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20 April 2021updated 05 Nov 2021 5:21pm

German elections: Post-Merkel Energiewende starts to take shape

German Greens put up their first-ever candidate for chancellor in an election that will be dominated by Covid and climate change.

By Sonja van Renssen

In a press conference on 19 April 2021, the German Greens (Alliance 90/The Greens) announced Annalena Baerbock as their candidate for German chancellor. If elected she would succeed Angela Merkel when she steps down in September after 16 years at the helm of Europe’s largest economy.

Greens Party co-chair Robert Habeck introduces co-chair Annalena Baerbock as chancellor candidate on 19 April 2021 in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Andreas Gora – Pool/Getty Images)

The announcement was a defining moment for several reasons. First, the Greens have never before nominated a candidate for the chancellorship for the simple reason they were never strong enough to have a shot at it. Second, the Greens – at a European as well as a German level – have always had two leaders: a man and a woman (and historically, an idealist and a realist). Third, the Greens operate on a “Basis ist Boss” principle. In other words, the grassroots decide. This year, however, the party’s co-leaders, Robert Habeck and Annalena Baerbock, broke with tradition to jointly suggest who should run for Germany’s top job. 

Baerbock is the Greens’ choice for chancellor. Her nomination is expected to be confirmed by the party’s membership at its annual conference on 11–13 June. In a way, confirming a name for the Greens’ candidate does not change prospects for the Energiewende (energy transition) a whole lot. Baerbock versus Habeck was a choice between personalities, rather than programmes. They both hail from the party’s moderate wing.

Habeck, 51, will remain in the public eye in an effort to continue their teamwork. He is a charismatic writer with some government experience as energy transition minister in Schleswig Holstein, one of Germany’s most important wind power states. He is popular, but prone to the occasional gaffe. In contrast, Baerbock, who is 40, is a career politician with a reputation for prudence and diligence. As a member of parliament for the eastern German coal state of Brandenburg, she gained recognition during negotiations on the country’s coal exit. The former youth elite trampolinist knows her stuff – but she has never governed.

A new coalition

For the first time in history, the German Greens have a modest chance of leading their country. However, the German conservatives, made up of the CDU and its sister party in Bavaria, the CSU, remain the country’s biggest political force. Analysts have long agreed that the most likely outcome of the federal election on 26 September 2021 is a Black-Green coalition between the CDU/CSU and the Greens, with a conservative chancellor.

That chancellor would be Armin Laschet. The CDU party leader was announced as the conservative camp’s candidate after a marathon meeting of CDU party officials that ended in the early hours of 20 April. Laschet’s rival, CSU leader Markus Söder, had said he would respect their choice and conceded defeat.

The choice between Laschet and Söder was about much more than personality. In this case, the winner helps decide the pace of the energy transition in Germany over the next decade. Laschet, a Merkel loyalist, is premier of the country’s most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW). This is coal country and Laschet has invoked his father’s job as a coal miner to emphasise his working class roots and dependability.

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However, he has been criticised for his generous stance towards coal companies. NRW is home to RWE, Germany’s largest energy company and recipient of the biggest chunk of the €4.35bn ($5.24bn) available as compensation for the country’s coal exit. Laschet has also faced criticism for his defence of the newly opened Datteln IV coal plant and his handling of protests over a new lignite mine.

Bavaria has no coal mines or coal-fired power plants, which made it easier for Söder to embrace the need for climate action in a bid to combat the rise of the Greens in his state. Analysts debate his real commitment to the cause. As leader of the CDU, the bigger party, Laschet was the natural conservative candidate, but Söder, who only recently decided to run, is far more popular.

The conservatives now face the challenge of  building support for Laschet. The calm, orderly announcement of the Greens’ candidate was offset by the chaotic public battle in the conservative camp. The CDU and CSU have dropped in the polls. They are under the magnifying glass for their handling of the coronavirus pandemic and a corruption scandal, and they missed – albeit only by a day – a self-imposed deadline to name their candidate. The party that voters have historically gone to for stability is offering anything but.

Clean power, transport and hydrogen

Whoever becomes the next chancellor of Germany will embrace a nuclear-free and coal-free future. The closure of Germany’s remaining nuclear power plants in 2022 is not in doubt and the coal phase-out is also a done deal. However, they will face a debate over whether to move forward the coal exit date of 2038 — the Greens would like to see the phase-out completed by 2030.

Transport is also a big political priority for the Greens, says Arne Jungjohann, a political analyst affiliated with the Heinrich Böll Foundation, the Greens’ think tank. The Greens are expected to request the transport portfolio once in government. Bar the coronavirus crisis, in contrast to those of other sectors, transport’s greenhouse gas emissions have not fallen since 1990.

In an ideal world, the Greens would phase out sales of internal combustion engine cars by 2030 and introduce a speed limit of 130km an hour on German highways – the default today is none. With these ambitions, the Greens are not completely out of step with the German car industry, which is investing heavily in electric vehicles (EVs), but even Volkswagen, which leads this effort, does not intend to phase out the internal combustion engine completely. The CDU/CSU will defend the conventional car. Some say a domestic ban is not so important since 40% of German car exports go to markets that are targeting phase-outs.

Germany is likely to accelerate the energy transition in the power sector. Wind, solar and other renewables overtook fossil fuels in German power production in 2020. However, this change would not have happened without the pandemic and emissions will rise again in 2021, says Berlin-based think tank Agora Energiewende. The goal is to source 65% of power from renewables by 2030, up from 43% in 2019. The expansion of solar and wind power has faltered in recent years, however, and as of 2020 was far below levels needed to stay on track to meet the 2030 target, says Clean Energy Wire, a service for journalists reporting on the energy transition.

One of the Greens’ biggest tasks will be to manage expectations of what they can implement in a coalition government. Arne Jungjohann, Heinrich Böll Foundation

Plans for millions of EVs and ‘green’ hydrogen made from renewables-powered electrolysis add urgency to the need for clean power. The Greens and Conservatives both support hydrogen; the Greens restrict this to green hydrogen while the Conservatives are not shutting the door to other options such as ‘blue’ hydrogen made from natural gas with carbon capture and storage. With the prospect of green hydrogen – and the subsidies behind it – heavy industry has also become more supportive of solar and wind power.

The current German government has put up €9bn as part of a post-Covid recovery package to take the hydrogen economy forward. It has also launched several policy initiatives to overcome the impasse in renewables expansion. These include a review of the minimum distance and licensing rules for new wind turbines, a removal of support limits for solar power installations, and measures to speed up Germany’s flagging power grid expansion. From January 2021, a carbon price applies to fossil fuels in the transport and heating sectors.

A greener government

While a Black-Green coalition is being touted as most likely, there are other potential permutations. The liberal, pro-business FDP could be tacked on to a Black-Green coalition to create a more stable majority. This could increase the focus on emissions trading, which is the FDP’s favoured climate policy, and there is still the possibility of a ‘traffic light’ coalition bringing together the social democrats, FDP and Greens.

Whatever shape the new German government takes and whoever leads it, the Greens will play a strong role. “One of the Greens’ biggest tasks will be to manage expectations of what they can implement in a coalition government,” says Jungjohann. “They have moved into the centre.”

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This will have implications for climate and energy policies in Germany and beyond. At an EU level, Berlin is likely to demand more ambition in these areas than it has in recent years. Baerbock has made clear the Greens intend to institutionalise climate change as their guiding principle. The German election results may also have consequences for Nord Stream 2, the not-quite-finished pipeline set to bring gas from Russia to Germany (and by extension, Europe), which the Greens oppose but conservatives support.

Baerbock is pre-empting criticism about her lack of experience by presenting herself as a fresh face untethered from the establishment. The German Greens are out to prove not what is not possible, but what is possible, she insisted at her press conference. Such an attitude would likely benefit the clean energy transition, but how much power she will have to implement this can-do attitude will remain unclear until the autumn. 

This article was updated on 21 April to take account of the nomination of Armin Laschet as candidate for chancellor.

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