German chancellor Angela Merkel has an eco-friendly reputation. She’s been hailed for supporting international climate agreements and backing renewable energy technologies. On closer inspection, however, the chancellor’s renown has always been based more on fairytale than fact.
A popular myth, for instance, is that Merkel is the mother of Germany’s Energiewende—that is, its transition to renewable energy. This couldn’t be further from the truth. To the contrary, Germany’s signature energy policy was invented by her political opponents.
Back in 1991, Germany introduced a renewable energy law that allowed individuals to sell power back to the grid. But the big push came in 1998, when a coalition of social democrats and Green party members won power. The Green party was a continuation of the anti-nuclear movements of the 1970s and 1980s. For the party, closing down Germany’s nuclear power stations was a non-negotiable issue. After comprehensive negotiations with the nuclear industry, the government gave plant owners another two decades to operate, after which they would be shut down.
To compensate for the lost nuclear capacity, Germany introduced an incentive system to boost renewable energy technologies like solar and wind. This was the origin of the Energiewende. Germany’s Renewable Energy Sources Act of 2000 paved the way for rapidly falling costs in the wind and solar market – not only in Germany, but worldwide.
Germany’s nuclear phase-out was the spark that lit a fire under the renewables boom. A recent study on the impact of the nuclear exit on new technologies labeled this phenomenon “creative destruction.” But in 2009, Angela Merkel threw a wrench in Germany’s nuclear exit, extending the closure date of nuclear plants by an average of twelve years.
Merkel’s decision to abandon Germany’s carefully negotiated exit from nuclear was meant as a handout to the big utilities. Then came the nuclear disaster of Fukushima. Less than two years after the introduction of the new nuclear policy, Merkel had a change of heart. According to the chancellor, the Fukushima disaster made it clear that nuclear power was no longer an option for Germany. In response, eight plants had to shut down immediately, with the remainder to be closed by 2022.
The fallout from Merkel’s flip-flop has preoccupied the courts for years. Last year, Germany’s highest court declared that a tax on nuclear power companies was unconstitutional, allowing the companies to receive several billion euros’ worth of refunds. In 2016, the same court had already judged in favor of the utilities in a separate case over Germany’s rushed nuclear exit in 2011. And so Merkel’s vacillating energy policy has derailed the Energiewende. Instead of focusing entirely on renewables like wind and solar, Germany is still unnecessarily renegotiating its nuclear phase-out.
But the chancellor’s missteps go beyond the Energiewende. It’s no accident that German car manufacturers are at the heart of the controversy over emissions manipulations. The auto industry employs a disproportionate amount of workers in Germany, and therefore has political clout in Berlin. With Merkel, the auto bosses have enjoyed a particularly cozy relationship.
When the European Union tried to boost fuel efficiency standards in 2013, Merkel personally went to Brussels to block the plan. Similarly, the Dieselgate scandal that engulfed virtually every German carmaker was swept under the rug by the chancellor. Several brands were caught cheating on mandatory emissions tests with software calibrated to manipulate test results. But while the car giant Volkswagen was hit with heavy fines by American regulators, it got away with little more than a slap on the wrist in Germany. At a hastily convened “Diesel Summit” last year, Merkel’s focus was to prevent driving bans. The car giants promised to do better, provide some software updates, and pay into a fund to improve inner city transport.
Meanwhile, despite Germany’s lofty goal of putting one million electric vehicles on the road by 2020, Merkel has allowed the auto industry to capitalize on the quintessential German product: the combustion engine. With margins for diesel and gasoline-driven cars sky high, companies like VW and Daimler Benz have delayed the introduction of electric vehicles. In a parliamentary speech last year, Merkel revealed that in her view the combustion engine would play a role for “decades to come.” Earlier, she came out in defense of diesel cars as “environmentally friendly.”
Merkel’s green reputation has long obscured her failure to produce results. In 2016, energy consumption in the country grew for the second year in a row, as did overall emissions. Meanwhile, Germany also continues to subsidize fossil fuels. According to the Overseas Development Institute, a think tank, fossil fuels benefited from more than €30 billion in subsidies annually between 2014 and 2016. This includes everything from tax exemptions to financing for oil and gas projects and the country’s capacity payments for coal plants, which may be illegal under EU rules.
As the host of last year’s UN climate conference, Germany also came under pressure for its refusal to prepare an exit from coal power. While European countries such as France, Italy and the UK have announced plans to phase out coal in the near future, Germany continues to dig out entire villages to extract lignite, which ranks among the dirtiest energy sources. In January, a century-old church was torn down to make way for the extension of an already massive lignite strip mine. And new findings show Germany’s addiction to coal is entirely unnecessary. According to an analysis by the energy think tank Agora Energiewende (article in German), the 20 dirtiest coal-fired plants could be taken off the grid without a single light going out.
During the 12 years of Merkel’s chancellorship, Germany has gone from climate leader to climate laggard. The consequences will be severe. Germany is not only set to miss its own 2020 goal to reduce emissions by 40% from levels in 1990, but is also likely to fall short of binding EU targets for lowering emissions. As a result, it will likely have to buy certificates from other EU countries to make up for its emissions gap. While Germany is still seen as a leader on climate change, the facts tell a different story.