Germany took over the leadership of Germany last year after 16 years of conservative Angela Merkel. Following a “climate election” that saw the issue surpass COVID-19 as voters’ Top concern, Europe’s largest economy is now ruled by a progressive three-party “Alliance for Freedom, Justice and Sustainability” comprising Social Democrats, Greens and Liberals.
This is the first time the Greens have shared power since 1998-2005, years that saw the acceleration of the “Energiewende” (energy transition), a trailblazing project that has stalled over the past decade. With the party’s co-leaders heading both the foreign ministry and a new economy and climate “super ministry”, many expect Germany to step up efforts to once again lead on climate change and turbocharge the national Energiewende.
Likewise, there are high hopes for Germany’s new chancellor, Social Democrat Olaf Scholz. As Hamburg mayor, he brought that city’s energy grids back under municipal control to promote renewables following a popular referendum – despite initially opposing the idea – displaying a pragmatic approach to green policymaking. A bolder climate plan is possible with such figures at the helm.
The new government adopted an ambitious agenda that included goals by 2030To eliminate coal eight years earlier that was planned under Merkel, achieve 80% renewable electricity (up to the prior 65% goal), earmark 2 percent of land for offshore wind and achieve climate-neutral heating. It has also set ambitious targets for electric vehicles, train electrification and rooftop solar, with the ultimate goal of achieving climate neutrality by 2045.
“The bridge has collapsed”
But Russia’s invasion of UkraineThis has made it much more difficult to achieve all of these things. Germany’s energy transition has for years been predicated on the notion of Russian gas as a “bridge fuel” between a coal-powered past and renewable future, yet supply and sanctions-related concerns linked to the conflict are challenging the strategy. According to climate secretary Patrick Graichen, “the bridge has collapsed” as a result of the war in Eastern Europe, which “has broken the narrative of natural gas as a bridging technology”.
The Greens’ participation in government has further undermined the prospect of natural gas as a bridge fuel. The natural gas-sceptic party has opposed the Nord Stream 2 pipeline connecting Russia and Germany since its inception. Foreign minister Annalena Baerbock called it “a disaster.” Contrary to EU regulationsIt was even before it was Put on iceFollowing events in Ukraine
A slow decade
However, trouble was already in the making long before this. Despite the impressive achievements made in the early 2010, the gap period saw missed targets, slower deployment of renewable energy, and more failures. In a landmark case last year, Germany’s highest court even ruled the country’s 2019 Climate Change Act to be Partially unconstitutionalWe are failing to protect the rights and future generations.
Now, just as Germany attempts to simultaneously close all its coal-fired (by 2030) and nuclear (by end of 2022) power plants, rapidly rising energy prices mean lower- and middle-income households are footing an excess proportion of the Energiewende’s hefty bill. This seriously threatens the project’s popular support.
The government is facing another problem with calls to boycott Russian oil or gas. Robert Habeck, the economy and climate minister, claimed that an overnight embargo of Russian fossil fuels as part of wider sanctions would cause petrol shortages. Mass unemployment and poverty.
Restore energy democracy
One solution to Germany’s energy transition woes would draw on the country’s federal system to kick-start progress. German states and municipalities have always played an important role in environmental innovation. The Energiewende was launched largely through grassroots efforts.
From clean energy cooperatives to citizens’ initiatives pushing for greener municipal- and state-level policies, these experiments in “Energy democracy” stemming from the 1970s were buoyed by complementary laws passed at the federal level, particularly in the 1990s and early 2000s. This meeting of bottom-up and top-down approaches provided the foundation for Energiewende’s initial successes.
Over the past ten years, the energy transition has shifted agency and power from enterprising citizens and communities to large corporations, under the federal government’s aegis. The Energiewende was slowed down as citizens were unable to make contributions. Targets once reached are often not met. A national reappraisal is necessary to reverse this trend.
From Energiewende to “Zeitenwende”
Although the war in Ukraine has put a wrench in the wheel, it could still serve to accelerate the Energiewende. Intelligently designed, a graduated and proportionate Russian energy embargo could offer Germany a unique opportunity to explore alternative sources of powering its energy transition.
It is possible that the costs are not as high as expected. Experts suggesting an embargo could impact the country’s economy less than COVID, in the short term leading to a fall in GDP of between 0.5% and 3%, compared with a 4.5% decline during the 2020 pandemic. To make up the shortfall, renewables could be vastly expanded, with coal as a possible stopgap (nuclear is still a domestic problem).
Ultimately, whether the government’s promises are kept and the Energiewende’s potential is fulfilled remains to be seen. What is clear is that, beyond the immediate risks, this is also a moment pregnant with possibility – a potential “Zeitenwende” (historical turning point) for Germany, Europe, and the wider world.
Posterity will not look kindly if the new government fails to seize this generational opportunity to restore Germany’s climate leadership – and moral leadership.