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Germany heads for green government

Dave Keating
September 25, 2017

Sunday's election result means Chancellor Angela Merkel needs the Green party in her coalition in order to govern. What will it mean for the country's environment and climate policy?

Cem Özdemir and Katrin Göring-Eckardt holding flowers
Cem Özdemir and Katrin Göring-Eckardt of the Greens receive flowers after Sunday's electionImage: Reuters/S. Loos

After a 12-year absence, it looks like Germany's Green party is heading back into government. This has environmentalists feeling both excited, and nervous.

While in a coalition government with the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) from 1998 to 2005, the Greens steered Germany toward becoming one of Europe's environmental leaders. But now, their time in power could be quite different.

The SPD has been the junior partner in a coalition with German Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) for four years, but after a dismal election performance on Sunday they have ruled themselves out of a coalition for this term. This leaves Merkel with only one choice - to govern in a coalition with the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP) and the Greens.

This three-way alliance, called a "Jamaica coalition" because the parties' colors match that country's flag, would be a very different beast from the "red-green" coalition the Greens were involved in before. Merkel's CDU has embraced legislation to fight climate change, but has been more cautious than the SPD. The free-market FDP, meanwhile, has been downright hostile to many climate policies, says Niklas Höhne of the NewClimate Institute.

"They want to shape the whole environmental policy toward less regulation," he told DW. "They want to get rid of the support for renewable energy that has been so successful in Germany over the past decades."

Supporters of the Greens cheer
Supporters of the Greens were pleased that the party polled better than expectedImage: Reuters/S. Loos

No more coal?

At the same time, others say this coalition would be a chance to get Germany back on track to meeting its climate targets. It is currently set to miss its own renewable energy and emissions reduction goals for 2020.

"Having the Greens in government is a chance for Germany to get better at meeting its targets," says Sonja Meister, a climate campaigner with Friends of the Earth Europe. Sabrina Schulz of environment group E3G says a Jamaica coalition could mean "a return to decisive climate action, and a plan for a future phase-out of coal and the internal combustion engine."

The Greens are likely to make phasing out coal power a red line in the coalition-building talks. But this will be difficult to achieve, given that coal accounts for 40 percent of Germany's energy generation.

After the election result, Winfried Kretschmann, the Green premier of the German state of Baden-Württemberg highlighted "a quick end to coal-fired production" as one of main issues of importance for the party.

"The Green party can't, after what they promised in their campaign, simply enter into a coalition that doesn't tackle the coal phase-out," said Christoph Bals, policy director at the campaign group, Germanwatch.

Campaign posters for the Greens, SPD and CDU
The Greens criticised the CDU and SPD for their close ties to Germany's automotive industryImage: Getty Images/S. Gallup

Dieselgate response

The other red line is likely to be automotive. Greens leader Cem Özdemir said in August that "the Greens will not enter a coalition that doesn't initiate the end of the fossil combustion engine era and set the stage for emission-free transport." The Greens want only emission-free vehicles on the road by 2030.

But Christian Lindner, the leader of the liberal FDP, has said combustion engine bans, as are currently being considered for diesel cars in several German cities, would be "economically damaging, ecologically questionable and practically impossible." He is not in favor of government support for electric cars, saying he prefers a technology-neutral approach.

A turn for the Energiewende?

In terms of Germany's Energiewende, its flagship energy transition legislation passed in 2010 to move toward cleaner energy generation, the coalition could take it in either direction. Environmentalists have warned the program is losing steam and risks becoming irrelevant if improvements aren't made quickly.

Protesters holding a sign reading "climate killer chancellor"
"Climate killer chancellor": Angela Merkel has been criticized for not phasing out coalImage: DW/G. Rueter

But some businesses, which have the liberals' sympathy, think it has been too proscriptive and is distorting the power market with subsidies. Any changes that would introduce more support in the system are likely to be resisted by the Greens' coalition partners.

In such an environment, it would be a challenge for the Greens to get their priorities met - far harder than it was during their previous time in government. And in addition to the conservative impulses within their own coalition, they would also have to deal with the surging right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, which has now become the German parliament's third-largest force.

For the first time, a party which denies the existence of climate change has entered the parliament. This could cause the governing parties to pull their punches when it comes to implementing ambitious climate reforms.

At the same time, the Greens are not powerless. At any moment, they could cause the government to fall by pulling their support if their demands are not being met.