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17 September 2021updated 23 Sep 2021 10:00am

Why Angela Merkel failed to become a “climate chancellor”

The outgoing German leader wanted to put the planet on a carbon neutral path, but wasn’t prepared to pay the political price at home.

By Philippa Nuttall

Discussing Angela Merkel’s legacy on climate action is rather like speaking to my son’s teachers at parents’ evening. To paraphrase: “She clearly understands the subject, probably better than most, and has bags of potential, but the overall result is disappointing.” As to why this is the case? “It is complicated, isn’t it?”

In many ways, the outgoing German chancellor had all the cards to be a climate leader. She is a scientist and has never doubted the reality of climate change and its potential impacts. After studying physics, she obtained a doctorate in quantum chemistry and worked as a research scientist until she entered politics after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. She also has a firm grasp of environmental issues having held the post of environment minister from 1994 to 1998.

“Lots of politicians are just moving through the ranks and the environment is just one more topic they take on along the way,” says Mark Lawrence, a director at the highly respected Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (IASS) in Potsdam. Yet Klaus Töpfer, who after Merkel succeeded him as environment minister went on to lead the UN Environment Programme, “was especially passionate about the environment,” says Lawrence. “He left a legacy of a competent, strong ministry. This coloured Merkel’s political ambitions and showed her the importance of the environment in politics.” 

As environment minister, Merkel presided over the first UN Climate Conference in Berlin and led the 1997 Kyoto Protocol negotiations, the first international climate protection treaty. In 2005, Merkel was elected chancellor and continued internationally to push ambitious climate action. She persuaded G8 leaders in 2007 to accept the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s science and agree to at least halve global carbon emissions by 2050 through binding targets. The German press was ecstatic, dubbing her the Klimakanzlerin (climate chancellor). However, even her strongest supporters would be hard pressed to suggest she has lived up to this reputation. 

“Look at where Germany is today,” says Jennifer Morgan, head of Greenpeace International, who has crossed paths many times with the German chancellor. “Merkel is not the leader the world thinks she is.” On climate, she played it right at the global level, did an OK job at an EU level, but largely failed at home, believes Morgan, a neat summary backed by most who have followed Merkel’s climate action efforts. “In terms of really transforming Germany, she has not taken that on,” says Morgan. This summer’s floods in Germany “were a shock because the public has not been brought along with the risks of climate change”.

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Christoph Podewils from the Global Solutions Initiative, a Berlin-based think tank, cites more recent successes to show how, at an international level, Merkel was “serious” about climate change. Most notable for him, was the G20 meeting in Hamburg in 2017, where she pulled off the impressive diplomatic stunt of aligning all leaders, bar Donald Trump, behind a 19-to-1 vote in favour of climate protection and the Paris Agreement. Even Trump recognised her “fantastic job”. It is also under her watch, with fellow German and long-time ally Ursula von der Leyen at the helm of the European Commission, that the EU has upped the ante on climate action. The bloc recently increased its carbon emissions reductions target, proposed phasing out the sale of new international combustion engine cars by 2035, and agreed a €750bn Covid-recovery package of which at least 25 per cent will be spent on climate-friendly expenditure.

Merkel’s relative lack of domestic commitment to climate change is due, believes Podewils, to a reliance on realpolitik. “She did what was possible,” he says. “She never had a big vision. She governed through checks and balances. She personally would have welcomed more climate action, but her hands were tied by a realpolitik band.” Alexander Ochs, CEO of SD Strategies, a consultancy advising governments on environmental issues, tells a similar story. “In the international process, people look up to Merkel, but she is not someone who bangs her fist on the table, she leads from behind. She looked at what was feasible and broadly agreeable. There would have been benefits for society, the economy and the environment from a quicker, more courageous transition, but such change would have hurt interests and she was not willing to pay the political price.”

“Climate change is a wicked problem, it is so incredibly complicated,” says IASS’ Lawrence. To keep warming below the internationally agreed 1.5°C, significant action will be needed across all sectors of society and the economy. Such massive change will be disruptive and Merkel, like most heads of government, was not ready or willing to engage with this reality. “Merkel may have been highly sincere in her inspirations, but she was also sincere about keeping her party in power,” says Lawrence. “She recognised that if she pushed harder, she and her party would have lost too much support.”

Two policies agreed under Merkel’s leadership, and seen by most environmentalists as positive, are the decisions to switch off nuclear reactors after the Fukushima disaster and Germany’s exit from the use of coal-powered energy, even if the deadline of 2038 is too late for many. One of their biggest bugbears, however, is her enduring defence of the German car industry and consequent watering down of EU car emissions standards. She is also frequently slammed for her neglect of transport more generally and failure to tackle emissions from buildings and agriculture.

To have gone further on climate action “would have required a very deliberate effort; not just accepting what companies want and voluntary agreements,” says Morgan. The outgoing German chancellor “was perhaps over-influenced” by the views of the car industry, says a former European Commission director general. “With hindsight she would have wanted them to go further. It was in their own competitive interest to have done so.” Not until the 2015 Dieselgate emissions scandal did Volkswagen and other German carmakers make the transition to electric vehicles a clear strategic priority and admit the commercial opportunities of change. 

The chancellor’s dearth of consistent support for the renewables industry is another bone of contention. Generous subsidies had triggered a photovoltaic boom in Germany, and many hold changes in government policies at least partly responsible, along with cheap imports from China, for massive job losses in the sector since 2011. “More than 100,000 jobs in the solar industry were destroyed,” says Jutta Paulus, a long-standing German Green Member of the European Parliament. Merkel should have stopped the economics ministry under Peter Altmaier from “killing the German solar industry”. Growth and jobs in the wind sector have also been impacted by domestic regulation. The number of jobs in solar photovoltaic panel production and installation fell from a record 133,000 in 2011 to under 28,000 by 2018, while employment in the wind industry dropped from a high of around 108,000 in 2016 to under 70,000 two years later, show figures published by the German Trade Union Association (DGB) in February. 

“Merkel was not only chancellor, but also party leader of the CDU for most of this time,” highlights Arne Jungjohann, political analyst and author of Energy Democracy, a book about the German energy transition. “For many years, its business wing dominated the party’s climate agenda, watering down initiatives or killing them completely. This is part of Merkel’s legacy.” Ochs agrees Merkel could have been tougher with Altmaier in particular. “He was not exactly a climate or clean energy pioneer, Merkel could have said he had to be. Under Merkel, renewables were taken away from the ministry of the environment and handed to an often backwards-looking ministry of economics. Such a decision is not befitting of a climate chancellor.”

This conclusion is certainly correct, but Lawrence is doubtful any single politician could have done a much better job and not lost support. “It is hard to know whether it was better she stayed in office and did the few things she did, such as kicking off the Energiewende, rather than having a hardliner follow her who might have undone those things,” he says. “We’ve seen that happen in other countries: [Barack] Obama pushed really hard, getting the US to sign the Paris Agreement and instituting social healthcare, and look who came after him and started undoing it all.” 

“Merkel was the acceptable face of Germany, who engaged her country in the search for European and global solutions to problems, but she never reneged on German interests,” says the former European Commission director general. “She led by taking into consideration political, economic and social imperatives. It was important for her to lead Germany in a cohesive way.” Merkel herself recognises that such an approach may not have served her climate ambitions well. “I have put a lot of energy into climate protection […],” she said at her annual summer press conference in July. “And yet I am sufficiently equipped with scientific understanding to see that the objective circumstances mean that we cannot continue at this pace but that we have to move faster.”

Germany has progressed in the last two decades towards climate neutrality and a renewable energy-based economy. Since 2019, the country has a climate law and a carbon price for buildings and transport. However, emissions are increasing again and in the annual Climate Change Performance Index, published by NGOs, Germany has dropped below the EU average into 19th place. That Merkel is a scientist, understands the risks of climate change and yet leaves Germany with rising emissions is “deeply tragic,” says Morgan.

“My impression is that Merkel is sincere at heart,” says Lawrence. “Her pretty poor environmental record does not come mainly from personal weakness, but is especially a reflection of society. Everyone who criticises her should look at themselves and ask whether they are pushing enough for political action. Merkel failed to become a climate chancellor, but given German society’s attitude, name someone who would have done a better job over the same time period?” 

My teenage son would doubtless concur that doing a better job is a tricky business. 

[See also: The Merkel paradox: how the chancellor's strengths weakened Germany]

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