German Election Prompts Hope For Climate Action, Worry That Democracies Can’t Do Enough

The impacts of global warming motivated voters, but the results won’t deliver the swift policy changes needed to stop them.

Olaf Scholz is the leader of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) in Germany, which won the largest share of the vote, 25.7 percent, edging ahead of the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU/CSU). Credit: Michael Kappeler/picture alliance via Getty Images
Olaf Scholz is the leader of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) in Germany, which won the largest share of the vote, 25.7 percent, edging ahead of the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU/CSU). Credit: Michael Kappeler/picture alliance via Getty Images

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After an election campaign that was partly shaped by a summer of climate disasters, German voters boosted the Green Party into a position where it could, in the best-case scenario, help the country meet its ambitious targets to cut greenhouse gas emissions 65 percent by 2030.

But even with that success, the environmental goals of climate-concerned voters will rise or fall in the fickle, months-long process of building a government coalition, leaving some wondering if Germany’s democracy, or any others, are capable of implementing the rapid national policy transitions needed to end the use of fossil fuels to slow global warming. 

The Greens got 14.8 percent of the vote in Sunday’s election and showed the biggest increase of any party, due in part to its promises to start a rapid transformation to a carbon neutral economy that protects the climate. In Germany’s parliamentary system, that share of the vote all but ensures them a spot in a new coalition government, which will be formed in negotiations that will probably take several months.

The Social Democratic Party (SPD) won the largest share of the vote, 25.7 percent, edging ahead of the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU/CSU), with 24.1 percent. With 14.8 percent, the Green Party took third, ahead of the centrist, libertarian leaning Free Democratic Party, which came in fourth with 11.5 percent, just slightly more than extreme right Alternative For Germany (AfD). 


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The two largest parties, CDU and SPD, governed Germany in a coalition the last eight years led by retiring chancellor Angela Merkel, but both have been losing voters, especially young people, who supported the Greens and Free Democrats after watching the two mainstream parties fail to implement effective climate policies.

Talks to form a new government are just beginning, but hopes for increased climate ambition center around a coalition of the Social Democrats, Greens and Free Democrats. In that scenario, the Green Party would likely hold key ministries, potentially with the power to block climate-harming policies. 

The coalition talks will probably still be in progress when international climate negotiations organized by the United Nations, known as COP26, begins on Oct. 31. The transition to a new government in Germany won’t have much of an effect on the climate talks, said Reimund Schwarze, an environmental economist with the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research and Viadrana International Affairs

“The old government is still going to be in place at the beginning of November, even if we see some speedy negotiations,” he said. Merkel has no plans to attend the talks, he added, and Environment Minister Svenja Schulze will represent Germany.

The script for COP26 doesn’t include any dramatic new “save-the-climate” agreement by heads of state. By design, the talks aim at incremental voluntary progress in implementing the 2015 Paris climate agreement to limit global warming.

Could the Climate Have Veto Power?

If the coalition talks bring about the expected results, Schwarze said he expects the new government to have a “clearly strengthened climate focus, including a climate ministry, the main demand of the Greens … that will mainstream the climate issue in all lines of politics.” The power of a climate ministry will be determined by the negotiations, but Schwarze said the power to veto climate-damaging policies would be a key policy tool.

Up until now, the German finance ministry has held the power to veto policies based on cost, with the ability to block climate policies deemed too expensive, said Stefan Rahmstorf, head of Earth System Analysis at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.

A coalition government including the Greens could flip that dynamic.

Co-leader of Germany's Greens and the party's candidate for chancellor Annalena Baerbock gives a statement following a meeting with the leadership of the Free Democratic Party (FDP) in Berlin, Germany, Sept. 29, 2021. Credit: Michele Tantussi/POOL/AFP via Getty Images
Co-leader of Germany’s Greens and the party’s candidate for chancellor Annalena Baerbock gives a statement following a meeting with the leadership of the Free Democratic Party (FDP) in Berlin, Germany, Sept. 29, 2021. Credit: Michele Tantussi/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

A strong climate ministry would be able to say, “we can’t afford this, because we don’t have the emissions budget left,” Rahmstorf said, explaining how implementation of climate and sustainability policies could look under a new government. But he cautioned against too much speculation at this early stage. “It’s difficult to judge what the outcome will be until we have formed a government, and see what type of agreement they make about climate policy.”

Under the German coalition system, the parties establish a common government agenda they pledge to carry out during the five-year legislative period. In neighboring Austria, where the Green Party has a position in a coalition government similar to the alignment expected to emerge in Germany, the government has been able to implement climate-focused highway and public transportation policies. With the Greens as a key player in Germany, climate policies in the coming coalition should improve over those of the last eight years, which saw the conservative-led government slow the deployment of renewable energy, Rahmstorf said. 

“For the wind industry, the brakes were put on deliberately by the government,” he said, “for example, by setting such large minimum distance requirements between turbines and houses” that they effectively blocked wind power development across huge areas. “It’s fossil industry lobby power that worked through the past government to slow the growth of renewables because it threatened their business model,” he said.

But Giulio Mattoli, a transportation researcher at the Technical University in Dortmund, Germany, said there’s a general feeling that the election is not going to shake the status quo very much, with the new government’s climate policy built around the lowest common denominator among the members of whatever coalition is established. 

Recent analyses of the climate plans proposed by the major German parties show that none of them is ambitious enough to reach the target of capping warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius, he said. 

And despite the early talk of a climate-focused coalition, he said that some of the fundamental contradictions between the parties present high hurdles. The Green Party, for example, wants to enact a universal highway speed limit that would result in a quick and deep cut in emissions, but the Free Democratic Party is dead-set against such a measure, and instead wants to extend the European carbon pricing scheme to the transportation sector to create a financial incentive to reduce vehicle emissions.

Weak Campaigns and Systemic Failures

Even though the threats of global warming ranked very high among German voters’ concerns in the lead up to the election, the discussions of climate by the campaigns was disappointing due to a low level of information, and because journalists often did not ask good questions,” Rahmstorf said. 

At an early stage of the race, the Green Party actually led the polls, due in large part to its promises to take meaningful action to slow climate change. But as they hinted at the far-reaching changes to energy, transportation and food systems required to effectively slow warming, the other parties charged them with wanting to take away people’s cars and schnitzels.

Rahmstorf said the mainstream media picked up that drumbeat by framing the climate question in terms of, “What will be the cost, and what will be forbidden,” raising fears among voters about declining affluence and lifestyle restrictions. During the major debates among the candidates the media also failed to hold the current government accountable for its continuing failure to live up to the obligations it already made under the Paris agreement, he added.

“It’s very disappointing that all the parties say they are committed to Paris, but there is a glaring gap,” he said, noting that none of the major German parties has a solid plan for reaching the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

“Two of these parties have been in government for many years,” he said. “They pay lip service to it but they don’t live up to it. This credibility gap hasn’t been forcefully addressed by the media.”

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But, the election at least signals “a slow step in the right direction. You shouldn’t underestimate the CDU being out, he said, ”because they were the strongest force against more ambitious climate policies. I hope we will get a government that will proactively tackle this problem.”

He said the new government also will have to respond to the rising cry of climate protests in Germany, which in recent months included dramatic hunger strikes in front of the federal parliament and young activists demanding meetings with the main candidates. Some of the world’s biggest climate demonstrations were once again held in Germany last week, where half a million people took to the streets.

“A large majority of Germans have said climate change is their biggest concern,” he said. Why more of them didn’t vote for the Green Party is puzzling, he added, but can partly be explained because “they believe, naively, that Germany is a leader, and is already doing enough.”

“We’ve had a government that has simulated climate policy,” he said. “They say all the time how much they’ve been doing, but they are doing the opposite, lobbying Brussels for less stringent emissions cuts and cutting down the wind and solar industries by reducing financial support and doing nothing about cheap imports from China.” 

Those policies cost 120,000 jobs, which few people talk about, he added, while the loss of 20,000 coal mining jobs is constantly being discussed.

For some political scientists, the German election is yet another sign of the very limited ability of established liberal democratic governments to implement the rapid, systemic changes needed to cut emissions and limit global warming.

Some people are just as scared of the transition to a carbon-neutral economy as they are of global warming, said Daniel Hausknost, an assistant professor at the Institute for Social Change and Sustainability at the Vienna University of Economics and Business. That fear might make some people shy away from voting for parties like the Greens that advocate for systemic change, he said.

“Modern states were set up to divide up an ever-growing pie that’s fundamentally unsustainable,” he added. They are not set up to reduce consumption of energy and natural resources, which is what is needed to get a grip on global warming, he said.

“I don’t think we can do it with the systems we have. Liberal democracy is set up for consistency,” he said. “In a time of transition, things could become inconsistent and messy. We need a transformative form of democracy.”