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What do the German elections mean for Cop26?
Slow Views

What do the German elections mean for Cop26?

Wednesday 29 September 2021

The truth is: very little. But that says more about Cop than it does about Germany, which has a chance to lead global climate policy once its governing coalition is decided

After Germany’s federal election last weekend, negotiations between the parties vying for a place in the next government are under way. One theme is likely to dominate the discussions: climate change. Because while the Green party only came third – with 14.8 per cent of the vote, behind the conservative CDU-CSU union (24.7 per cent) and the centre-left SPD (25.7 per cent) – its core message was triumphant.

All the parties in contention – the CDU-CSU, the SPD, as well as the leftist Greens and fourth-place neoliberal FDP – agree that tackling climate change should be a core priority of the next government. But that doesn’t mean it will be easy for the parties to come together in a three-way coalition. The Greens are more natural bed-fellows of the SPD; the Liberals have more in common with the CDU; and even if both of the smaller parties agree that climate change should be a priority, they disagree on the mechanics of how to tackle it. The Greens favour state investment in infrastructure, for example, while the Liberals would prefer the private sector to lead the way. 

All that means the negotiations will likely run until the end of the year – parties took six months after the 2017 election to come to an agreement – leaving Germany with a caretaker government during the most important international summit on climate change to date. This could, feasibly, be a problem.

Cop26, which will take place in Glasgow, will be the first major climate summit since the Paris Agreement in 2015. If the present diplomatic trajectory continues, it is unlikely to generate significant new headline commitments, but countries are still expected to show updated plans for reducing their emissions to keep global temperature increases below 1.5 degrees Celsius. Alas, even in that regard, it looks set to fail: UN analysis shows global emissions are on course to be 16 per cent higher in 2030 than they were in 2010, though scientists say they must be 45 per cent lower. 

The planet needs all hands on deck and Germany – or, more specifically, the departing chancellor Angela Merkel – has previously played an important role in nudging climate commitments forward. In 2015, Merkel was said to have convinced Putin not to block the landmark Paris Agreement, and when Trump sought to destroy the deal at the 2017 G20 summit in Hamburg, Merkel persuaded the other signatories to stick with it.

So how will Germany’s presence at Cop be different this time around? Will the electoral success of the Greens, and their likely role as kingmakers in the next government, mean Germany takes a more activist stance in Glasgow? Or will the uncertainty about Germany’s policy position going forwards hold climate action back?

Policy advisors and academics I have spoken to this week say that the election will make little difference, good or bad. The EU negotiates as a bloc at UN climate summits, meaning the views of any single government are filtered through the stance of the group, which is decided in advance. Germany’s new government will be formed too late to change that position. Even when the future coalition can have a say, the ambitions of the Greens may be diluted through the compromises made to form a pact; they would be diluted again in the UN forum by the interests of other countries.

The fact that the election will have a limited impact on Cop26 is a reminder that the real mechanics of climate action – the decisions to close coal mines or take cars off the road that actually lead to lower emissions – are taken elsewhere. Cop is a forum where those national governments meet, as UN member states; but the real action happens at home. 

Germany has demonstrated in the past how national decisions can make a difference. It is one of a handful of countries to have enshrined the goal of climate neutrality by or before 2050 in law. In June, it increased its commitment to international climate finance (the money that richer nations give to help developing countries adapt to the effect of climate change) after rich countries had promised – and failed – to deliver $100 billion for that purpose every year by 2020. At the G7 in Cornwall, Germany promised to raise its contribution from four billion euros to six billion euros per year. But it still clearly has work to do – according to data reported in the Guardian, Germany only met its 2020 emissions target because of the pandemic-induced economic downturn and will see its biggest rise in emissions since 1990 this year. 

Cop26 is certainly a moment for the international community to take stock of its failure to cut global emissions – but the policy decisions that actually lead to those cuts are made in other fora. Next year, Germany takes over the presidency of the G7 from the UK. That might be one of the first opportunities to see how last weekend’s elections will make a difference to the planet.

By then, the government of the world’s fourth-largest economy will have the mandate to pursue more ambitious climate change policies at home – like finally ridding itself of coal – and the authority, in doing so, to ask other high-emitting countries (I’m looking at you, China) to do the same.

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