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German climate policy

Nils Zimmermann
November 9, 2016

A German climate policy expert says Trump's election victory is a wake-up call to European policymakers. Germany's climate and energy policy stances are highly influential globally, and now must be strengthened.

BdT Deutschland Wetter Winter Braunkohlekraftwerk von Vattenfall in Jänschwalde
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/P. Pleul

The shockwaves from Donald Trump's surprise election victory are echoing around the world. One place where it has particular resonance this week is in Marrakesh, Morocco, where the 22nd Conference of the Parties (COP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change is taking place. On the agenda is how to translate last year's Paris Agreement into concrete policy measures.

However, it is feared Trump's win could threaten the accord. The president-elect has in the past referred to global warming as a "hoax" perpetrated by the Chinese to make US manufacturing uncompetitive, and promised during his campaign to pull the United States out of the Paris Agreement.

Lutz Weischer is among the horde of thousands of government officials, corporate and NGO executives, and journalists attending COP22, as it's known to insiders. Weicher is team leader for international climate policy at Germanwatch, a leading German non-government think-tank focused on environmental and international development policy advocacy. DW caught up with Weischer by phone to ask his view on how Europe and Germany should respond to Trump's election victory.

DW: Mr. Weischer, Donald Trump has said he would pull the USA out of the Paris Agreement if he was elected. Now that he has been, is that something he could easily do?

Weischer: It's something he can initiate, but it can't be completed quickly. The US's ratification of the Paris Agreement occurred under existing legislation. There are legal procedures to follow if it wants to pull out, and there would be a delay before the pullout would take effect. It would take up to four years for its pullout to be complete.

Windmühlen in Rapsfeld
Wind and solar are providing jobs in TexasImage: DW/A. Bowen

DW: Under President Obama, US climate policy in recent years has seen some supportive executive actions his administration. Does Trump's victory mean the US is now out of the decarbonization game?

Weischer: The US has seen significant progress on moving toward lower-carbon energy systems through policies developed at the state level - and not exclusively in Democratic Party-governed states. Even some Republican governors have been active. For example, there's probably no more strongly Republican state than Texas - but the state has seen a major boom in wind and solar power in recent years. There are about 100,000 jobs in Texas renewable-energy industries.

DW: Given the likelihood that the US, at the federal government level, will hit the brakes on decarbonization, what do you think Europe and Germany's responses will be - or should be? Will they hit the brakes, too?

Weischer: No. We expect Europe and Germany to move ahead with their commitments under the Paris Agreement, and we hope they'll intensify their efforts.

On the same day Trump's election victory was announced, there was, coincidentally, news in Germany that Sigmar Gabriel, Germany's vice-chancellor and energy and economy minister, had blocked the adoption of a plan proposed by the environment ministry setting out a pathway toward full decarbonization of the German economy by 2050. The plan was supposed to be presented at Marrakesh as Germany's contribution.

Gabriel is reported to have blocked the plan because it foresaw a phase-out of lignite, or brown coal, as an electricity source, faster than he likes. He has long been an ally of the lignite miners union and coal-fired power generating companies. 

But he's also a former environment minister, and his stance is very disappointing. We're calling for the German government to change course and approve a climate plan within the next few days. The plan must include a commitment to a moratorium on new coal - that is, a permanent moratorium on giving permits to new coal-fired power stations or new lignite mines. And it should set out a roadmap for an end to coal-fired power generation in Germany by 2035.

Lutz Weischer, Germanwatch
Lutz Weischer, Team Leader for International Climate Policy, Germanwatch e.V.Image: Germanwatch

DW: What financial mechanisms are available to speed up the low-carbon transition in Europe?

Weischer: We strongly support proposals by Ottmar Edenhofer, chief economist of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impacts Research, calling for a Europe-wide carbon floor price - a policy the UK already has, by the way. This would give the European Emissions Trading System (ETS) some teeth, by preventing the carbon price dropping too low. It would generate a more predictable long-term price incentive to shift away from fossil fuels.

Ideally, the money raised from the carbon floor price would go into special fund for spending on low-carbon infrastructure or research and development.

DW: Does Germany's climate policy stance influence that of other countries, like China or the US?

Weischer: Definitely. Other countries watch Germany's actions and policies very closely, because we're a major industrial nation that uses a lot of energy, and we've committed to a long-term move toward a fully renewable energy based economy. If Germany hits the brakes, or alternatively, if Germany presses the accelerator pedal on the Energiewende (clean energy energy transition) - that matters on a European level, and also globally.

So it's important that the German government doesn't send Environment Minister Hendricks to Marrakesh empty-handed - especially now, in the wake of Trump's election. His election victory should be understood by European energy and climate policy-makers as a wake-up call. It's time for Europe to step up and lead a rapid transition to a low-carbon infrastructure and economy.  

Lutz Weischer was interviewed by Nils Zimmermann. The interview transcript was translated from the German and edited for brevity.