Recent federal elections in Norway and Germany saw entrenched conservative and neoliberal governments swept from power, replaced by an odd assortment of liberals, leftists, and Greens. In Norway, Europe’s largest oil and gas producer, a new ruling coalition has emerged between the social democratic Labour Party and agrarian Centre Party. In Germany, Europe’s economic powerhouse and its largest energy consumer, Chancellor Angela Merkel has stepped down after nearly two decades in power, the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) is now the largest party, and the Greens drew nearly 15% of the vote, gaining 51 seats in the Bundestag. In the wake of record-setting rain and flooding in Germany this summer, as well as near-record heatwaves in Nordic countries, tackling climate change was a major concern for voters in the recent German and Norwegian elections. With new coalitions in power, what hope is there that each country, and the European Union writ large, will take substantive steps to address the climate crisis?
In this interview, TRNN contributor David Kattenburg speaks with Jule Könneke and Rafael Loss about the recent European elections and what opportunities they present for Germany and Norway’s new coalition governments to take serious action. Jule Könneke is the former president of Polis180, a Berlin-based think tank on foreign and European affairs; she is also a climate diplomacy researcher at the German NGO E3G. Rafael Loss is the coordinator for pan-European data projects at the European Council on Foreign Relations’ Re:shape Global Europe project; he is also a co-author of the policy brief “Europe’s Green Moment: How to Meet the Climate Change Challenge.”
Post Production: Adam Coley
David Kattenburg: Hello, and welcome to The Real News Network. I am David Kattenburg. This past month, federal elections in Norway and Germany saw entrenched conservative governments swept from power, replaced by an odd assortment of liberals, leftists, and Greens. In Norway, Europe’s largest oil and gas producer, The Social Democratic Labor Party and Agrarian Center Party are now in coalition. The Norwegian Reds posted their best performance ever, winning eight seats in Norway’s parliament. Distorting among the Reds’ chief aims and the Greens as well, who did rather poorly in Norway’s elections, halting oil and gas production off the Norwegian coast.
In Germany, Europe’s economic powerhouse and the largest energy consumer, the Greens, led by Annalena Baerbock, drew almost 15% of the vote, gaining 51 seats in the Bundestag. Baerbock will presumably have a prominent position in the new coalition that’s forming alongside Social Democratic leader Olaf Scholz. Christian Lindner of the Free Democrats reportedly tapped to become Germany’s next finance minister. I’d like to talk about that in a bit.
In the wake of record-setting rain and flooding last summer, confronting the climate crisis will presumably top the agenda, or be somewhere close to the top of the agenda, of Germany’s new government. Joining me to talk about prospects for Germany’s new traffic light coalition and the coalition’s likely response to the climate crisis are Jule Köenneke and Rafael Loss. Jule Köenneke is the president of Polis180, a Berlin-based grassroots think tank on foreign policy and European affairs. Köenneke is also a climate diplomacy researcher at the German NGO E3G and an associate researcher at the European Council on Foreign Relations. Rafael Loss is also with the European council. He is the coordinator of Penn European data with the council’s Reshape Global Europe project. Rafael Loss coauthored Europe’s Green Moment: How to meet the Climate Change Challenge, which was released this past spring. Jule Köenneke and Rafael Loss, welcome to The Real News Network. It’s great to have you.
Rafael Loss: Thanks Dave for having us.
Jule Köenneke: Thanks for the invitation.
David Kattenburg: For our viewers and listeners from around the world who know nothing about German politics, can you talk to me a little bit about what distinguishes these three parties that have formed the traffic light coalition in broad strokes and where their coalition stands at the moment, and what is this traffic light deal? Can you give me a quick summary of… Sketch out the coalition for me?
Jule Köenneke: Sure. Very happy to start. Thanks for the invitation. Maybe just a quick clarification. I’m actually not president of Polis180 anymore, but I have been for two years, so just to make sure.
To start with the SPD, which emerged from the election as the strongest party. I would say the core issue of that party has always been social policy. For example, it has pushed through the current minimum wage and wants to increase it to 12 euros. Then the Greens focus on environmental concerns and on infrastructure development as well. For example, they want only zero emission cars to be allowed on the road from 2030 on, and they want to bring forward the coal phase-out to 2030 at the latest. And one can say that the Greens want a massive investment in infrastructure and favor higher levels of government intervention in the economy. Which is in stark contrast to the FDP, the liberals, whose guiding principles are individual freedom and limiting the power of the state, so to say. For example, the FDP has always advocated further tax cuts and opposes tax increases, and they want to combat climate change by promoting new technologies, and as well have promised to accelerate digitization in Germany.
Jule Köenneke: And maybe a couple of words on the traffic light coalition, which is actually named after the party colors of the SPD, the Greens, and the FDP. And this will be the first time such a combination comes to place in Germany, at least on the federal level, provided that all the parties actually come to an agreement, of course.
David Kattenburg: So, the Greens are green, and the FDP are red?
Jule Köenneke: The Greens are green, the FDP is yellow, and the SPD is red.
David Kattenburg: Okay. That clarifies things. Raphael, do you want to jump in there and add a bit of nuance?
Rafael Loss: Not so much adding nuance, but maybe some additional information. So, I think it’s important to know that the SPD was part of Angela Merkel’s grand coalition over the past eight years, in fact. They formed a part of the government when Angela Merkel first came into power 16 years ago, the second Merkel Cabinet, she formed a coalition with the FDP. And now since 2013, Angela Merkel’s conservative party has been in power together with the SPD. Dynamics will probably be different with the traffic light coalition as you had just laid out. But it looks like that at least the exploratory talks that the three parties have held over the past two or three weeks really have produced a sort of grand narrative of modernization for Germany. And that relates to, as you outlined, environmental issues. Climate policy is going to be a focus of the next German government, provided that those three parties form it. Digital transformation, the modernization of public administration, the modernization agenda of course also affects tax policy.
But if you read the outcomes of those exploratory talks, then modernization and transformation are really at the core of the agenda of those three parties. And that sort of sets them apart, I think. Substantively as well, from the governments under Angela Merkel, which were often satisfied with managing the status quo. Now, how this looks like in practice for the next four years, that’s anyone’s guess. But I think the ambition is there really from all three potential coalition partners to move Germany forward.
David Kattenburg: I’d like to talk with you about, hear your views or your thoughts, your predictions, on what the position and the actions of the new coalition government are going to be vis-à-vis confronting the climate change challenge. But before I do, can you tell me where the climate change crisis or challenge figured in the minds of German voters in the wake of these cataclysmic rainfall events and huge rainfall this past August and flooding in Germany? Was climate insecurity on the minds of voters at all? To what extent was it when they went to the polls?
Jule Köenneke: Yes. And maybe I can come in first again, interrupt me Rafael if you would like to, and feel free to add. Yeah. So, I would say climate action was definitely very, very high on voters’ minds. As you have just said, we’ve seen there are many alarming events, as well as at home and abroad this summer, such as heat waves, wildfires burning out of control, and then in Germany and Belgium, of course, the devastating floods. And I think that all these events, once again, definitely illustrated the urgency of the climate crisis and definitely pushed back the – Or pushed, not really back, it was in the agenda the whole time – But it pushed the issue of climate change really to the top of voters’ minds. Which was thrown by different surveys as well, which actually all found that German voters rank climate change as their primary concern. And as a result, I would say that the debate, broadly speaking, moved away from whether climate change is important to the really far more complex question of how to address climate change.
Rafael Loss: And here, I think if you followed the debate in Germany at all, I think as Jule just said, this is a sort of step in the right direction. But I personally was still very disappointed when the chancellor candidates from the SPD, from the Greens, and the CDO were asked in various TV interviews about climate change, and the discussion focusing very much on the sort of short term costs of what it would cost the ordinary German, if ambitious climate action were to be implemented by the next government. And discounting to a large extent the cost of inaction, the fact that the climate change will also [affect] Germany, which is not probably one of the most effective countries looking into the next a hundred years or so. It will have moderate effects compared to some other parts of the world. But nonetheless, the costs are going to be enormous if we don’t act now.
And that the discussion hasn’t caught onto that fact yet, I think was a bit unfortunate. I think it also ultimately hurt the Greens at the polls. They’ve said they’ve captured almost 15% of votes, but earlier in the spring they were pulling at between 25% and 28%. And their own, I think aspirations were much higher than they turned out on the 26th of September, on election day. So, it’s been a step in the right direction, but not a big enough step, I would say for us to really generate momentum. This will be up to the next government to do. The [inaudible] put some meat on the bones there, but yeah. We’ll see how the negotiations for the coalition will play out and what the coalition agreement will spell out in detail what their plans are, what their plan to do when it comes to taxation, when it comes to expansion of renewables, when it comes to electric cars, and so and so forth.
David Kattenburg: So, are you saying Rafael, that no one in the coalition really has, none of the parties have any bold plans to confront the climate change crisis and achieve sharp reductions in greenhouse gas emissions by, say, 2030?
Rafael Loss: I think particularly the Greens have bold plans and they’ve certainly get us the farthest on Germany’s way to reduce carbon emissions by 65% by 2030. But there was a study before the election by the German Institute for Economic Research which specifically mapped the parties’ programs against that ambition and found that none of them in fact would reach it. That goes for the Greens, which got the farthest, but it also was SPD and the FTP.
And the FTP only got, I think, one and a half stars or so. I’m not sure what that specific metric was. But there’s a huge gap, as Jule outlined earlier, when it comes to perceptions and the analysis of the climate crisis by the various parties and consequently their plans for addressing it. The FTP, for instance, at least in their program, mainly made this a question of technological innovation, discounting to some effect regulatory responses. And the Greens, as I’ve said, sort of outlined that the broadest analytical proposal to address the climate crisis. But again, we’re coming in short still. Now they’ve been pushed by Fridays for Future, for instance, over the past couple of weeks since the election to really do more, to increase ambition. But as coalition negotiations sort of proceed, we’ll see where the different parties focus on in terms of actual policy proposals for the next four years And whether this gets us anywhere closer to the 1.5 degree goal that is specified in the Paris agreement.
David Kattenburg: What is Germany’s energy mix at the moment? What proportion of its energy does Germany get from renewables and how much from oil and gas and coal? What’s the breakdown?
Rafael Loss: So, looking at the numbers over the past couple of years, Germany’s share of renewables and the energy mix has been rising. It’s certainly about 40% last year.
David Kattenburg: About 40%?
Rafael Loss: Yes. In the first half of 2020 it got fairly close to 50% in the overall entity mix, mostly due to stormy winds. And so wind turbines produce enough energy. This spring was less windy in Germany, and so we had wind energy being replaced by coal as the single biggest contributor to the energy mix, but renewables still are at 42% or so.
Jule Köenneke: Yeah. I mean, I think what we can definitely say is that over the last four decades, the energy supply has shifted from a real clear dominance of coal and oil to a more diversified system. And we are phasing out nuclear by the end of 2022, coal is ideally planned to be fully phased out by 2030. That’s at least what the traffic light coalition agreed on Friday in their paper. The original date was 2038. So, they agreed to give a huge boost to renewables as well. So, I hope we will see a shift there in the future because of course this could be better.
David Kattenburg: And what is Germany’s official target for emission reductions by 2030? What’s it promising to do? And is it on track to achieve that?
Rafael Loss: So, the goal that has been expressed by the current [inaudible] government is to reduce Germany’s carbon emissions by 65% compared to 1990.
David Kattenburg: [crosstalk] By 20 –
Rafael Loss: By 2030, indeed. And to go even further of course the next milestone will be 2040 and then to reach carbon neutrality by 2045. Now in the European context, that’s relatively ambitious. There are some countries that have even earlier carbon neutrality targets set. Some are very reluctant to commit to any specific date at all, if you look at Poland for instance. But nonetheless, I think what the blimp in the wind generation earlier this spring has shown is that this is not a linear path that we’re on. And that the marginal costs of adding one more percent of renewables will increase just because it’s more difficult to add even more renewables. It was easier to increase them early on than the sort of supply timeline.
But yeah, as you said, this is really about the energy mix overall. It’s not going to be wind or PV or any one renewable energy source that will give us the solution to this, or even hydrogen. This sort of dream that some on the political right have expressed, that hydrogen will be the silver bullet to our energy problem, specifically in transportation. That’s certainly not going to be the case, that’s going to be an all of the above type of solution. And one that is sort of flexible enough for us to move around from storage energy where it is needed at the time where it is needed, even if there’s no wind at the moment.
David Kattenburg: And there’s several train lines in Germany, I understand, running on hydrogen, on green hydrogen.
Rafael Loss: There’s various public transportation infrastructure that is experimenting with green hydrogen, also with battery powered public transportation. Especially in urban spaces. Greening all of Germany’s infrastructure, that needs to be the goal, but it’s a tremendous challenge. Because as I said earlier, it’s going to be more difficult as you climb along the curve of a greater share of renewables.
Jule Köenneke: Yeah. I just wanted to add that that is something that was actually lacking from the paper. The parties agreed on Friday, which is the basis for the coalition negotiations. So, the sector of transport didn’t feature it at all in there, which is quite worrying, because of course it’s very important.
David Kattenburg: Now I understand Christian Lindner, the head of the FDP, has been tapped to be finance minister. What does this suggest in terms of direction the government may be going in terms of using economic incentives to reduce emissions? And there’s lots of debate and controversy over these instruments, like carbon taxes and carbon trading and such. Would his presence in the finance ministry suggest that the coalition government is going to rely a lot on economic instruments? And what’s his position on a carbon tax?
Rafael Loss: So, I think first, to clarify, he hasn’t been tapped so much as he’s tapped himself for this role. Which I think is a recognition that in Germany and in the European context finance ministers play a huge role because they have power of the purse of course.
Now, as far as I know, the FTP’s party program and their climate policy proposals then market based solutions are certainly one of their preferred methods to tackle the climate challenge. And that includes changing taxation systems, that includes support for carbon taxes. For instance, even if you look at the carbon board adjustment mechanism that the EU has been discussing, then there is a fairly broad consensus between the mainstream German parties that that is a good idea, and one worth pursuing.
Where I see more of a potential for conflict between the parties is when it comes to the investment side of the equation. Where the FTP is a strong proponent of the [debt brake] that is of constitutional importance in Germany, and that they would prefer not to touch. As we discuss investment opportunities for the external government, the Greens and the SPT show a bit more flexibility and recognition that tackling the climate crisis in a comprehensive form requires significant investment. And now that’s not sunk cost, obviously those types of investments are going to produce returns. But even coming back to that point, that regardless of how expensive climate change mitigation and adaptation are now, everything that we don’t do is going to increase the cost so much more in the future that I personally think that investments now should be certainly part of the discussion.
Jule Köenneke: Yeah. I just wanted to say, I agree with everything Rafael just said. So, maybe again to say, really what FTP and the Greens have in common is the goal to modernize the country. But when it comes to the finance ministry and to financial matters, there are definitely major differences to overcome, especially between those two parties.
And as Rafael already said, it mainly breaks down to taxes and debt. So, yeah, the Greens want to raise taxes for the rich, while the FDP promised its voters during the election campaign the opposite; The FDP wants to lower taxes for companies to turbo charge the economy. While the Greens, as Rafael rightly already said, want the government to have more money in hand to finance the green transition. And of course the Green and the FTP favors pricing carbon emissions, and in general, a more free market approach to climate and social policy. So, I think we might see a lot of conflict there, and it’s going to be very interesting to see what will come out of the coalition negotiations. And who will actually in the end be the new finance minister, because I agree that it’s not a given yet, and we have other candidates interested in that as well.
David Kattenburg: The two of you, co-authored a statement entitled Out of Order: How Germany can Become a Climate Leader Once More. And in it, you focus on a recent decision of Germany’s constitutional court that criticized the German government for its unambitious emission reduction goals, saying effectively that the German government, by being unambitious, by saying, oh, we’re going to reduce emissions by 20%, 30%, but then not doing what’s required to actually achieve that. It’s pushing the can down the road and placing the burden on future generations. And you write, the constitutional court’s ruling forces today’s political leaders to preserve the freedoms and opportunities of tomorrow’s voters. So, the court, in your analysis, was saying the government is essentially, by not doing what it should be doing, is compromising the lives of future generations, those who are young today, and it shouldn’t be allowed to do that. Jule thoughts on this?
Jule Köenneke: Yeah. Happy to comment on that. So, yes, as you said, the Germans’ constitutional court ruled that the country’s Climate Protection Law from 2019 was partly unconstitutional. Because that’s the argumentation, it shifted the climate burden of making sort of painful reductions to future generations. So, it basically ruled that the law wasn’t in line with constitutional rights because sufficient measures for further emission reductions after 2031 are missing. In other words, the law postponed, the Climate Action Law from 2019, postponed high emission reduction burdens to the period after 2030, which then of course puts an improper burden on people after 2030. So, that’s the argumentation about the whole thing. And I would say that this is really quite meaningful, and maybe one can say that is even historic, because it really shows that climate action is not a nice to have, but really a fundamental right.
Rafael Loss: And a really powerful argument. And one that is sort of reframing the concept of freedom in Germany to some extent. The FTP has a very strong record of promoting freedom. As you said earlier, placing particular emphasis on individual freedom. The Greens also have a very strong civil rights record. And I think there’s this sort of re-conceptualization of what freedom means, that the constitution court has put forward with its argument, would help both parties to approach the same conceptual underpinning for what they would achieve by protecting future generations’ freedom. It brought in a set of ecological dimensions to the conceptualization of freedom. It brought in a social dimension. It brought in intergenerational justice, which so far had been lacking as a consideration from a lot of German climate policy as the court lamented rightfully, I think.
So, this has not only had practical implications for German climate policy, but has also had a very strong impact, I think, and that will reverberate in the next coming years as well. In the debate about liberalism, democracy, freedom, individual, and collective civil rights, and what it means to do ecologically conscious, socially conscious, and economically liberal conscious climate policy in Germany going forward. And in that sense, the German constitutional court is not the first to make this argument, as we’ve also written this in our essay and there have been other courts that have made similar arguments. There’s probably going to be other courts that will make similar arguments going forward. But because of the centrality, I think of Germany and the German constitutional court in the European legal context, this will have effects I think in the broader European context as well.
David Kattenburg: We just have a couple of minutes left. Can the two of you quickly share with me your views on what Germany would do or should do if it really is committed to putting action, turning words into action, what should Germany do? What measures should it bring into place?
Jule Köenneke: Maybe I can start with my vision, and then I’m very excited to hear yours, Rafael. So, I would say what we now need very quickly are effective measures for the next few years, and for the time being no more theoretical debates about long-term goals. So, the incoming government really needs to reclaim its climate front-runner role and as well show that it is serious about its climate credibility.
And it could do this by finally implementing climate policies that really match the ambition level of its national as well as its international commitments. So, I would say the new government really has to be a delivery champion if we’d like to frame it like that. And on the international dimension, maybe because that is really important as well, what I find really concerning is that the paper presented by the parties on Friday really lacks any mention of climate diplomacy and sort of the broader nexus of climate and foreign policy. Which is a blank spot that should urgently be addressed in the upcoming weeks as well, especially when looking ahead at 2022, where Germany will hold the G7 presidency. Which will of course be a challenge, but as well, a unique opportunity to set an ambitious climate agenda.
David Kattenburg: Rafael super quickly in a minute, can you sum up your vision?
Rafael Loss: All right, one minute. I think it would’ve been great to have a new government in place already for COP26. Now that’s not going to happen. But as you said, we need the next German government to really formulate a climate foreign policy to be not as timid as Angela Merkel was in engaging Joe Biden and the United States when it comes to a trans-Atlantic Green Deal. And then also talking to other world leaders and COP26, of course, is a great format for that. But G7 will be as well, and other similar forums in the future. But if you look at Germany’s relationship with China and Russia, for instance, and those have been a bit more than foreign trade policies under Angela Merkel. And so rethinking our approach to those other great powers in other countries around the world, by bringing in the climate dimension, I think would do a great bit to promote a global net zero, and to bring a united voice to the European Union as a global stakeholder and global player in climate diplomacy.
David Kattenburg: You’ve been listening to a conversation with German climate policy researchers Jule Köenneke and Rafael Loss. We shall keep viewers and listeners posted in the lead up and aftermath of COP26 from October 31st to the 12th of November in Glasgow. Before you go, please, don’t forget to subscribe to The Real News YouTube channel and head on over to the realnews.com/support to become a monthly Real News sustainer. Your contributions help ensure we keep bringing you important coverage and conversations like this. For The Real News, I’m David Kattenburg. Thank you so much for watching and listening.