On September 26, the world watched an era come to an end as the Social Democrats (SPD) gained a narrow election victory over Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in the German federal election.
After 16 years in power, Merkel has finally stepped down. Last Wednesday, the leader of the SPD, Olaf Scholz, was sworn in as the new German chancellor. He was voted in by the German parliament, the Bundestag, where his ‘traffic light coalition’ holds a considerable majority – and welcomed with a standing ovation.
The coalition agreement was announced after weeks of negotiations between the SPD, the Greens, and the Free Democrats (FDP). The announcement was followed by each party voting on the deal and after gaining members’ blessing, coalition leaders sealed the deal last Tuesday in Berlin.
But the brand-new government has some dark clouds on the horizon. When it comes to the protection of the environment, the Greens and the FDP collide. Both parties agree on the urgency of climate action, but their approaches are incompatible.
A blind spot no longer
The Greens call for stricter environmental laws, even bans, to force change, while the pro-business FDP is all about market-based solutions that won’t burden German companies.
Both parties will therefore need to compromise on how to execute and finance environmental policies while working towards a greener future.
Germany’s over-reliance on fossil fuels has for long been a blind spot for the country’s political elite. But with the Greens in government, times are changing. The coalition agreement includes ambitious climate targets that were seen implausible during the Merkel era.
Although Merkel, described as the ‘Climate Chancellor’, led environmental efforts on the international stage, at home she was caught between a rock and a hard place as the powerful automotive and coal industries limited her domestic success. The German car sector in particular was seen as an Achilles’ heel for the CDU.
Now, the new government is aiming high: the agreement includes a move to 80 per cent renewable energy by the end of the decade, doubling the current target. With Germany still falling behind many European countries when it comes to renewables, this will likely be a bumpy ride.
In addition, the coalition is ‘ideally’ accelerating the country’s coal exit by eight years, with the new target now set at 2030. Politicians have also promised to have 15 million electric vehicles (EVs) on German roads by 2030.
This may not be as straightforward as expected. Germans have proven to be among the most hesitant about the feasibility of EVs.
Previously, auto manufacturers and politicians alike have been cornered by unions seeking to protect the hundreds of thousands of Germans employed by the sector. Unions fear that a quick transition to EVs may cause tens of thousands of job losses.
Something needs to change, though. In terms of curbing greenhouse-gas emissions, the German transport sector lags behind other industries: an outlier that has failed to accomplish any reductions since 1990.
Deep divisions, finite time
How to decarbonise the German transport sector remains subject to heated debate. Biofuels offer an alternative which could alleviate the transition pains.
One viable option comes from Malaysia, where the Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO) scheme has succeeded in certifying 93 per cent of the nation’s palm oil as sustainable, with the government issuing sanctions for non-compliance.
This is positive news for biofuels, and for countries like Germany that desperately need to tackle their fossil fuel addiction with greener alternatives.
With the recent UN Production Gap report demonstrating how far governments are off meeting their Paris Agreement goals, we must explore all avenues.
In the case of Germany, however, the FDP could hamper the decarbonisation process. The FDP has been viewed as the party of 'men who love fast cars': critics of autobahn speed limits, hesitant to bring in government targets for the sector.
Divisions within the new coalition run deep. While the Greens are against polluting industries, the FDP is hoping to liberate the same industries from strict regulations.
That said, the future looks hopeful. The Greens may have lost the battle for finance minister, the most influential position apart from the chancellor, which went to the FDP’s Christian Lindner, but they have gained control of other key ministries.
The Greens’ Annalena Baerbock is the new foreign minister and the party’s co-leader, Robert Habeck, is the new vice chancellor and minister for economy and climate. All in all, the new cabinet includes seven ministers from the SPD, five Greens and four from the FDP. With the Greens holding five ministerial roles, we may expect a more hardline approach to climate policy.
The new government of Europe’s strongest economy is without a doubt going to influence the whole continent’s approach to climate change. The upcoming months will show whether the coalition parties are able to settle their differences and if Germany emerges as a climate leader.
Isabel Schatzschneider is an environmental activist and researcher specialising in food ethics, religious ethics and animal welfare. She is currently working as a Research Associate at the Friedrich-Alexander University Erlangen-Nüremberg.