Incoming German Coalition Short on Environmental Specifics

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by Jabeen Bhatti

Germany’s left-leaning Social Democrats voted to enter a coalition with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative Christian bloc, a new government promising renewed dynamism in environmental policy making.

But the parties’ environmental and energy policies remain incomplete, analysts and attorneys told Bloomberg Environment.

The 179-page coalition agreement—which ended almost five months of political stalemate—includes some promising measures, but lacks the overall vision for how to revive Germany’s reputation as a pioneer in renewable energy policy and environmental protection after a series of embarrassing setbacks in recent years, the analysts and attorneys said.

“While a commitment to climate and other environmental goals is there, it’s not exactly clear how they want to design policy overall to achieve these goals,” Carsten Nesshoever, secretary general for the German Advisory Council on the Environment (SVR), which advises the government, told Bloomberg Environment.

“There are many individual measures that sound good, as well as many general promises,” he added. “But it lacks a convincing overall picture that indicates that Germany wants to continue to be a pioneer in climate protection and environmental policy globally and in Europe.”

’The Right Path’

All in all, environmental and energy policy makes up slightly more than 10 pages of the coalition agreement, as reviewed by Bloomberg Environment.

Most notably, it commits to Germany’s ambitious intermittent goals of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent by 2020, and at least 80 percent by 2050, as compared to 1990 levels—an agenda known as the Energiewende—by investing billions over the next legislative period into renewable production, electricity grid expansion, and alternative mobility measures such as public transport and bicycle sharing.

Still, a September study by energy think tank Agora Energiewende found that Germany is likely to miss its first emissions target in 2020 by as much as 10 percentage points, most likely due to hesitation over how those policies would affect the economy.

To compensate, the agreement expands on previous goals for renewable production and strives for 65 percent of Germany’s energy to be produced by renewable sources by 2030. Thirty-eight percent of the nation’s energy needs were met by renewables in 2017, but 62 percent of electricity is still generated by fossil fuels, according to the Fraunhofer Research Institute.

The agreement also calls for a commission to guide Germany in winding down coal-powered electricity production, which comprised 40 percent of overall electricity production in 2017, according to the Fraunhofer Institute.

“People have been juggling figures about what we can get rid of and at what time without doing any proper research on it,” Matthias Lang, an energy attorney and partner with Bird & Bird law firm in Dusseldorf, told Bloomberg Environment. “We have to reevaluate whether it’s doable, and how can it be done.”

Such steps show that Germany is taking “another step forward in energy and climate policy,” Minister for Environment Barbara Hendricks said Feb. 3 ahead of the release of the coalition agreement. “We are really on the right path to remain a climate change pioneer.”

Pressing Issues

Environmentalists and policy analysts told Bloomberg Environment that, while such promises sound good on their face, the new grand coalition is unlikely to address the pressing environmental issues facing the nation.

“Topics pertaining to the environment, and also sustainability in general, are limited,” said Nesshoever. “You just see a lateral approach to environmental policy that falls back behind other prioritized areas.”

Critics point out that for all the coalition’s rhetoric about codifying emissions goals, the nation’s agricultural and transportation sectors are seriously lagging. The controversial herbicide glyphosate is still used in Germany, despite having been characterized as a “probable” carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer in 2015, while transport-related greenhouse gas emissions fell only 2.2 percent between 1990 and 2015, according to Germany’s Federal Environment Agency.

Meanwhile, pending infringement procedures are in the works at the EU against Germany for its failures to adhere to air-quality limits.

The German government has continued to subsidize diesel fuel, and only agreed to nominal retrofitting of automakers’ diesel vehicles after a series of revelations that they’d been cheating emissions tests. This in part prompted a court Feb. 27 to declare diesel driving bans in several urban centers necessary in order to adhere to European air standards.

“All other alternatives, such as local public transport, electric cars and cycling promotion, aren’t targeted or won’t take effect quickly enough” to meet the EU’s standards by 2020, Antje von Broock, deputy director of policy and communication at Friends of the Earth Germany, told Bloomberg Environment. “The political will for clean air in cities is missing in the new federal government—it’s protecting the auto industry instead of its citizens.”

Enough Emphasis?

And even if such policy areas are addressed in the coming legislative period, Nesshoever with the SVR says the distribution of the ministries dealing with environmental policy should be carefully tracked. In past coalitions they were split between different parties with one party in charge of the environment ministry and the separate economy ministry handling energy, which may stymie any progress, he said.

Ultimately, such loose variables in climate and energy policy will damage Germany’s image as a pioneer in climate policy.

“It makes the negotiation and the discussions about these topics all the more difficult,” he said. “It is hard to recognize a big impulse for developing sustainable environmental policy.”

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