather station on Germany's highest peak, the Zugspitze.
Failure is not an option
But it's not just Germany. Climate change has also moved to the very top of the European agenda, partially thanks to Merkel's having made the issue a centerpiece of her six-month European presidency. The 27 EU heads of state will meet in the second week of March to discuss and ratify the underpinnings of their future environmental policy. British Prime Minister Tony Blair ("We are on the verge of a breakthrough") and French President Jacques Chirac ("It is time for a revolution") have publicly declared that failure is not an option.
Or is it? At issue is the fundamental question of what the world's strongest economies are prepared to do -- and what financial burden they are prepared to take on -- to at least limit climate change. After all, almost all experts believe that radical changes are necessary. Alternative energy production, filtration systems and retrofitting programs, at costs running into the billions, will not be enough to get the greenhouse effect under control.
For the industrialized nations this means a new culture of frugality that will significantly impact lifestyles: less electricity use, less driving and fewer large cars. And depending on how tough politicians are prepared to be, it could also mean fewer industrial jobs. Much will depend on whether China and India -- and the United States -- can be integrated into the new climate policy.
No wonder then that the European Union member states are wrestling so bitterly over the details of a comprehensive environmental policy. As committed as the heads of state are when campaigning publicly for climate protection, they are just as determined in their efforts to minimize the associated burdens for their countrymen and for their own national economies. The grand vision of a unified Europe is quickly reduced in back rooms to number-crunching and debates over where to set emissions limits. German Minister of the Environment Sigmar Gabriel has declared 2007 to be "the pivotal year for climate protection," but how it will end is anybody's guess.
Merkel herself opted to take a central position at the climate poker table. In early January, Merkel declared climate and energy policy the central topic of her six-month EU Council presidency. But it won't be long before we know just how successful she will be. In three weeks, EU heads of state will meet in Brussels, and some sort of compromise is a must.
Part II: Will the European Union Fail on Climate Change?
But it's far from a foregone conclusion. Should EU leaders only be able to agree to a formulaic declaration of intent, it will be something of a failure for Merkel and the German government. It would also not bode well for the other priority she has laid out for her EU presidency -- that of getting the European constitution back on track. Officials at the Chancellery in Berlin fear that Merkel's EU Council presidency could come to an end before anything significant is achieved.
Another complicating factor is that European neighbors have traditionally viewed the Germans as model pupils on matters of environmental protection -- a reputation the ruling establishments in Bonn and later Berlin have done their share to promote. After all, in no other country are citizens so meticulous when it comes to sorting their trash.
And Germany has reduced its emissions of the damaging greenhouse gas CO2 by 19 percent since 1990 -- largely through a combination of concerted effort, poor economic growth and the demise of East German industry -- while emissions from Spain, Italy, Finland and Greece have shot into the stratosphere.
If other Europeans have their way, the situation will largely remain the same. Just earlier this month, Merkel approved an EU plan that imposes tougher emissions limits on automobiles. The targets will be relatively easy for automakers in France, which tend to specialize in small cars, to meet. German producers like Audi, BMW and DaimlerChrysler, on the other hand, may have to make far-reaching changes.
Emissions-based vehicle tax
But it's not just the manufacturers -- drivers too may soon face changes. Minister of the Environment Gabriel is trying to convince his fellow cabinet members to approve a plan to limit tax write-offs for larger company cars. Finance Minister Peer Steinbrück is already having his staff run the numbers on a plan to base motor vehicle taxes on emissions instead of engine size in the future.
According to a draft plan Gabriel sent to SPD colleague Steinbrück at the beginning of February, tests would be performed to measure the precise emissions of CO2 in grams for each car model. This emissions level would then be used to calculate the new CO2 tax, which would increase with each additional gram of emissions.
Practically, that would mean that someone driving a luxury Mercedes would pay three times as much as the driver of a Peugeot 107. Vehicles with especially low emission levels could even be exempted from the tax altogether. According to the position paper, "the legislative process is expected to be concluded by the end of this year," though recent concerns raised by German states -- which have jurisdiction over automobile taxes -- may slow down the time table. Still, the plan to switch from a motor vehicle tax to a tax based on actual emissions of greenhouse gases is one that experts have long been urging the government to enact.
The initiative is just one of the ways in which Germany would like to preserve its role as a European leader on the environmental front. Other European countries, though, are in less of a hurry. Internal documents from the EU Commission show that some of Germany's neighbors do not unreservedly support all climate goals.
Sure the official proclamations on climate protection have only been positive. On Jan. 10, European Commission President José Manuel Barroso presented the European energy plan in Brussels. According to the ambitious plan, Europe would reduce its emissions of CO2 by at least one-fifth by the year 2020. The share of renewable forms of energy, according to the plan, would increase from its current 7 percent level to fully 20 percent by 2020. Heads of state throughout Europe praised the Barroso document as courageous and pioneering.
Difficulties in reaching an agreement
But that pioneering spirit has not been reflected in the recent negotiations. The current 11-page document, presented by the EU Commission titled "Conclusions, Energy Policy for Europe," contains hardly any concrete numbers. Indeed, it is little more than a series of bureaucratically worded declarations of intent. Where the document should read that Europe must reduce its energy consumption by one-fifth in the coming years, it now states that allowances must be made for "different national circumstances, potentials and starting points." This sounds as if it will be left to each individual government to decide which cuts it believes it and its citizens are capable of achieving.
The talks in Brussels have also faltered over the goal of raising the share of renewable energies to 20 percent. Although the decisive word "binding" has been retained in the text, reflecting Barroso's document ("highly specific measures"), it has already been placed in parentheses. The German environment minister is no longer convinced that an agreement will even be reached on this issue.
The British have been especially resistant to a clause that would stipulate where their future energy should come from. Under no circumstances do they wish to be forced to move more quickly towards wind, water and solar power. The French agree. President Chirac wants to see the use of nuclear power as a partial solution to Europe's climate problem -- specifically electricity from French nuclear power plants. The state-owned electric utility, EDF, already expects to see its profits grow as neighboring countries, including Germany, purchase more and more cheap nuclear electricity from France.
This new wave of environmental sensibility is likewise worrisome to a few eastern European countries, like the Czech Republic and Poland. They fear that the EU's restrictions on electricity use could jeopardize their economic growth. They also lack the funds needed for massive investment in environmental protection technologies.
Germany, though, is likely to forge on regardless of the reticence. The issue, after all, is far too important to German voters.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan