Germany’s long-serving leader understands the threat posed by global warming, but her silence on the subject is deafening
By Megan Darby
On 23 September 2014, world leaders converged on New York to pledge their support for a new climate deal, at a UN summit hosted by Ban Ki-moon.
While many heads of state were ramping up the rhetoric on a low carbon transition, Angela Merkel was going the other way. The German chancellor, arguably the most powerful person in Europe, was addressing chiefs of energy-hungry sectors from carmakers to chemical giants at German Industry Day.
It indicated a shift in priorities from Merkel’s days as environment minister, when she was instrumental in laying the foundations for the Kyoto Protocol – the original climate treaty.
On Monday, Merkel visits the White House, where climate change is on the agenda. Will US president Barack Obama meet an advocate for ambition, or a protector of heavy industry?
Observers have little doubt that Merkel, a scientist by training, understands the case for tackling climate change.
She is credited with brokering the 1995 Berlin Mandate, an essential precursor to Kyoto, and persuading climate sceptic leaders – notably former US president George W Bush – to take the matter seriously.
“Germany has played an amazing leadership role in the international climate regime and Merkel has been central to that,” says veteran climate negotiator Farhana Yamin, now CEO of Track 0.
“They have always reached out to be a bridge builder but also to place a vision of low carbon and low energy at the heart of the European economy. She has been a fantastic champion.”
When Germany took up presidency of the European Union in 2007, Merkel’s third year as chancellor, she oversaw a package of climate targets for 2020.
That included winning the UK and France around to a 20% renewable energy goal, which “seemed ambitious at the time”, says Severin Fischer of Berlin-based think-tank SWP.
Then the financial crisis hit and Merkel went from “climate chancellor” to “green realist”, careful not to move too fast for Germany’s industrial interests.
Jan Kowalzig, climate expert at Oxfam Germany, points to the example of proposed tougher EU vehicle emissions limits. When German carmakers complained these regulations could hurt their businesses, Merkel went to Brussels to water them down.
A few years later, when her ministers were at odds over reforms to the EU’s ailing emissions trading system, Merkel sat on the fence. As a result, Europe’s flagship climate policy limps along, with a carbon price too low to stimulate low carbon investment for the long term.
“With Merkel, you have to differentiate between what she understands is necessary and what she does as head of government,” says Kowalzig.
“You don’t need to explain to her why you need to cut emissions and get out of coal. But she doesn’t act like that if it doesn’t meet other interests that she has.”
Hiding behind Poland
Last July, Germany pledged €750 million to the Green Climate Fund (GCF), a UN-backed initiative to help poorer countries tackle climate change. It was the first major economy to commit funds.
Announcing the move after flying back from Germany’s World Cup win in Brazil, Merkel said: “We have to be aware of what it will cost if we don’t act.”
She promised the EU’s 2030 climate and energy framework, under development at the time, would be ambitious and send a “clear signal” to the rest of the world.
But in the face of strong lobbying from Poland – in defence of its coal and energy intensive sectors – to water down climate protections, Germany kept a low profile.
“Many people think that Germany has in the end protected Poland and other laggards and hidden behind them slightly,” says Yamin. “If they wanted to, they could bring them all on board – they have on many other issues.”
At home, Merkel’s record is also mixed. Germany’s “Energiewende”, or energy transition, has driven a mass switch to renewables, helping to drive down costs of wind and solar technology worldwide.
Yet that has been overshadowed by a rapid phase-out of nuclear power, prompted by the Fukushima disaster.
Emissions have actually risen in recent years and the country gets more than 40% of its electricity from coal. The government unveiled extra policies in December in a bid to avoid the embarrassment of missing its 2020 emissions target.
“Obviously, the Germans have done the world a huge service in trying to really shift their energy system to renewables,” says Yamin. “They have not got such integrity when they are seen to give their coal a free pass.”
And the current coalition has given energy intensive industries lots of “carve-outs”, protecting them from policies designed to reduce emissions, says SOAS climate policy expert Harald Heubaum. “I see a conflict there.”
In Washington on Monday, Merkel and Obama have plenty of geopolitics to cover, from Europe’s tussle with Putin to the Islamic State threat. Climate change is not expected to be top priority for discussion.
Both leaders are publicly committed to a strong global climate deal in Paris this December. Given Germany’s close relationship with France at the top of the EU power structure, Merkel is critical to the summit’s success.
But she and Obama have both been burned before, with the disastrous failure of the last attempt to reach such a deal in Copenhagen 2009. According to eyewitness Mark Lynas, both fought to keep the show on the road but were thwarted by an intransigent China.
Since then, the US has brought China, the world’s biggest emitter, round to a bilateral agreement on climate change.
Merkel may wish to impress upon Obama that he cannot simply stitch up the negotiations with China, says SWP’s Fischer. “For Germany and the EU, I think it is important that we don’t move away from multilateralism.”
The US is “making the running” on climate negotiations, says Yamin, “but sadly they are not as good as their PR machine… It is up to Merkel to put the EU back on the map.”
While Obama’s pact with China president Xi Jinping last November injected impetus into the climate talks, US ambition is still constrained by a hostile Congress. Nearly half the Senate recently rejected the scientific consensus that climate change is mostly caused by human activity.
“Even though Obama is relatively progressive on climate change, in the negotiations it [the US] is one of the most difficult countries,” says Oxfam’s Kowalzig. “Germany is usually more progressive.”
Another chance for Germany to influence the debate ahead of Paris comes in June, when it hosts a meeting of the G7. The official motto is: “Think Ahead. Act Together.”
It is a “fantastic opportunity”, says Heubaum, to “tighten the screws, raise ambition and bring the conversation back to heads of state”.
Kowalzig hopes the leaders of some of the world’s richest economies – including the UK, Japan and France – will mobilise finance and technology support for poorer states to green their growth.
Paris is an important milestone, but it will not be the last word on climate. Diplomats have been busily lowering expectations, saying the deal is unlikely to limit temperature rise to 2C – the goal agreed in 2010.
That leaves more work to do in the coming years to ratchet up ambition. With up to 74% of Germans polling their approval of Merkel last year – in her third term as chancellor – she is likely to stay in power longer than most leaders around today.