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German government gets heated over heating law

May 26, 2023

The Greens, the FDP, and Chancellor Olaf Scholz's Social Democrats traded angry accusations this week as one of its most important climate protection measures, a new building heating law, ran aground.

Heating in Germany
Image: Wolfgang Maria Weber/IMAGO

On Friday, German Economy and Climate Protection Minister Robert Habeck had to admit defeat: The Green Party politician's Building Energy Law would not, as planned, be making its way into the parliament this week for debate.

There were, according to neoliberal coalition partners the Free Democrats (FDP), too many questions left unanswered: 113 to be exact. Thirty-six of these had already been handed in, with a further 77 landing in Habeck's inbox this week. "These questions will be worked through and of course answered," the ministry promised in a statement on Thursday.

The government is determined to keep pushing: Habeck has invited parliamentarians from all three governing parties for a meeting at his ministry on Tuesday, to work through the objections, "to discuss questions and potential follow-up questions."

The law has become a running source of strife in the government coalition for months, even though its basic outline had already been agreed in April: From 2024, all new heating systems installed in German buildings would have to use 65% renewable energyinstead of, as now, oil and gas. That deal was made after the Greens agreed to support the FDP's plans to extend the highway network in exchange.

But the FDP's blockade appears to have hurt relations between the parties rather badly: Green Party parliamentary leader Britta Hasselmann said the FDP's actions had damaged the government's "ability to act and function." Other Bundestag members were less diplomatic: Marcel Emmerich, Green parliamentarian from Baden-Württemberg, called the FDP an "unreliable and destructive clique that does not feel bound to agreements. Even the word of the party leader doesn't count. Christian Lindner has become a king without a country."

New problems, old tech

The FDP,  and indeed Chancellor Olaf Scholz, were keen to frame the obstructions this week as a routine political exchange of views. The questions that have been made public all relate to the details of costs and practical implementation of the new law, and how the government planned to integrate potential new CO2-saving technologies apart from the heat pumps, which already exist. 

But for many observers, it's hard to escape the impression that the FDP's objections are more political than practical: With Habeck's law facing daily attacks by the conservative media, the FDP has seen a chance to win political capital by presenting itself as the party that can stop his regulations.

Pieter de Pous, of climate change think tank E3G, says the German government's legislation is no more than the current international standard: "Germany is one of many countries in Europe doing this," he told DW. "What is unique about Germany is that there is a party in government that is actively sabotaging it. There is not really any other way of describing it."

Berlin | Habeck
Robert Habeck has invited parliamentarians to his ministry to discuss their objectionsImage: Kay Nietfeld/dpa/picture alliance

Nor does de Pous think much of the FDP's argument that the law needs to be more open to future technological innovation: "Technological neutrality has become a bit of a slogan than having any actual standard meaning," he said. "If you look at the substance of the laws that have been brought in, they've always been technology neutral."

A previous example of this is the legislation around electric cars. The EU has agreed that all new cars built from 2035 will not come with gas or diesel combustion engines. "The only technology that is able to deliver that by that date is the electric vehicle," said de Pous. "If, however, the claims of the fuel industry are true that they are able to deliver this, then they are welcome to do it. It's technology neutral."

Similarly, heat pump technology has been used for decades, whereas alternatives to reducing CO2 emissions in heating have not yet been developed.

FDP, Berlin, Christian Lindner
Christian Lindner's FDP has been accused of blocking already agreed plansImage: Nadja Wohlleben/REUTERS

Social justice objections

But this isn't the only objection to the new law being raised. The left-wing sections of Scholz's Social Democratic Party (SPD) have repeatedly insisted that the legislation ensure that new heating systems are affordable for people on low incomes.

But this too is a source of contention in the government. Habeck's original plan was for the relevant subsidies and tax credits for exchanging heating systems to be weighted by income. This again met opposition from the FDP, who insisted that subsidies be shared equally among homeowners, rich or poor.

Andreas Löschel, professor of Environmental/Resource Economics and Sustainability at the Ruhr University Bochum, thinks the political row has contributed to the confusion and mistrust in the population — particularly when it comes to how subsidies and costs should be distributed.

"Of course, the law does mean large burdens for people, and there is a lack of clarity in the implementation," he told DW. "It's not clear what the burdens on the one side, or the subsidies on the other, will look like. What should people expect?"

But Löschel is also relatively confident that these issues can and will be resolved among the parties. "I think they'll have to settle their differences," he said. "The replacement of heating systems will be a process that will take the next one or two decades. It will be slow, and in parallel, the regulations will have to be made stricter."

Edited by: Jessie Wingard

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Benjamin Knight Kommentarbild PROVISORISCH
Ben Knight Ben Knight is a journalist in Berlin who mainly writes about German politics.@BenWernerKnight