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Germany's new coalition promises climate revolution

November 26, 2021

A coal phaseout by 2030, more electric vehicles and rapid renewables expansion: Germany's new coalition has promised a climate bonanza. But can the ambitious targets be hit?

A series of wind turbines backed by the rising orange sun
The leaders of Germany's new coalition government delivered an agreement that was heavy on climate ambitionImage: H. Baesemann/blickwinkel/imago images

As Germany's new coalition government — comprising center-left Social Democrats (SPD), environmentalist Greens and the business-focused Free Democrat Party (FDP) — readies to take power, it has made bold climate policy the cornerstone of the alliance. 

An agreement thrashed out by the three parties was released this week and includes climate measures designed to keep Germany "on the path to 1.5 degrees" Celsius (2.7 Fahrenheit), promised Robert Habeck, the Green Party co-chair and Germany's likely next vice chancellor.

The measures include phasing out coal power by 2030, eight years ahead of the current schedule, powering 80% of the electricity grid with renewables within a decade and putting 15 million electric vehicles on German roads by 2030. The deal also proposes phasing out gas for power by 2040 and setting a minimum carbon price of €60 per ton ($68).

A new "super" Climate and Economy Ministry, to be headed by Habeck, is to provide the bureaucratic muscle to implement the ambitious measures.

A 'world-beating' climate deal

In the wake of the disappointment over the COP26 climate pact's watering down of a coal exit, environment groups and climate analysts initially welcomed the broad thrust of Germany's new climate measures.

"The text provides important impetus for climate policy and nature conservation," environment NGO Friends of the Earth Germany wrote in a statement. "We expressly welcome this progress compared to the previous government," the campaigners added. Still, they cautioned that the climate goals would not ensure a pathway to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Charles Moore, from London-based energy and climate think tank, Ember, said that scaling up renewables to power 80% of Germany's energy grid by 2030 is a "really bold commitment" — especially when coupled with the promise to put millions of electric cars on the road by the end of the decade.

"It's a vote of confidence in our electric future and the decarbonization of our energy system," he said. "There is a sense that it's world-beating."

Moore worked on a 2020 report detailing Germany's failing energy transition due to a heavy reliance on coal. But the new climate agenda has made him more optimistic. The rapid scaling up of clean wind and solar energy combined with a minimum carbon price of €60 ($68) will "finish coal by 2030," he said.

"My worries about coal in Germany are vastly diminished," he said in the wake of the coalition announcement. He added that he believes the climate deal accords with the International Energy Agency's prescription that increased renewables capacity is the quickest, cheapest and most efficient way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Are commitments sufficient for 1.5 degrees?

While coalition politicians claim the policies they agreed on will put Germany on the path to 1.5 degrees, others are less certain. Friends of the Earth Germany said it "views this with great skepticism," due in part to the lack of specific "annual expansion paths" for onshore wind and solar. It added that the climate neutrality date of 2045 "is too late for 1.5 degrees."

Climate activists from Fridays for Future had been demanding that a 1.5-degree commitment be central to the German coalition government negotiations, yet were also left underwhelmed by the outcome.

"Measured against the failure of the grand coalition, we are seeing progress," wrote Fridays for Future Germany, referring to Chancellor Angela Merkel's government in its analysis of the new climate measures. "Measured against the reality of the climate crisis, this government program is not enough."

There is also concern that the 2030 coal phaseout commitment is non-binding — the word "ideally" was inserted into the pronouncement — and that the phaseout date signals an attempt to transition from oil and coal with "the next fossil climate killer." Natural gas has controversially been touted as a "cleaner" bridging fuel as green energy sources, like solar and wind, are ramped up. That date would be 10 years too late to maintain a 1.5-degree pathway, said Fridays for Future.

"The coalition wants to build new gas power plants and claims that gas is critically necessary for the transition," said Deborah Ramalope from Climate Analytics, a global climate change research institution. "This is not true and could lead to profound fossil fuel lock-ins."

Ramalope, an environmental scientist, is also concerned that coal phaseout language is too vague and "is not a concrete commitment."

She added that decarbonization of the power sector would be served better by a coal phaseout by 2029, according to an analysisby Climate Analytics. Their modeling also showed that Germany could increase its share of renewables in the energy mix from the 80% promised by the coalition to nearly 90% by 2030.

Meanwhile, a 65% emissions reduction target by 2030 below 1990 levels "is close," explained Ramalope, "but not 1.5C compatible." Around 70% would be required, she said.

Coalition 'needs to deliver'

For Charles Moore of Ember, the commitment to "ideally" phase out coal by 2030 was "disappointing" as it missed an opportunity for Germany to "send a stronger international message on coal."

Nonetheless, analysts say the new climate measures, in terms of both coal and gas, are very realizable.

"A German power 2030 coal/2040 gas phaseout are both extremely achievable," tweeted Oslo-based climate analyst and authorKetan Joshi.

The coalition is setting Germany on the path to what the International Energy Agency calls "a clean, dynamic and resilient energy economy dominated by renewables." 

"Now they need to deliver," said Ramalope.

Edited by: Jennifer Collins

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