Germany’s Angela Merkel: The World’s Eco-Villain?
As Germany gets ready for parliamentary elections this Sunday, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s reputation as an environmentalist is being called in question by activist and author George Monbiot
GREGORY WILPERT: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Gregory Wilpert, joining you from Quito, Ecuador. This coming Sunday, Germans will head to the polls to elect a new Bundestag, as its parliament is known. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party, the Christian Democratic Union, is leading in opinion polls with between 36% and 39% of the vote. The big unknown at the moment is whether there will be a repeat of a coalition with the Social Democratic Party, or whether there will be a switch to a coalition with several smaller parties, such as the pro-business Liberals, and maybe even the Green Party. Having the environmentalist Green Party join a coalition by the center-right might seem odd, but Angela Merkel enjoys a reputation for being an environmentalist, especially ever since the government decided to phase out nuclear power in Germany by 2022.
One prominent critic, though, argues that Merkel’s environmental reputation is completely undeserved. As a matter of fact, he even considers her to have one of the worst environmental records in the world. George Monbiot is a critic and recently wrote a column laying out this critique of Merkel in The Guardian. George is the author of many bestselling books on the environment and globalization. His latest book is Out of the Wreckage, a New Politics for the Age of Crisis. He joins us to day from Wales. George, thanks so much for being here today.
GEORGE MONBIOT: Thank you. It’s my pleasure.
GREGORY WILPERT: As you write in your column, Angela Merkel enjoys a reputation for being an environmentalist, of sorts. I mentioned her government’s decision to phase out nuclear power and to replace it with renewable energy. Germany’s generation of renewable energy now, makes up about 1/3 of Germany’s energy production. Still, you argue that this must be weighed against her other actions. What are some of the most egregious things that she has done to deserve the title of Leading Eco-Vandal, as you call her?
GEORGE MONBIOT: Well, let’s stick with as the first example, the thing you’ve just mentioned, which is Germany’s production of electricity. And it’s absolutely true. There’s been this massive investment in renewables, but it’s also the case that Germany’s carbon emissions from electricity have plateaued, while those in the rest of Europe have declined sharply. The reason for this is that she’s allowed the coal industry, particularly lignite, brown coal, which is the most polluting of all forms of coal and one of the worst fuels you could use for any purpose. She’s allowed that to run riot. It continues to produce some 40% of Germany’s electricity, with massive greenhouse gas emissions, as well as loads of other forms of pollution as a result.
Her decision to close down nuclear power I think is in itself questionable because that was, at the time, Germany’s major source of low-carbon energy. And to shut it down during a climate change emergency, when climate breakdown is taking place, knowing that fossil fuels would fill part of the gap, well, I think that’s quite irresponsible. But that’s, by no means, the worst, because alongside the problems with the electricity industry, the even bigger problems that she’s imposed, not just on Germany but on the rest of Europe when it comes to transport.
GREGORY WILPERT: Tell us, actually, more about the transport issue. Actually two years ago, it was quite widely covered actually about the diesel scandal in Volkswagen, when it was revealed that Volkswagen had manipulated engine software to provide false exhaust readings on its automobiles. What has happened to the use of diesel in Germany since then and what was Angela Merkel’s involvement?
GEORGE MONBIOT: Sure. Well, the original European decision to switch from petrol to diesel happened before she was German chancellor. And it was a classic European fudge, where they said, “Well, we know what we really need to do, which is to move away from liquid fuel powered cars all together and move to electric vehicles, or better still, move to transport systems which aren’t entirely dependent on the private car. We should have far lower environmental impacts. But we’ve got the car manufacturers, particularly the German car manufacturers breathing down our necks, so we’ll do a fudge and we’ll say, ‘Well, because we believe that diesel has lower carbon emissions than petrol, we’ll encourage people to switch through the taxation system to diesel.'” Well it now turns out that diesel doesn’t have lower emissions than petrol. The whole thing was based on a mistake anyway. But what we knew then and know now to an even greater extent, is that diesel engines cause far worse air pollution and thousands of people a year are dying across Europe as a result of the switch to diesel.
Now, Merkel ensured that that switch remained and that diesel engines remain one of the main means of transportation right across Europe, with devastating consequences for people’s health. She has lobbied fiercely and often by the most dirty imaginable means, threatening people with all sorts of consequences and other European governments if they do not allow this special tax exemption for diesel engines to continue, so that the great European fudge can continue. She has been very clear, even to this day, that she will oppose any means to shut down the amount of diesel engines and the amount of diesel pollution which is going into the air, including waging war, effectively, against German cities, which are trying to exclude diesel engines in order to protect people’s health.
That’s one problem, but there’s an even worse one that she’s directly responsible for. And that is that in 2007, the European Union tried to introduce a much better fuel economy standard for cars, so that they would produce lower carbon emissions per mile, per kilometer traveled. She was lobbied by the German car manufacturers and, you know, this is her fatal weakness, industrial lobbyists. She just rolls over whenever they want something. In turn, she again used these very bullying tactics to ensure that that fuel economy standard was not introduced and instead, with her blessing and her support, the European Union said, “All right then. We won’t ensure that car engines are more efficient. What we’ll do instead is to substitute some of the fuel with biofuels.”
Now, many of us warned at the time that this would be even worse than fossil fuels. That we would see mass deforestation, mass environmental destruction, and mass greenhouse gas pollution as a result of this switch. We were completely ignored by both Merkel and by the European Union. And the result today is that much of our fleet of cars right across Europe, is powered with the help of biodiesel from Indonesia, from the palm oil plantations, which have been replacing rain forests there at the most horrendous rate. It’s possibly the biggest environmental crisis on Earth. It’s been wiping out the habitat of orangutans, of tigers, of rhinos, of elephants, of gibbons, of thousands and thousands of species found nowhere else. And it has been causing far greater greenhouse gas emissions, even than fossil fuels do, because of the burning of the forests and the drying out of the peat on which those forests grow. The result has been this huge environmental disaster driven by Merkel’s fake green policy. She is more responsible for that disaster than anyone else on Earth.
When you put those three things together, and there are quite a few others you could add to the list, I feel she comes across as the world’s number one eco-villain. And I know that sounds crazy, especially with Donald Trump in office. Sure, he’ll probably take her place very soon when his policies are fed through. But you know, it’s not what you do on paper that counts when it comes to environmental destruction. It’s the actually physical tangible impacts of what you do. And while on paper she looks great, she’s a climate chancellor. She’s got a lot of credibility. The actual impact of her policies has been a planetary disaster.
GREGORY WILPERT: Actually that’s one of the interesting contrasts between her and Donald Trump. Donald Trump is right blatant out there about it. About, you know, increasing coal production and about opening the arctic wildlife refuge and about all kinds of, openly pulling out of the climate accord, and things like that. Whereas Angela Merkel is much more subtle it seems. And I’m just wondering if you have any thoughts about how she manages to maintain this reputation, given the record that you’ve just talked about?
GEORGE MONBIOT: It’s a very good question because she has got this reputation. You know, she’s got a very good reputation. People were amazed when I pointed the finger at her and said, “She could have done more damage than any other living person on Earth to the living planet.” People were absolutely staggered and found it hard to believe until they saw the evidence, which I lined up. And that’s because she does a very good public relations job. She probably has some very good people working for her, burnishing her image. But she’s also, she exudes trust. She’s got that sort of strong, stern approach, which makes people want to believe in her. And she says all the right things. She’s said brilliant things at various UN climate summits, at the G7 meetings, at the G20 meetings. And she’s pushed people to sign up to strong targets and the rest of it. So everyone thinks, “Oh, she’s great.”
But when you look at what she actually does, the gulf between rhetoric and action could not be greater. And so you’re quite right. That is a difference between Donald Trump. At least with Donald Trump, you can see him coming. He says he’s gonna do all the bad stuff and then he does the bad stuff. She says she’s gonna do a load of good stuff and then she does the bad stuff.
GREGORY WILPERT: Just quickly to return to the issue of German policy. What do you think that Germany … Just to stick to the topic of diesel again. What do you think Germany ought to do in that regard? I mean, especially considering that hundreds of thousands of jobs in Germany depend on diesel and the whole industry around it, which is presumably one of the reasons, aside from lobbying of course, but the other one being to protect employment in that sector. What do you think Germany could be doing to insure a transition that doesn’t displace too many people?
GEORGE MONBIOT: Well, those jobs don’t depend on diesel. Sure, they depend at the moment on car manufacturing. But she should embrace the future of car manufacturing, not the past of car manufacturing. The past, evidently, is diesel because it’s caused a public health emergency right across Europe. We can’t tolerate it. We’re gonna have to stop having all those diesel engines pumping out pollution. So why stick with a failed model, which is obviously going to collapse? It can’t be sustained. Why not have this mass movement to electric vehicles? Instead, she’s allowing China and the U.S. and other parts of the world to steal a march on those German car manufacturers, leaving them behind in the dust. Well, that’s bad economic policy. That’s bad policy for jobs, quite aside from being bad environmental policy.
Now if, you know, there are two ways of going about this. One is to do a switch towards the cars of the future, which are gonna be electric vehicles. The other is to do a switch towards the transport systems of the future, which could mean far fewer cars of any kind, but a far more sensible efficient transport system involving public mass transit, which then employs far more people even then car manufacturing does because you need people constantly to staff that mass transit. But it has a far lower environmental footprint. Now, she should be looking towards the future, as opposed to desperately trying to give the old, failed model as much scope as possible, which would mean that German industry will fall behind everybody else’s.
GREGORY WILPERT: All right. Just one last question. As I mentioned in the introduction, members of the Green Party in Germany have expressed interest in joining the Christian Democrats in a coalition. What would be your reaction to such a move by the Green Party?
GEORGE MONBIOT: Well if they do, maybe it will be a good thing. You know, everybody accepts that Merkel is gonna win this election. Maybe it will be a good thing to have the Greens in that coalition, so that they could start to push back some of those disastrous policies and demand some much better ones. Certainly from what I can see, the German Green Party are the only ones who have consistently criticized some of those damaging policies that she’s been pursuing. So perhaps that will be a good thing.
GREGORY WILPERT: Okay. Well, hopefully we’ll come back to you again. I was talking to George Monbiot, the author of Out of the Wreckage, a New Politics for an Age of Crisis. Thanks for having joined me, George.
GEORGE MONBIOT: Thank you, it’s my pleasure. Thanks very much, indeed.
GREGORY WILPERT: And thank you for watching the Real News Network.