Overline: Climate Action
Headline: Planned Commission Masks Bad Leadership

Lignite mining in Brandenburg
istock/delectus

Major societal reforms call for strong political leadership, viable ideas, and political majorities. Yet in the implementation of Germany’s Energiewende, the centrepiece of efforts to achieve its climate protection goals, alarm bells are sounding in all three areas, notes Daniela Setton.

The results of exploratory talks to form a new ‘grand coalition’ between the conservative CDU/CSU and the social democratic SPD reveal the huge challenges faced by climate protection and energy transition policies in Germany. The Discussion Paper may not be a coalition agreement – and even that might not be worth the paper it’s written on if a new grand coalition is indeed formed – but this first settlement shows the extent to which the political cards are currently stacked against climate protection. On questions of pivotal importance to Germany’s future, the leadership of both parties is muddling through and doing its level best to avoid making decisions that might put it in the political firing line. And the reasons for this cannot simply be attributed to the difficulties associated with forming a government.

Matthias Miersch, deputy chair of the SPD faction in the Bundestag, quite rightly points out that a lot has been achieved in the talks between the two sides – for example a planned Climate Protection Act, an increase in the share of renewables to 65 per cent by the end of 2030, and the establishment of a commission for “Growth, Structural Change and Employment”. However, the negotiators themselves still seem unwilling to assume political responsibility for upholding the climate goals.

Is the government shirking its responsibility?

Let’s turn first to the planned commission, something that was already foreseen by the 2050 Climate Action Plan and has now been given slightly sharper contours in the Discussion Paper. It makes for astonishing reading here: The remit of the commission is to cover practically all the main issues in relation to achieving the 2020 and 2030 climate goals – not just in the field of energy, but also in the transport and construction sectors, as Matthias Miersch explains. The results of its deliberations, including an ‘Action Programme’ with measures to close the climate protection gap, are to be compiled within a tight timeframe and submitted by the end of 2018. They are intended to serve as a basis for the Climate Protection Act due to be passed in 2019. Such an extensive mandate goes far beyond the usual remit of expert commissions and it begs the question of just how effective the planned commission can be.

Let’s remind ourselves of the unsuccessful search for a consensus by several wide-ranging ‘energy-consensus rounds’ over many years in the early 1990s under the government led by Chancellor Helmut Kohl. Back then, nuclear energy was the central issue on the agenda, and the aim was to reach broad agreement on the country’s future energy policy. In the end, Gerhard Schröder took matters into his own hands on becoming chancellor in 1998 and negotiated Germany’s nuclear phaseout with the nuclear power companies themselves. And in 2011, Angela Merkel used the Ethics Commission mainly to garner political support for a decision she had already made to overturn a planned extension of the lifetimes of the country’s remaining nuclear power stations.

A commission with a carte blanche mandate

By contrast, the current negotiators of a possible grand coalition seem keen to delegate tasks that should actually be performed by the government to a commission. In the last legislative period, it was still the job of the Federal Environment Minister to develop and coordinate a package of measures to achieve the climate goals. The decision to establish an expert commission is certainly to be welcomed as this will create a forum for structured political debate on controversial issues, where different interests can be reconciled, for example with regard to the coal phaseout. However, to have a chance of success, such a commission needs a clear mandate that it can realistically achieve in the allotted time as well as the right combination of members and an effective way of working. So it’s important to give due consideration to its design.

There’s a reason for this shunting of responsibility for climate policy onto a commission. It is rooted first and foremost in the difficulty of securing the required majorities for aspects of the energy transition that are political hot potatoes. They include sensitive distribution policy questions, where discussions have been very tentative to date. Who needs to pay more for energy? And who should pay less? Who is entitled to financial support? Who is going to lose their job? What business models are still viable? To make matters even more complicated, an increasing number of actors with diverse interests are becoming involved in the political process. So it’s really no wonder that the Discussion Paper makes no mention at all of one of the key reforms of the energy transition, namely the reorganisation of the current system of levies and fees.

The need for greater acceptance of politically sensitive topics

Be it in relation to electricity, heating, food or mobility, climate policy touches on central aspects of our daily lives. And tackling these issues is politically risky – for all parties. Although it made sense from a climate protection point of view, the Greens’ Veggie Day proposal was quickly abandoned after it met with overwhelming public opposition.

To win people over to climate protection and the energy transition, the political process must be broad and open. It should involve associations, policymakers, businesses and citizens beyond the classical energy and climate spectrum.  The federal government needs to take the population’s desire for justice seriously and be guided by that in its decision-making. The data we at the IASS gathered in the Social Sustainability Barometer for the German Energiewende 2017 prepared in the context of the dynamis partnership reveals clear discrepancies between the government’s approach and the preferences of the general population, for example with regard to the financing of the energy transition. A majority of citizens doubts the capacity of the political parties to implement the energy transition. And about one quarter of Germany’s population believes that its views on this issue are not adequately represented in political discussions.

So the next federal government – whatever its composition – would do well to define the mandate of the proposed commission more narrowly.  Otherwise there’s a risk that the commission will become a permanent fixture that is incapable of achieving the required consensus. The commission can make an important contribution to getting convincing climate protection measures off the ground, but it cannot be a substitute for a political process. Here the responsibilty lies firmly on the shoulders of democratically elected decision-makers at federal and state level. And they need to do all in their power to assume that responsibility.

This article was first published on 29 January 2018 in Tagesspiegel Background Energie & Klima.

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