How Dying Forests and a Swedish Teenager Helped Revive Germany's Clean Energy Revolution

Public support for action on climate change and hundreds of wind and solar co-ops that brought benefits to local communities restarted a stalled movement.

Power Switch: First in a continuing series about the German energy transition.

BERLIN—Twenty years ago, before climate change was as widely seen as the existential threat it is today, Germany embarked on an ambitious program to transform the way it produced electric power.

Over the next two decades, it became a model for countries around the world, showing how renewable energy could replace fossil fuels in a way that drew wide public buy-in by passing on the benefits—and much of the control—to local communities. 

The steps Germany took on this journey, and the missteps it made along the way, provide critical lessons for other countries seeking to fight climate change.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Credit: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

German Chancellor Angela Merkel walks past wind turbines while visiting a wind farm in 2010 in Krempin, Germany. Merkel's government presided over a major expansion of renewable energy, while also changing financial incentives in a way that made it more difficult for small, local projects to be viable. Credit: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Last summer, I went to Germany to figure out where the energy transition, or "Energiewende," stands today, with climate change blaring like a siren across a nation already alarmed. Record-breaking heat in successive summers had left the fabled German forests dotted with clumps of dead brown trees. My hotel room in Berlin was broiling.

As a longtime energy reporter, my working hypothesis was that Germany's experience held many lessons for the United States. The two countries have a lot in common economically and culturally. They are heavily industrialized economies with powerful energy and automotive industries. Both were built, in part, using inexpensive coal power, and both have emissions challenges partly shaped by car cultures that are difficult to change.

But while Germany has made immense progress on climate and clean energy, the United States has lagged far behind. Germany now generates 43 percent of its electricity from renewable sources, compared with 17.5 percent in the United States. And Germany does it without rolling blackouts or brownouts—a powerful lesson in and of itself for America, where utilities in many states continue fighting the transition to renewable energy.

"What Germany did has made a huge difference for everybody, for the whole world," and the United States should pay attention to that, said Greg Nemet, a University of Wisconsin public affairs professor who has spent years studying German energy policy.

The Rise of Renewables

Perhaps most important, Germans have embraced renewable energy because they have a stake in electric power and reap the benefits locally, in the form of jobs and energy-funded social programs. And in Germany, where 71 percent of the population sees climate change as a major threat compared with 59 percent in the United States, there is no meaningful national debate over whether global warming is real. 

Yet Germany's energy transition was hardly a straight-line journey of success. 

Hope, Disillusionment, then Hope Renewed

It was a time of far-reaching optimism and ambition in 1998, when German voters thrust a center-left coalition into power. The new government aimed to dramatically increase renewable energy while phasing out nuclear power.

Two years later, lawmakers passed landmark legislation that provided the financial incentives for the coming boom in wind, solar and other renewable energy. The 2000 law was in many ways the starting point for the intense period of progress that followed.

"We thought we could change everything," said Eveline Lemke, a member of Alliance 90/The Greens, the coalition partner that made clean energy a centerpiece of national policy.

The new policies transformed the energy economy, making it cleaner and less centralized. Solar panels popped up on roofs and giant wind turbines sprouted across the countryside.

But the growth wasn't sustained. By 2014, the steep cost of renewable energy subsidies produced high electric bills and a conservative backlash. Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose center-right government was first elected in 2005, responded by making changes to clean energy laws that slowed development.

The momentum faded into disappointment for many Germans.

But last year, spurred by mounting protests and calls for more aggressive climate action, Merkel's government took a series of steps to assert the country's commitment to move away from fossil fuels. 

The German Parliament passed a $60 billion proposal that would, for the first time, impose a tax on nearly all carbon dioxide emissions. It also provided additional subsidies for wind and solar energy, and accelerated the push to cut emissions from automobiles, trucks and airplanes. The Parliament also adopted a plan to shut down all coal-fired power plants by 2038 and provide $45 billion to help coal miners and their communities through the changes. 

Yet environmental activists are quick to note that the new momentum did not originate in the halls of Parliament. It came from the cities and villages, and from the massive Fridays for Future demonstrations inspired by Greta Thunberg, the Swedish teenage climate activist—a bubbling up of grassroots enthusiasm that has given renewed hope to many people who were at the heart of the early-2000s push for renewable energy.

That new hope was what I had come to Germany to see.

Germany is Getting Hotter

One of the first things I noticed in Berlin was the heat. My hotel and most of the offices I visited did not have air conditioning, having been built at a time when cooling was rarely needed in this northern city. I learned to leave my suit coat in the room and travel with plenty of water.

The heat wasn't normal, people told me. The summer had been a scorcher, with the temperature in Berlin climbing to a new all-time high of 101.5 degrees Fahrenheit on June 30. The rising temperatures had already done lasting damage, something I could see looking out the windows on cross-country trains. The wall of green forests on hillsides was now pockmarked with brown, where trees had succumbed to several years of hot and dry conditions.

Scientists say it's not possible to attribute a single heatwave or unusually hot summer to climate change. But the long-term trend is clear: Berlin and indeed, all of Germany are getting hotter, as is the world.

And that feels particularly dire for people whose work is tied to the energy transition.

One of those people is Karsten Neuhoff, head of climate policy for the German Institute for Economic Research. On my second day in Berlin, I went to his austere office building, located near Checkpoint Charlie, a former border checkpoint from when Berlin was a divided city during the Cold War.

For me, this was much more than an ordinary interview with a policy expert.

I grew up in Norwalk, Iowa, a small city near Des Moines. When I was a freshman in high school in the 1990s, an exchange student from Germany lived with a host family across the street from my parents' house. He and I were in band and speech classes together. He was funny and friendly, with an exceptionally wavy head of hair. His name was Karsten Neuhoff.

Karsten Neuhoff. Credit: Dan Gearino/InsideClimate News

Karsten Neuhoff is the head of the climate policy department at the German Institute for Economic Research. Credit: Dan Gearino/InsideClimate News

As I was preparing to travel last summer, I asked researchers in the United States to recommend German experts I should interview. One of the names they gave me was Karsten Neuhoff.

I assumed there was no way that this energy economist could be the same person who was in marching band with me. Then I saw his photo. It was.

When we met in Berlin, I saw that his warmth and smile were just as I remembered, but his head of hair was sadly lost to time.

He told me about his vivid memories of how his host family in our town felt pride that Iowa farmers provide corn for the world, and how this would later inform the way he viewed Germany's transition to clean energy. The lesson was that rural communities need to feel pride and buy-in about producing renewable energy, because the rural United States, like rural Germany, is where there is room for utility-scale wind and solar.

The key, he said, is for people to have some control over renewable energy development and to directly benefit from it, as opposed to having the development imposed on them.

He added, "Citizens must have confidence in the ultimate goals of the system: Why are we doing this?"

What this means is that support for the policy needs to cut across regional and partisan lines and it needs to endure. Without this, political support will erode.

Neuhoff was giving me a primer on something I soon would hear over and over in my travels across the country: the need for broad public buy-in. It's also a key insight, I realized, for Americans working toward a decentralized approach to energy that could break the policy stranglehold of big utilities and the fossil fuel industry.

Activists in Germany call it "citizen energy." 

A Rural Movement Takes Shape

The Energiewende grew out of rural activism in the 1970s that had nothing to do with climate change. The concerns were about how new power plants and factories were changing the character of rural areas, said Craig Morris, a writer and renewable-energy advocate.

"This was about getting the government to be more transparent and allowing people in this democracy to have more input into what infrastructure is built," he said.

Morris grew up in Louisiana and Mississippi but has spent most of his adult life in Germany and is a naturalized German citizen. He was a co-author of the 2016 book Energy Democracy, a history of the German energy transition.

We spoke at Humboldt Park, a landmark green space near his home in Berlin, where concrete anti-aircraft towers from the Nazi era still stand on the hilltops. From the park, we looked down at an expanse of joggers, bicyclists and people doing yoga.

Morris tells the story of the 1975 uprising in Wyhl, a village along Germany's Rhine River border with France. The government had approved construction of a nuclear power plant whose main customer would be a lead production factory. Farmers and other residents staged protests, including a months-long occupation of the land where the nuclear plant was to be sited.

On Oct. 8, 1976, several hundred opponents of the planned nuclear power plant in Wyhl booed the head of the state government at an event in a neighboring community. Credit: Rolf Haid/picture alliance via Getty Images

On Oct. 8, 1976, several hundred opponents of the planned nuclear power plant in Wyhl booed the head of the state government at an event in a neighboring community. Protests against the plant began in 1975 and inspired the country's environmental movement. Credit: Rolf Haid/picture alliance via Getty Images

At its core, this activism was about local control over where energy came from. So it was not surprising that many of the same people were among those who years later took up another cause: local ownership of renewable energy.

Many of the rural advocates were politically conservative. But their agenda overlapped with an existing movement of left-wing activists that had formed at universities. The left-wing movement began as a broad critique of government and opposition to nuclear power and evolved to also support wind, solar and other renewable power sources. 

One of the inflection points for the growth of environmental activism on the right and left was the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster in Ukraine. This was close enough to Germany that radiation made its way to many plants and animals there. The disaster touched on existing anxieties about nuclear power and nuclear weapons, and the idea of banning nuclear power gained currency among the public and in the government.

But in the late 1980s, Germans had other, more pressing things on their mind than a far-reaching energy policy. The former East Germany dissolved in 1990, leading to a period dominated by the financial and social concerns of German reunification.

Still, clean energy advocates yearned for their moment, and it came in the 1998 federal election. 

A Shift in Power: 'We Were on the Right Side' 

On the night of Sept. 27, 1998, throngs of revelers danced and waved flags in front of Berlin's Brandenburg Gate, a scene broadcast across the country. A center-left coalition had been swept to power and was setting its sights on a renewable energy revolution.

In the election, Gerhard Schröder and the center-left Social Democratic Party came out ahead of the center-right Christian Democratic Party, which had long been dominant.

Neither party won a majority of seats in Parliament, so Schröder needed a coalition partner to gain control of the government. He found one in Alliance 90/The Greens, a party that started in 1980 with an agenda focusing on environmental sustainability and opposition to war and nuclear power, and evolved to become a leader in calling for action to fight climate change.

Hans-Josef Fell. Credit: Dan Gearino/InsideClimate News

Hans-Josef Fell was a member of Alliance 90/The Greens in Parliament from 1998 to 2013 and co-author of the landmark 2000 Renewable Energy Act. He is pictured here at the Berlin offices of Energy Watch Group, the nonprofit research group he co-founded. Credit: Dan Gearino/InsideClimate News

The newly elected Greens included people new to national politics such as Hans-Josef Fell, a former high school physics teacher from the German state of Bavaria, who had been part of the country's environmental activist community since the 1970s.

Fell and his peers entering government had little patience for gradual change, and they pursued their agenda with fervor.

"We were on the right side," he said.

German Chancellor and Social Democrat Gerhard Schröeder (right) and German Foreign Minister and Alliance90/The Greens leader Joschka Fischer gesture at an election campaign rally in 2002. Credit: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

German Chancellor and Social Democrat Gerhard Schröeder (right) and German Foreign Minister and Alliance90/The Greens leader Joschka Fischer gesture at an election campaign rally in 2002. Schröeder and Fischer were the leaders of a coalition that was in power from 1998 to 2005. Credit: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

He made a vital contribution by co-writing the legislation that would become the 2000 Renewable Energy Act. Under that landmark law, developers of renewable energy projects received a guarantee—called a "feed-in tariff"—that they could sell their electricity to the grid for 20 years at a set price high enough to virtually guarantee a profit for the developer. To pay for this, the government set up a system of monthly surcharges on utility bills.

That feed-in tariff was what drove an impending surge in clean energy projects, jobs and income.

By 2004, Schröder's Social Democrat-Green coalition had spent billions and made Germany a world leader in renewable energy, which Environment Minister Juergen Trittin said represented the nation's commitment to fighting global warming. Jobs in the renewable energy sector exceeded 160,000. Germany was the world's leader in wind power and was close to overtaking Japan as No. 1 in solar energy.

But the coalition's time in power was limited. It ended in the 2005 election, with Merkel and her center-right Christian Democrats winning the most seats. Her party formed a coalition with the center-left Social Democrats and the Greens were out of government.

During her first few years in office, Merkel continued the major policies of the Energiewende, which were still new and still had relatively small costs.

At the same time, she became a leader advocating for international climate agreements, dubbed the "climate chancellor" in German media.

The country made a major emissions reduction commitment in 2007, with an agreement to cut greenhouse gases 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020. Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel called it "the biggest and most ambitious set of laws and guidelines you'll find anywhere in the world."

The target was the first step toward a series of goals adopted in later years, as the country formed its emissions-cutting plans and negotiated treaties like the 2015 Paris Agreement. 

The early Merkel era was a time when the policies of the Energiewende began to add up to changes on a large scale. The electricity system shifted from an oligopoly of a few energy-producing giants to a landscape in which thousands of people and small companies become power producers. Employment in renewables exceeded 277,300 by 2007. 

Utility giants had no choice but to adjust. They saw their incomes drop as small businesses and community groups sprang up to build the wind, solar and biomass power that the large utilities had been slow to develop.

Much of the development was through energy cooperatives, a form of business that had grown from almost nothing in the early 2000s to having 869 organizations in 2018, relying mostly on investments from individuals.

But those numbers fail to capture the extent of the changes taking place on the local level.

A Village Finds a New Income Source: Renewable Energy

To see what a decentralized energy system looked like up close, I made the daylong journey by train to Wildpoldsried, a village of about 2,600 residents that produces about eight times more energy than it consumes, and sells the surplus back to the grid.

The village, located in a sparsely populated corner of Bavaria in southern Germany, is a few square miles of houses and commercial buildings, bordered on all sides by farmland. It is no tourist town, with just two restaurants and one hotel, along narrow, well-kempt streets. Standing near the center of town, the main drag is so quiet that a single truck passing by feels like noise pollution.

"I always try to tell people that we are a totally normal village, but nobody believes me," said Günter Mögele, a high school teacher who has served as deputy mayor since the late-1990s. With a cheerful demeanor and fluent English, Mögele often leads tours for visiting officials and journalists who want to learn from Wildpoldsried. 

Wildpoldsried locator

Renewable energy can be seen from almost every vantage point in the village, with solar panels fastened to clay-tile roofs and wind turbines in the distance. Wildpoldsried began by putting solar panels and other renewable energy on municipal property, and then used this to sell the idea that residents and local investor groups could benefit from building their own projects. 

The feed-in tariff meant that the big utilities had to buy power from the projects, and the companies installing the projects made sure there were physical connections with the grid. After the village government projects got up and running, other power-producing entities formed. They now include five farmer-owned wind power co-ops and about 450 individuals and small groups that own rooftop solar systems.

The village also has a network of battery storage systems in homes and businesses that allows residents to operate off of the regional grid if they need to. The battery systems are made by Sonnen, a locally based company that now has an international reach.

Mögele explained that Wildpoldsried made a transition to renewable energy to revitalize the local economy and improve the look, feel and amenities of the village. The climate benefits were important, but secondary.

"We wanted to create a situation for young families to be able to stay in the village, not to be forced to move into big cities," he said.

A wind turbine turns behind the church tower in Wildpoldsried, Germany, in 2016. Credit: Karl-Josef Hildenbrand/picture alliance via Getty Images

A wind turbine turns behind the church tower in Wildpoldsried, Germany, in 2016. The rural village has gained international attention for its commitment to renewable energy. Credit: Karl-Josef Hildenbrand/picture alliance via Getty Images

What I found most remarkable about Wildpoldsried wasn't how extensively renewable energy was relied on, but what leaders chose to do with the financial proceeds. By selling electricity to the grid, the village gave itself a new income source and improved the lives of residents, offsetting most of the costs for preschool, child care, sports and community theater. 

Many other communities have their own version of Wildpoldsried's energy accomplishments and have used money from wind turbines and solar arrays to improve services and lower taxes.

"It's not only a reduction of carbon dioxide. It's also a chance for economic development," said Bertram Fleck, the recently retired commissioner of a rural county near the southwestern city of Koblenz.

Bertram Fleck. Credit: Dan Gearino/InsideClimate News

Bertram Fleck, the recently retired commissioner of the rural county of Rhein-Hunsrück, supported renewable energy and energy conservation during his long tenure, which helped the county’s finances. Credit: Dan Gearino/InsideClimate News

Fleck sees this as the genius of the feed-in tariff, how it encouraged local projects without requiring them, and gave local governments and residents a role to play.

"We are convinced we can do something in our little region, because everybody can do something," he said.

In a Battle Over Cost, Merkel's Conservatism Wins Out

As the Energiewende continued to transform the economy, and its costs continued to rise, Merkel and her party began to change the formula that had led to the rapid growth of renewable energy. 

Unlike the activists behind the 2000 law, Merkel was a moderate in the way she viewed the energy transition, said Markus Steigenberger, deputy executive director at the think tank Agora Energiewende in Berlin.

She agreed with the country's broad consensus that carbon emissions must be drastically reduced. 

"The path itself, the overall direction, is not contested," Steigenberger said.

But Merkel and her government wanted to do it in a way that was mindful of costs. And they were sensitive to the criticism that the transition was too expensive, partly because utilities and coal companies—in decline and threatened by the transition— were loudly arguing this point. 

It wasn't hard to make the case that the costs were too high, considering that the renewable energy surcharge had more than tripled from 2010 to 2014. For a small household, the cost had risen to about 20 Euros—or $22 per month.

Merkel's views put her on one side of a larger disagreement in Germany about whether the transition should be part of a broader social program that puts people and communities in greater control of the energy system, or focus solely on reducing emissions in a cost-effective manner, Steigenberger said.

Given the choice, Merkel often preferred a narrower focus—a response to political or financial necessity, her supporters say. This meant that the feed-in tariff was on the chopping block. The government saw the policy as unsustainable because there were no caps on projects and few limits on where projects could be built within the grid. It was the equivalent of a blank check.

By 2014, the government had agreed to overhaul the feed-in tariff, a change that took several years to implement. Instead of being open to almost everyone, groups that wanted to create renewable energy projects and sell the power to the grid needed to compete in auctions to see who could offer the lowest price. 

Solar and wind power continued to grow, but the new rules meant that small players had a much more difficult time. The advent of new cooperatives stalled, and investments by existing cooperatives declined by one-third. The energy transition was becoming the realm of big developers.

"We're now saying to all the communities and all the smaller developers, 'Thank you for your interest but this big company can do it for 1 cent per kilowatt less,'" Craig Morris said.

Craig Morris. Credit: Dan Gearino.

Craig Morris co-authored "Energy Democracy," a history of the German energy transition. Credit: Dan Gearino/InsideClimate News

At the same time, local opposition grew against wind farms and the high-voltage power lines needed to carry renewable power, a reaction by some residents to landscapes that they viewed as littered by power infrastructure. Partly in response, federal and state laws were passed that placed restrictions on how close turbines could be to buildings. In many places, people regarded energy projects more as eyesores than sources of economic vitality.

There's no way to determine the extent to which the shift away from small, local projects played a role in this not-in-my-backyard sentiment. It might be that the sheer number of wind turbines and power lines got to be too much in some regions, with almost every horizon line interrupted by turning blades and blinking red lights.

Regardless of why public attitudes were shifting, the economic consequences were clear. The restrictions and legal challenges to wind farms resulted in Germany's wind industry going from boom to bust. One number that illustrates this: The country added only 1.1 gigawatts of onshore wind energy capacity in 2019, down 80 percent from 5.3 gigawatts two years earlier.

Now Mögele and many other local leaders are calling for the government to overhaul the rules once again, making it easier for small local energy producers. Wildpoldsried had already done enough to secure its financial stability, he said, but he could see how those opportunities were vanishing for others. 

"It will change. It has to change," he said.

Some Call it Folly, but for Germans, Nuclear is a No Go

While Germany tries to regain momentum in cutting emissions, it also is phasing out nuclear power, with the last plants scheduled to close in 2022.

The policy is a response to decades of safety concerns, raised most recently by the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan. Merkel's government passed the phaseout plan that year by a wide margin, and there has been no serious push to change it since then.

By choosing to eliminate nuclear energy, Germany is losing a carbon-free power source that now provides 13 percent of its electricity and one of the options for replacing fossil fuels. Viewed through the lens of climate change, the nuclear phaseout looks like folly to many energy researchers outside of Germany, including in the United States.

Fossil fuels have filled some of the void left behind by the nuclear plant shutdowns. A December 2019 working paper, led by a University of California at Berkeley researcher, found that this led to increased deaths from air pollution, resulting in an estimated social cost to the country of $12 billion a year.

But the abandonment of nuclear power is accepted in Germany, where fears of nuclear weapons during the Cold War and a panic over the Chernobyl disaster have shaped public opinion. A 2015 poll showed that 81 percent of Germans supported the policy.

What people outside of Germany often don't understand is how the nuclear issue was all-consuming and needed to be resolved to be able to focus on other challenges, Steigenberger said.

"It was basically a relief that we got this off the table, and I think everyone is happy that we don't have to tackle this any more," he said.

A Crucial Sector Overlooked, a Goal Unfulfilled

The development of wind and solar, along with the closing of coal-fired power plants, meant that Germany was making substantial progress in cutting emissions from the electricity sector, even with the changes to the feed-in tariff.

But as it turned out, the emissions cuts were not big enough. The sector accounts for only about one-third of the country's emissions. Germany needed to reduce emissions across all of its economy, and there was a big part that was at a standstill: Emissions from transportation were down only 0.2 percent in 2019 compared to 1990—essentially no improvement.

Germany's Emissions Continue Downward

In hindsight, the country's policies for cutting emissions had almost completely ignored the politically powerful auto industry. Volkswagen was a big part of the problem, having spent the prior decade doing little work on electric vehicles and then getting caught in a worldwide scandal tied to its cheating on emissions testing of diesel vehicles.

The lack of progress in the auto sector was one of many reasons that the country was falling short of the emissions-cutting pace it needed. The electricity sector might have been able to make up for the lack of progress in autos, but the changes to the feed-in tariff and other legislative actions limited how much renewable energy had been able to grow.

In June 2018, officials said the country was likely to miss its 2020 target for cutting emissions, an announcement that was widely covered in the media. The goal, set by Merkel's government in 2007, was to reduce emissions economy-wide by 40 percent from 1990 levels. With just two years to go, the country had barely cracked 30 percent.

Eveline Lemke. Credit: Dan Gearino

Eveline Lemke was a consultant and campaigner for Alliance 90/The Greens and went on to be the party’s leader in the state of Rhineland-Palatinate. She now leads a sustainability think tank, Thinking Circular. Credit: Dan Gearino/InsideClimate News

As the evidence grew in 2018 and 2019—years of record heat—that the energy transition had stalled, the response many people had was grief, said Eveline Lemke, the Alliance 90/The Greens member who was her party's leader in the rural state of Rhineland-Palatinate from 2006 to 2016.

"The people I fought for, and with, are a bit sad and tired," she said. "We're kind of worn out."

The grief is exacerbated by the already visible signs of climate change, Lemke said. One that she points out repeatedly is the number of dead trees. Looking across the valley near her home, the dense green of the hills is studded with spots of brown. Those are trees that have died, an increasingly common sight after two hot and dry summers.

This tangible consequence of climate change is one reason that Lemke, who now runs a sustainability think tank, thinks that the country's energy transition will get back on track.

A Teenage Protester Helps Revitalize a Movement

There is no clear point at which the Energiewende began its revitalization, but one of the central factors was the arrival on the scene of Greta Thunberg, a 15-year-old in Sweden, who skipped school to stage a one-person demonstration outside her country's parliament building in 2018 to call attention to the failure of leaders to address climate change.

Thunberg's message and ongoing activism gripped much of the world, and had a particularly strong effect in Germany. The progressive-leaning German newspaper Die Tageszeitung wrote about Thunberg within weeks of her first strike, and German students were soon holding their own strikes. 

By December 2018, there were demonstrations happening in nearly every major German city, a movement that came to be known as Fridays for Future. Rather than stand in the way, Merkel has encouraged the protesters, while also acknowledging that the government may not move as quickly as the movement would like.

The movement is "a family now," said Pauline Daemgen, a high school student who is one of the organizers of the Fridays for Future group in Berlin. "These people are amazing."

Protesters have said they are responding to many things: the die-off of forests; the government's slow progress in meeting climate change goals; and the continuing development that will lead to the removal of forests and other natural areas.

Pauline Daemgen (right foreground) and Quang Anh Paasch (left) lead the crowd at a Fridays for Future demonstration Sept. 27, 2019 in Berlin. Credit: Dan Gearino/InsideClimate News

Pauline Daemgen (right foreground) and Quang Anh Paasch (left) lead the crowd at a Fridays for Future demonstration Aug. 27, 2019 in Berlin. Credit: Dan Gearino/InsideClimate News

The demonstrations have captured the attention of the German public. Alliance 90/The Greens have seen their support rise in polls to the point that they are the second most popular party after Merkel's Christian Democrats and they appear poised to be part of whatever coalition emerges in the 2021 federal election.  

The Greens also have made gains in state elections, giving them a greater ability to influence legislation in the Bundesrat, the upper house of Parliament. On climate, the party's central issue, they want a total phaseout of coal and gasoline-powered automobiles by 2030, a carbon tax, flight fees and lower-cost trains. 

Merkel's government has seen the rise in public interest in climate change and has taken steps to address some of the most vexing challenges in the energy transition. But Merkel is also on her way out, planning to step down ahead of the next election.

The government convened a commission in 2018 to consider how to cut coal use while helping coal communities. The result was legislation passed in January that says all coal-fired power plants must shut down by 2038, and includes up to 40 billion Euros ($45 billion) in aid to help coal-producing regions make the transition.

In September, Merkel's government also proposed the 54 billion Euro ($60 billion) plan to accelerate the pace of emissions cuts between now and 2030. It became law in December. The new policies impose a carbon tax for industry and transportation. The proceeds will be used, in part, to reduce the share of the renewable energy surcharge paid by consumers through their electricity bills, without reducing the level of funding for renewable energy projects.

The plan also will give communities the ability to opt out of federal restrictions on wind turbines, provide incentives for buying electric cars and traveling by train and increase subsidies for EV charging stations and public transportation.

But there are vital ingredients still missing. Critics of the new legislation say it doesn't do enough to reinvigorate the small, local projects that were so important to creating the sense of shared benefits in the early days of the energy transition.

But many here say it's the first step in a process, a signal that the country has a renewed focus. 

For many reasons the United States is far behind. Nemet, the University of Wisconsin professor, said the lessons from Germany can be an essential part of closing this gap. Among those lessons: The energy transition must be embraced as a multi-decade endeavor, rather than one dependent on which party is elected or a particular law that is passed.

"This is a long-term project that must be sustained over generations," he said.

An Unexpected Crisis and a Warning for the Future

Earlier this month, I called Karsten Neuhoff on Skype. Our countries were several weeks into coronavirus lockdowns, with schools and most businesses closed. Both of us were trying to do our jobs while confined to our homes, small children running around the house while we worked.

I wanted to know how the global crisis had affected the trajectory of German climate policy, and to see how he was coping with the pandemic. 

"It demonstrates that sometimes doomsday scenarios can happen," he said, speaking from his kitchen table, late in the evening. "The idea of viruses that spread globally were the stuff of TV movies, and suddenly it became reality."

He added that he thought this had implications for climate policy, because the public might now have a deeper understanding of the economic disruption that is possible if climate change is unchecked.

And, he said, it's an opportunity to enact an economic stimulus in Europe that places an emphasis on the transition to clean energy. This is his focus right now, as his office works on recommendations for how Germany and the European Union can shape stimulus measures.

We agreed, though, that the crisis could also have detrimental effects on climate policy, with the sudden drop in emissions caused by the economic fallout potentially giving cover to backslide on climate.

Agora Energiewende reported in March that Germany was on track to finish the year with emissions 40 percent to 45 percent below 1990, meaning the country would suddenly meet its 2020 target after two years of angst about the probability that it would fall short. But analysts say this is misleading, because economic downturns are usually followed by a rebound in emissions that cancels out the cuts.

Still, the German Chamber of Commerce and Industry said in March that businesses should get a two-year reprieve from the new carbon tax on transportation as part of the recovery from the virus crisis. The drop in emissions, the group said, should "make further climate policy measures unnecessary for the time being."

So far, however, this proposal doesn't seem to be gaining much traction with the government.

What about the big takeaway from my time in Germany, the idea that the success of the energy transition is closely tied to whether the public is engaged and feels like it has a stake?

That hasn't changed a bit, Neuhoff said. The virus, and people's response to it, has demonstrated that we're all in this together, a sentiment repeated often in recent weeks, both in Germany and in the United States.

Neuhoff said he is hopeful that the U.S. government and the public will embrace this idea as it applies to climate change. If and when that happens, Germany has two decades worth of trial and error to show how this can be done.

Seeing him made me think of one of my favorite memories of Germany, the evening I went to his house for dinner with his wife and three young children. The kids quizzed me about Iowa. We went through old yearbooks and laughed at how we used to look.

After dinner, he and I walked around the neighborhood and then stopped for beers at a sidewalk café.

When we were in high school, scientists already knew that climate change threatened to transform the way we live. That threat helped to inspire action in Germany. In the United States, it has been downplayed, ignored and denied by many, most recently President Trump and members of his administration.

We can look back at policies that worked or didn't, warnings that were heeded or not. The difference now is we can see the effects of climate change in ways we didn't before, from the dead trees in Germany to the drought in much of the United States. 

What Neuhoff and many others are trying to underscore is that we all own this energy transition and have a vital interest in it working. The success of this effort in Germany and the United States may hinge on whether we realize that this is the case. 

Top image credit: Maja Hitij/Getty Images

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