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Can a 'Jamaica' coalition tackle climate change?

Gero Rueter | Ruby Russell
September 28, 2017

Critics say Merkel's last government failed to deliver on the energy transition. Can her next do better? The Greens will likely be part of the coalition - but so will the pro-business FDP. Environmentalists are worried.

Deutschland Bundestagswahl 2017 Wahlplakate Die Grünen FDP CDU
Image: Imago/C. von der Laage

Following the federal election, Angela Merkel begins her fourth term as German chancellor. But with a reduced share of the vote, it looks like her conservative party will need two junior coalition partners to form a government, the Greens and the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP) — the black, green and yellow so-called "Jamaica" coalition.  

But how will this politically disparate coalition make good on Germany's stated carbon reduction targets? Claudia Kemfert, climate expert at the German Institute for Economic Research, says the Greens are the only German party committed to taking the necessary action to cut emissions.

"The Greens taking part in government could prevent the worst,” she told DW.

 Despite Angela Merkel's international reputation as pioneer of climate action, critics at home say her 12-year rule has failed to meet expectations on emissions cuts, energy efficiency or the growth of renewables.

Her last coalition, with Germany's other major party, the center-left Social Democrats, has been accused stalling the growth of renewables and letting climate protection slip down the political agenda.

Shortly before the election, a leading think tank revealed that Germany is set to fall well short of its 2020 target of cutting carbon emissions by 40 percent compared to 1990. Without a radical change of policy, the cut will amount to little more than 30 percent - a damning verdict as the grand coalition's legislative period drew to a close.

Infografik Verpasst Deutschland das Klimaziel ENG

Tug of war over climate policy

So can the next government turn things around? With the Greens likely to be part of the governing coalition, its members will attempt to realize election campaign promises that included a raft of concrete measures to limit the carbon reduction shortfall. But even as they exert pro-environment pressure on the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), the FDP will be pulling Merkel and her party in the other direction.

Ahead of the election, FDP leader Christian Lindner stressed his commitment to the Paris Agreement on climate change - a commitment he shares with all the other parties in the Bundestag apart from the far-right Alternative for Germany, and all UN states excluding Donald Trump's America and worn-torn Syria. But his party hasn't explained how it intends to reach the global accord's targets.

"If the FDP want to govern, they have to deliver more on climate policy than paying lip service to the Paris Agreement," Greenpeace climate expert Karsten Smid told DW. "They must implement the consequences of the agreement," he added. "That means the new government must hold to the national 2020 climate targets, give up coal and program an end to combustion engine vehicles. German climate policy can only stand firm on these pillars."

Deutschland Merkel besucht den Windpark Baltic 1
Merkel is likely to be pulled in different directions by her junior coalition partners over climate actionImage: Getty Images/G. Bergmann

Under Lindner's predecessor, Philipp Rösler, the party made a name for itself for standing in the way of the energy transition. The FDP's election manifesto this year did little to reassure environmentalists that much had changed.

Calling for an end to subsidies and priority grid access for renewables, the FDP insisted that Germany would need to continue burning fossil fuels for the foreseeable future. This directly contradicts the Greens, who want Germany to quit coal by 2030. The FDP is also firmly opposed to the Greens' other 2030 target, the phasing out combustion-engine cars. And it wants Germany to lower its climate targets in line with those of the European Union.

"If you look at the environmental policies of the liberals, the FDP, they're really going backwards - decades backwards," Niklas Höhne of NewClimate Institute told DW in an interview. "They want to reshape the whole environmental policy toward less regulation."

FDP ideology centers on low taxes and faith in free markets, which puts it at odds with government intervention to boost the renewables sector and state-imposed environmental regulation on companies.

Good for the climate - and for business?

To reduce emissions, the FDP officially favors a market-based solution in the form of emissions trading whereby German companies must buy allowances for every ton of carbon equivalents they emit through the European Emissions Trading System. 
But prices are currently too low for the system to have had any impact on emissions.

Christoph Bals of environmental group Germanwatch, says the new German government could launch a "joint initiative with France to implement an effective floor price for CO2 emissions in Europe." But the liberals aren't keen. The FDP's Oliver Kumbartzky told DW he "didn't think much" of the idea, which he described as a "tax on CO2."

Deutschland Windenergie und Solarenergie
The CDU, Greens and FDP are working together in Schleswig-Holstein, a center for renewablesImage: picture-alliance/dpa/C. Charisius

Eicke Weber, former director of the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems calls for the FDP to have a major rethink on climate action, saying liberals have an ideological responsibility toward future generations. "The coal exit and a better CO2 price would be the first steps," Weber told DW.

But he also stresses that the transition to a low-carbon economy offers plenty for the pro-business party to get excited about, with the technology it requires presenting important economic opportunities for Germany. Weber is hopeful the FDP may yet come round. "There are some strong currents that, in a new coalition with the Greens, would be able to compete against the hardliners in CDU," he says.

While this would be the first "Jamaica" coalition at the federal level, the governing combination has been tried in regional state governments   with benefits for the environment.

Kumbartzky is a lawmaker in the "Jamaica" government formed in June in the northernmost state of Schleswig-Holstein, which is a major producer of wind power. Here, it seems the Greens' pursuit of emission-free energy and the FDP's focus on economic growth above all else align nicely.

"Schleswig-Holstein has a major interest in further developing renewable energy, which it has brought great number of jobs," Kumbartzky says. "Particularly on the structurally weak west coast, renewables drive employment and really bring money into the region."

Hammering out a treaty

Over the coming weeks, the CDU, FDP and Greens will have to negotiate a compromise. If they succeed, the policies they agree to implement over the next four years will be set out in their coalition treaty.

Bundestagswahl 2017 | Die Grünen - Göring-Eckardt & Özdemir
The Greens will have to fight to get the climate measures they want into a coalition treaty Image: picture-alliance/dpa/R. Hirschberger

Oliver Krischer, vice president of the Green parliamentary group, says his party will only be willing to sign such an agreement if it contains binding measures on CO2 reduction that will allow Germany to meet its climate targets.

"We have concrete measures for the coal exit, for climate protection in transport, and for the development of renewables," Krischer told DW. If the FDP doesn't agree to these measures it will "have to explain how it wants to meet the climate targets," he says. "So far, however, I have the impression the FDP is happy to talk up climate protection, but is fuzzy on measures to implement it," he added. 

Claudia Kemfert says that the Greens can only ensure that the governing coalition take necessary action to cut emissions if the environmentalist party is put in charge of energy and transport. In addition, the Greens "would have to compel the chancellor to fulfill with her electoral promises," she says.

During the election campaign, Merkel promised that Germany would meet its CO2 climate target and give up coal under her leadership. But Kemfert says the FDP would "certainly not support these objectives." It might then be up to the Greens to take the environmental reigns in a "Jamaica" coalition.