The German election result has moved climate centre stage

This post is by Ben Westerman, freelance political adviser working with Green Alliance.

The technocratic world of German politics bares little resemblance to the freneticism of Westminster but, in the wake of September’s federal election, coalition talks could prove crucial to global climate ambitions. With the running of the world’s fourth largest economy up for grabs, climate policy is the faultline and, as an industrial superpower, what happens next in Germany is crucial before and after COP26.

The social democrats, known as the SPD, has recovered from its worst post-war result in 2017 to come out on top with 25.7 per cent of the vote. The Greens, too, had a remarkable night, polling their best result ever. Much now rests on the Greens and the liberal FDP as coalition negotiations with the SPD commence.

The finance ministry is currently held by the SPD’s lead candidate Olaf Scholz; both the FDP and the Greens want it in any coalition. With issues such as carbon pricing, public spending and EU debt under its control, it is pivotal in European climate efforts.

Half of German votes think climate is the most important issue
During the campaign, half of German voters cited climate as the most important issue they face, and all parties back carbon neutrality by 2050, with some promising to achieve it by 2040. But, as elsewhere, it’s not the what but the how that frames the climate debate in Germany. The Greens and FDP have opposing philosophies on how to reach Germany’s climate goals, and the compromises they arrive at – if any – will set a benchmark for parties looking to reach across political divides on the defining issue of our time. With much talk of international climate leadership expected in the next few weeks, Germany has an opportunity to show the power of bipartisan consensus; failure to do so will set a dangerous precedent.

Annalena Baerbock, the Greens’ co-leader, has declared “the next government must be a climate government”, calling for “massive investment” in infrastructure aimed at greening and modernising a country in desperate need of digitisation. She will make the case for significant state intervention in the economy. The FDP, meanwhile, finds its natural home closer to Merkel’s conservative CDU, believing it’s the free market that will deliver climate goals. The party’s General Secretary Volker Wissing said that “people don’t want climate protection at the expense of prosperity, and don’t want prosperity at the expense of nature and environment. We need to bring these together and work out a solution to reconcile climate protection and prosperity”.

Central to the Greens’ electoral pitch was the creation of a climate ministry which would act as an intra-governmental climate police, armed with the right to veto other ministries’ decisions. For the FDP, the idea of a veto designed with the intention of enforcing cross-government co-operation is anathema to free market views.

There are divided views about the future of the car industry
The question of how to achieve carbon neutrality divides the coalition candidates, with the debate framed around just transition, the role of private finance and the cost of net zero.

The future of Germany’s world leading automotive industry demonstrates the chasm between the FDP and the Greens. The FDP outright opposes the EU Commission’s proposed 2035 deadline for banning the sale of polluting vehicles. The Greens want it brought forward to 2030. A way forward will need to be found if a coalition is to hold, given the importance of car manufacturing to jobs and the economy in Germany.  

On the controversial NordStream2 gas pipeline, the parties find common ground in their opposition, though the Greens’ opposition is far more vehement. However, the SPD’s Manuela Schwesig, minister-president of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern where the pipeline lands, has been supportive of the project.

Unsurprisingly, the CDU and FDP both want to rely on market mechanisms to push the private sector in the direction of green choices, particularly carbon pricing. The Greens, however, oppose any reliance on the free market in matters of social policy. These divisions could threaten Brussels, which has proposed extending the EU Emissions Trading System to cover fuels for transport and heating, a move championed by the CDU and supported by the FDP, but which has drawn far less support from the SPD and Greens.

Coal phase out is another faultline
Annalena Baerbock claims that “the market won’t regulate the climate crisis, because the market does not care about people”. The SPD sympathises with this pro-redistribution stance, but faultlines have appeared over the German coal phase out, with Annalena Baerbock attacking Olaf Scholz for supporting the 2038 target, a significantly less ambitious target than the Greens’ proposed 2030 deadline.

Whatever the outcome, the election result has put climate at the heart of German political discourse. Frans Timmermans, who leads the EU’s Green Deal work, has tweeted “Social justice, climate protection and the green transformation of our economy and society go hand in hand and the election results underscores this”.

German politics may be poles apart from Westminster, but the challenges are the same. Procrastinating now will only drive up the costs of transition and the risk to people and the planet.

With Europe’s biggest economy at stake, UK observers will watch with interest as Germany grapples with how to tackle the climate crisis while trying to underscore the EU’s claims to global leadership on climate action. If the Greens and FDP can come together in an SPD-led government, their climate compromises may yet prove vital on the world stage.

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