Where will Germany sit in the new era of climate alliances?

2017 will be a decisive year for Germany’s political leadership. Can Merkel make climate the priority? Asks Susanne Götze
<p>Germany will this year&nbsp;host the G20 presidency and organise the UN climate conference (COP23) in Bonn, on behalf of&nbsp;the Fiji Islands&nbsp;(Image: UNclimatechange)</p>

Germany will this year host the G20 presidency and organise the UN climate conference (COP23) in Bonn, on behalf of the Fiji Islands (Image: UNclimatechange)

When the US election result was announced in November last year, the UN’s climate conference in Marrakech was already underway. Within hours an idea started to spread among the delegations and observer offices: climate diplomacy would need new leading alliances. With the election of President Trump, the old world order looked to have changed and attention was shifting towards China.

Would the Chinese government safeguard the Paris Agreement? And which partner would it choose? China's star was rising and everybody knew it.

A few days later from the sidelines of the negotiations the German Minister of Environment, Barbara Hendricks, praised China’s performance at the summit, saying: “The European Union and China have to bridge the gap.”

A strong foundation

Germany has already been working together with other countries, including China, for years to establish the Emission Trading System (ETS), the world’s first major carbon market and the cornerstone of EU policy to combat climate change. This year China will launch its own national ETS scheme. This close relationship could be helpful in forming the foundation of a new international climate partnership, even if the US stepped away from its role at multilateral negotiations.

Germany, as a European leader, is looking for a strong ally in this crucial year that sees it host the G20 presidency and organise the UN climate conference (COP23) in Bonn, on behalf of official hosts the Fiji Islands.

Since Germany’s government has to face federal elections in September, an unsuccessful G20 in June could have a big impact on the country’s political future. Amid these pressures, can Germany further the climate agenda and foster new alliances?

The climate agenda

On the one hand, the country presents itself as an ecological leader and Angela Merkel continues being a strong player in diplomatic negotiations. If Merkel puts climate issues on the table at the G20 her guests cannot ignore them. Furthermore, as this is an election year the government will do everything it can to present a strong image nationally; and climate politics is always a good card to play.

On the other hand, Germany’s environmental strategy may not be that transformative after all; there are many countries which have overtaken the “Klimakanzlerin” (Climate Chancellor) as she was once dubbed. Her former Minister for Economic Affairs (recently appointed Secretary of State), Sigmar Gabriel, protected the coal industry for years and until his very last week in office opposed the idea of a coal exit. Germany’s authority when it comes to climate leadership might not, therefore, be a strong as it seems.

While the German Environment Agency (UBA) claims that Germany needs a quick and concrete plan to ban coal-fired power stations – there are still more than 140 stations in operation – Sigmar Gabriel declared that he doesn’t want to fix an exit date. Without the disputed coal exit, says the UBA, Germany won’t meet its 2030 climate targets according to the Paris Agreement. Even the 2020 targets won’t be achieved, admitted the government recently.

Another challenge is the uncertainty over the future policy of the US, which could walk away from its climate commitments altogether.

In Germany, many people are lobbying against Germany hosting the G20. Hundreds of protesters met in Hamburg in December for one of the biggest demonstrations the town had ever seen, according to the organisers.

Despite these destabilising factors, an alliance of non-governmental organisations and representatives of business are expected to push for progress on carbon pricing as a means to achieve the climate goals set forth in the Paris Agreement. 

Carbon pricing

“We hope that the German government will put the introduction of the agreed upon carbon prices on the G20 agenda, including the gradual up-scaling of those prices over the medium to long term. Such an internationally agreed price signal would prevent distortion of competition among the major players,” said Holger Lösch, from the German BDI, which represents 37 German industry associations.

The German Ministry of Environment is in favour of carbon pricing on an international level, a spokesperson said. Their aim is to push ahead with this market mechanism worldwide and to “harmonise” international carbon markets.

Christoph Bals, political director of the NGO Germanwatch and member of this coalition, argues that ambitious CO2 pricing will help reveal the real costs of greenhouse gas emissions, instead of repeating the mistakes of the toothless EU ETS, which has failed to have a significant impact on investment decisions.

The second topic expected to be on the agenda are fossil subsidies. G20 countries spend around US$440 billion annually to support fossil fuel industries and face mounting pressure for a full phase out by 2020.

A commitment to reduce fossil subsidies is more likely than CO2 pricing as it is more beneficial for a majority of countries, suggests German climate expert Susanne Dröge from the foundation Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (SWP).

The German G20 presidency is an opportunity for international climate policy to progress. Of course, as a topic is will be formally announced at the table but the main questions are: will the political leaders discuss concrete actions over ideals? And will there be a collective resolution afterwards? The blind spot remains President Trump. Only tough diplomacy in the run-up to the summit in June can guarantee real progress.