The inconvenient truth for Angela Merkel's government is that many Germans believe her climate rhetoric has not been matched with real action.
Images of the former environment minister in Greenland against a backdrop of melting glaciers were beamed back to Germans in 2007 as Merkel carved out an early reputation as the "climate chancellor". But few are making such claims today as the outgoing leader's party haemorrhages votes to the Greens ahead of September's election.
"Germany has turned from a climate leader to a climate laggard under the Merkel government," says Lisa Göldner, of Greenpeace Germany.
"She really mastered the art of staging herself as a climate leader on the international stage… but [domestically] in the end she always chose the interests of the economy over the climate."
That threatens to come back to bite her Christian Democratic Union party in September's vote, with the Merkel government also hurt by its vaccine rollout and a third wave of Covid-19.
One stunning poll last week put the Greens top for the first time in years as unpopular CDU chancellor candidate Armin Laschet fails to reverse the slump .
Playing catch-up on the climate
Meanwhile, another survey of business executives found they favoured the Greens' candidate over the CDU's even after promising tougher emissions targets, higher carbon taxes and bans on selling petrol and diesel-guzzling cars. It gives the Greens an opportunity to take on the country's dirty industrial powerhouse.
Germany's emissions reduction still compares favourably to many rich nations, such as the US and Australia. But climate progress has slowed markedly in the last decade under Merkel with Germany still partly powered by coal and dependent on heavy industries, such as car makers.
Europe's largest economy reduced emissions by 35pc between 1990 and 2019. However, it recorded just an 11pc drop between 2009 and 2019 – before Covid lockdowns distorted the figures in 2020. By comparison, Britain, one of the best emissions cutters among the major economies, has experienced a 44pc drop between 1990 and 2019 and a 24pc fall since 2009. France, Italy and Spain also cut greenhouse gases faster than Germany in the decade before Covid hit while the Biden administration was praised for its ambitious emissions target for the US.
A reliance on coal for energy and an unwillingness to take on heavy industry has hurt climate efforts in the world's sixth-biggest carbon emitter.
Some 44pc of Germany's energy production came from renewables in 2020 but a quarter still came from lignite (also known as brown coal) and hard coal – dirty power sources that are all but obsolete in the UK. The need for coal has not been helped by Merkel's government signing off on the phase-out of nuclear energy in the wake of the Fukushima disaster.
"The emissions of the power sector did not rise despite the nuclear phase out but they also did not decrease," says Jutta Paulus, a Greens MEP. "Nuclear went out, and coal and gas power plants kept running and the gap was made up by renewables. If the nuclear phase-out had been postponed, then we would have seen a much larger decrease but I am sure German society would not have accepted keeping nuclear on the grid."
Critics say the Merkel government has sacrificed climate ambitions to help the heavy industries that underpin the German economy, such as its automotive giants. Cutting emissions from transport has been a key weak spot while a €50bn package in 2019 to accelerate the country's progress was deemed insufficient.
"In the last 15 years, industry was very much opposing any kind of climate protection measures," says Claudia Kemfert, an economist specialising in the environment at DIW Berlin. "The CDU came under a lot of pressure, that's for sure. Now it's time for change and the industry itself is now changing its mind."
Just as Merkel's CDU has fallen behind on climate goals, the Greens have risen as a serious force in German politics. After being controlled by the hard-line and radicals Fundis, the Greens are now run by the more centrist Realo group and are likely be a part of the next coalition government.
"Society has become more green and the Greens have become more mainstream in return," says Paulus. "When I remember how it was like in the 1980s, that was a totally different party." The party's platform will strike fear in the worst-offending polluters in Deutschland AG but advocates say its high spending and carbon clampdown are needed to propel the German economy into the 21st century.
"It's a great opportunity for business, but it means also business has to change," says Giegold. "The CDU was not ready to basically tell business, you have now to change your whole production lines, and reinvest."
The Greens propose targeting a 70pc cut to emissions by 2030 relative to 1990 levels, up from the current 55pc target Germany risks missing. Some €500bn of much-needed public investment over a decade is planned while the carbon tax would be ramped up. And, like the UK, the Greens want to ban sales of combustion engine cars from 2030, a controversial policy in a country famed for Mercedes-Benz, Volkswagen and the Autobahn.
Easing the debt brake
However, its policies may be watered down in a coalition, particularly if it involves entering government with the CDU – currently the most likely outcome. Paying for the climate investments will require challenging the defining fiscal policy of the Merkel era.
The debt brake limits the structural deficit to 0.35pc of GDP, keeping German government debt well below other European countries. But the Greens, and increasingly German economists and business leaders, believe Berlin should take advantage of ultra-low interest rates after a dearth in public investment in recent years.
"Germany has negative public interest rates and all good business people would use this as an investment opportunity," says Giegold. If the Greens enter a coalition with the CDU, it may be difficult to persuade them to rip up Merkel's flagship fiscal policy even with such low borrowing costs.
Changing the constitutionally-enshrined debt brake to allow more investment requires a two-thirds majority in both chambers of German parliament, a high hurdle for the Greens to clear. However, economists argue that policymakers can find workarounds to stop it killing climate ambitions if needed.
"Merkel didn't have the courage to start the transformation," says Göldner. "She didn't dare to tackle the car industry and the big energy industry."
The Greens promise to put the German economy's climate transition back on track. But the realities of life in coalition could soon temper their most disruptive instincts.
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