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Polarized public over Germany's climate plan?

October 9, 2019

Seen by many as unambitious, Germany's 2030 climate plan, released the day of a global climate strike and now approved by the government, reflects past public ambivalence to climate action. But that is quickly changing.

Deutschland FFF Protestag in Berlin
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/M. Schreiber

On the day of the global climate strike that saw 1.4 million people take to the streets across Germany, the federal government released its €54 billion ($60 billion) climate protection package for 2030.

The plan, proposed by Chancellor Angela Merkel's climate cabinet and now approved by her government, included a rising price on carbon starting from 2021, incentives to put up to 10 million electric cars on the road, flight surcharges, increased road tolls for trucks, and more rail infrastructure funding.

But the package was flatly rejected by the Fridays for Future movement leading the climate strike. Like the plan to phase out coal by 2038, it was broadly seen as too little, too late — and only reconfirmed why Germany is on track to miss its 2020 emissions reduction target by almost 25%.

Public ambivalence

Despite the outcry, the plan thrashed out at the last minute by the governing grand coalition (center-left SDP along with conservative CDU and CSU parties) also reflected an ambiguous public stance on the climate crisis in Germany, the sense that most want action but don't want to be inconvenienced. 

In a statement Eric Heymann, an analyst at Deutsche Bank, wrote that the package was an "attempt to support global climate protection by means of national measures without putting too much pressure on the rank and file of private households and corporates in Germany."

The government, and the voters, want to have their cake and eat it.    

A YouGov poll from September 15 confirms that Germans, like their Scandinavian neighbors, ultimately believe they will dodge the worst effects of the climate crisis. While over 70% of the people surveyed in India and the Philippines believe they will suffer "a great deal of impact" from climate change, that figure is only 16% in Germany, and 10% in Denmark. 

This aura of invulnerability aligns with German public reticence to accept basic sacrifices for the sake of the climate, including an autobahn speed limit.

Unambitious targets

Only a week after the package was released, a nationwide survey by broadcaster ZDF confirmed that 53% of the German electorate believe that the climate package isn't sufficient. Only 20% consider it adequate to combat the climate crisis. 

Infografik Klimapaket Deutschland EN

"It's certainly not going to be sufficient to reduce emissions enough to meet Germany's targets," Christian Flachsland, Professor of Sustainability at the Herthie School of Governance, told DW in regard to the government's proposed CO2 price starting at €10 euros per ton in 2021 — rising to €35 in 2026.

Flachsland believes that carbon pricing will be a central mechanism in fighting the climate crisis. But he adds that if the goal of reducing emissions by 38% in 2030 from 2005 levels is to be achieved, the proposed starting carbon price needs to be around four times higher. Yet even this is a modest target, with packages like the Green New Deal proposed by the UK Labor party last month aiming for "net zero" emissions by 2030.


The German Greens, meanwhile, have said that a carbon tax will disadvantage poorer citizens who will struggle to afford rising fuel and heating costs. Instead, the party proposes outright bans, including outlawing the new registration of fossil fuel-powered vehicles by 2030.

But the all-powerful automotive lobby has itself fueled political reticence on bold climate policy, while the pro-diesel yellow vest movement in Germany has driven a public backlash against high fuel surcharges, for instance.

Despite dieselgate and increasing diesel car bans, the national love affair with the automobile continues, with car ownership rising to 43 million in 2018.   

AfD's climate wedge

And then there's the problem of the far right.

Back in May in the lead-up to the European elections, the co-leader of Germany's rising far right AfD party, Alice Weidel, accused Angela Merkel's government of "deindustrializing" Germany in the name of a "green-leftist ideology" based on "climate madness."

Read moreAngela Merkel demands more climate action and less hate

Referring to the ongoing energy transition that aims to largely replace nuclear and coal power with renewable energy sources, the AfD has been engaged in a full-blown anti-climate culture war, with Weidel linking e-mobility initiatives to a grand socialist conspiracy that will see the introduction of a "planned economy."

After coming a close second in two German state elections in September, the rising populist party has been inspired to amplify its climate denialism as a key point of difference from mainstream parties.

"The amount of social media posts attacking climate solutions has tripled over the last year, with Greta Thunberg being one of the most frequent targets," Stella Schaller, a Project Manager in climate diplomacy at adelphi, a Berlin-based climate think tank, told DW. 

But Schaller warns that the media have helped to overexaggerate the far right's influence on the climate debate. "By repeating false claims and providing a platform for divisive frames and narratives, climate denialist positions have been disproportionately visible," she said.   

Greens backlash

The AfD's rising influence on German voters is being offset by an ascendant German Greens party. The May European election fit the bill as a 'climate election', with the Greens surging to second place as the Fridays for Future movement continued its rise into popular consciousness. 

Indeed, the youth wing of the AfD has asked party leaders to reconsider its climate denialism, saying the party's disappointing fourth place in the European elections was partly the result of its climate skepticism. 

But the AfD has instead doubled down on its climate denial.

Read moreFar-right populists and climate policy: An attempt to move the goalposts

Can the center hold?

Flachsland believes the Greens will be able to exert maximum pressure on Germany's governing coalition as its poll numbers continue to increase — the party has even edged ahead of Angela Merkel's CDU party in recent national polls.

"Public support for ambitious climate policy has never been greater than today," Schaller said. "Climate change currently ranks the most important political issue in the eyes of Germans," she added, referring to a September survey by public broadcaster ARD showing that 63% of the German electorate believe climate policy has precedence over economic growth. 

Flachsland, meanwhile, cautions that "the change in the public mood is still relatively new," recalling the 2016 European Social Survey showing 55% of Germans to be "undecided or lukewarm" about ambitious climate action.

But if there is a general national reluctance to even accept speed limits on German freeways, the question is whether this new demand for climate action will ever be realized. 

Stuart Braun | DW Reporter
Stuart Braun Berlin-based journalist with a focus on climate and culture.
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