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Climate policy

Why isn't the environment a German election issue?

With German federal elections fast approaching, DW asked Niklas Höhne of NewClimate Institute why climate change isn't exciting voters and where the different parties stand on environmental issues.

Green chancellor candidate Cem Özdemir on the campaign trail in a BMW Hybrid Limousine (picture-alliance/dpa/G. Fischer)

Green chancellor candidate Cem Özdemir on the campaign trail in a BMW Hybrid Limousine

DW: Why have environmental issues been largely absent from the political debate?

Niklas Höhne: The issue that has been quite prominent is around 'Dieselgate' - so the issue of cars and their emissions. But other than that, climate change and other issues have been quite absent. I assume that is simply because other topics, like the refugee crisis and our education and social security, have been more prominent and basically put the environment in the backseat.

Which environmental issues are most important for German voters?

Niklas Höhne of NewClimate Institute has followed international climate negotiations since 1995 (DW/G. Rueter)

Niklas Höhne has followed international climate negotiations since 1995

I think right now, because of the diesel scandal, the most important one is air pollution, and being able to breathe in cities. But I think after that comes climate change, because it deals with so many things we do today.

What effect do you think 'Dieselgate' will have on the election?

I think it will have quite a significant impact. Transport is one of the important areas within climate policy that need to be tackled, and this diesel scandal really has put the emphasis on alternatives to the internal combustion engine - alternatives to diesel and petrol. I think that has shaped the positions of the parties: They think, we have to say something about what happens to the internal combustion engine, what happens after that, how we can support electric mobility.

Germany looks set to miss its 2020 climate targets. How has Chancellor Angela Merkel's coalition government faired on energy and climate policy?

I think Angela Merkel has done a good job internationally getting the G20 together and getting international momentum on the topic of climate change. But within Germany, such leadership is lacking. Traditionally, Germany has been very good at supporting renewable energy, especially in the electricity sector. That's something the current government has supported but has also put some brakes on. Now it's not going as fast. And on transport and cars, emissions are still rising and there haven't been significant policies to reduce emissions from transport. So, there's still a lot to be done to be really compatible with the Paris Agreement goals, which Angela Merkel also supported greatly.

Angela Merkel has strived for global climate action, getting the G20 at Elmau to commit to decarbonization (picture-alliance/dpa/S.Hoppe)

Merkel has strived for global climate action, getting G20 at Elmau to commit to decarbonization

What needs to be at the top of the new government's agenda to get Germany back on course to meet its climate targets?

The first element is supporting renewables. The question is, can you go faster than the current goals, which some of the parties support? I think that's very important. Definitely we should not go slower than the current goals, as some others say. Closely related to that is, if you increase renewables, you have to do something about the fossil fuel electricity production from coal. Basically, what's needed is an end date for electricity production from coal. That's the most important thing. And the second most important element is mobility - basically to set a date from when no more internal combustion engines will be sold. And I think that's definitely something that needs to be worked on.

What are the major differences between the parties on key environmental topics, like climate change?

The Paris Agreement on climate says that greenhouse gas emissions really need to head to zero. All major parties now accept that, and the question now is when we should reach zero. That's where the biggest differences are. So the one question is when to stop emissions from coal and electricity production. The Green Party says by 2030, while Christian Democratic Union (CDU) says it has to happen but don't really say when. It's the same for the internal combustion engine - when do we end diesel and petrol cars? Again, the Greens are most ambitious with 2030, while the CDU have acknowledged this has to happen but are looking more to some time at the end of the century - which is really a big difference.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel at Windpark Baltic 1 (Getty Images/G. Bergmann)

Merkel's current government has supported renewable energy, but is now putting brakes on its growth, Höhne says

What difference can the Green Party make as a junior coalition partner in a new government?

Definitely both larger parties - the CDU but also the Social Democratic Party (SPD) - they say that, yes, we need to do something on climate, but they're not very explicit about how fast it has to happen. So if the Greens form a coalition, they would definitely accelerate action.

Would a Red-Black coalition, between the CDU and the SPD, be better for the environment than a Black-Yellow coalition, between the CDU and the Free Democratic Party (FDP)?

Yes, definitely. If you look at the environmental policies of the liberals, the FDP, they're really going backwards - decades backwards. They want to reshape the whole environmental policy toward less regulation. They want to get rid of the support for renewable energy that has been so successful in Germany over the past decades. And they don't want Germany to do more than Europe as a whole. So they are really not at all in favor of environmental policy. I would assume if they govern with the CDU environmental policy will definitely slow down.

The far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) is known for its climate denial and wants to pull Germany out of the Paris climate agreement. Current polls predict AfD will almost certainly enter parliament. What impact will that have on Germany's transition to a low carbon economy?

Green Party conference, Berlin, June 2017 (Reuters/H. Hanschke)

Höhne says only the Greens are commited to upholding the Paris Agreement

The AfD will not be part of government because all other parties said they will not form a coalition with them. So they will stay in opposition and I assume they will have very limited impact on this issue.

What would you like to see from the new government in terms of energy and climate policy?

All parties say that they support the Paris Agreement. So that's good. But only the Greens actually propose measures that are fast enough to really be compatible with the long-term goals of the agreement. So I would really hope that all parties go back and think about how their proposals can really be compatible with what all countries of the world have agreed should happen. And that is actually to phase out greenhouse gas emissions very fast, a very fast phase out of coal, and a very fast introduction of alternatives to internal combustion engines. Right now, only the Greens have this in their program.

Niklas Höhne is a founding partner of NewClimate Institute, and special professor of mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions at Wageningen University, Netherlands. He has followed international climate negotiations since 1995 and is lead author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's Fourth and Fifth Assessment Report chapter on climate policies and international cooperation. He also created Climate Action Tracker.

The interview was conducted by Charlotta Lomas.

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