European Flag

Coronavirus Challenges Focus on Climate

Action on climate change was long slated as a priority for Germany’s six-month presidency of the European Union which starts in July. As European nations struggle to deal with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, is Germany really going to maintain momentum on climate?

by Jess Smee

Expectations for climate protection were heaped onto 2020. The Paris Climate Convention means that Germany and its fellow signatories must sign up for higher climate targets before the year end. The EU’s Green Deal, a package of pro-climate measures, is on the drawing board. Against this backdrop, there were hopes that the Germany’s rotating council presidency would turn into a “climate presidency”.

But national and international priorities have been upended by the coronavirus pandemic, which ushered in an inevitable focus on healthcare and bids to insulate economies from sharp recession. There has been a clear shift in sentiment. Even  in late April in her weekly video podcast, Chancellor Angela Merkel, acknowledged that the German EU presidency would focus on dealing with the social and economic impact of the new coronavirus as well as environmental issues, but admitted: “It will be clearly dominated by the issue of combating the pandemic and its consequences”.

And there were already signs of cracks in Germany’s once strong reputation for climate protection. The Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Sustainable Governance Indicators (SGI) 2019 survey on Germany described the nation as “a driving force in international climate policy,” but cautioned that “Germany’s reputation as a global leader in environmental policies has taken some damage since the German government had to admit that it will fail to realize its emission reduction targets for 2020”.

Those long written off targets are now likely to be struck as the pandemic has triggered a sudden unforeseen global slump in emissions, more than during any previous economic crisis or period of war. However, this improvement is likely to be a one-off blip in the absence of any policy moves to boost climate protection.

Even on a national level, Germany - Europe’s biggest CO2 polluter - has failed to progress on climate issues. For example, it was six months late in submitting its national climate plan, already due at the end of 2019, a setback in the bloc’s progress on climate.

Green stimulus packages

Against a COVID-19 backdrop, there has been increasing support among German politicians, business and non-governmental organisations for the idea of linking economic incentives to climate protection. In late May, the European Commission proposed a €750 billion recovery package which it said underscores its commitment to the Green Deal. According to its proposal, a quarter of all funding would be channeled into climate-friendly sectors such as renewable energies, electric mobility and renovating buildings. Meanwhile, a “do no harm” principle would apply across the EU budget, while the funds would not be directed towards fossil fuels and nuclear.

During Germany’s presidency of the European Commission, it will first be possible to gauge the success of such measures. Critics have already voiced some doubts, arguing that in the absence of a detailed spending plan, its environmental impact will hinge on how member states react. After all, member governments will have to apply for EU recovery funds and their plans will be vetted by Brussels and the other 26 EU member states.

But restoring some of the flagging confidence in Germany’s environmental commitments, in recent weeks Germany has earned some applause from environmental campaigners. Earlier this month a national hydrogen strategy, was unveiled - reflecting German ambition for a global leadership role in the industry which is touted as a way of slashing stubborn industrial CO2 emissions. By opting for a controversial focus on hydrogen made with renewable energies, the government offered additional support to its energy transition process.

Among other developments, Germany has recently managed to remove some brakes on its renewable sector: the country’s limit on solar energy expansion has been lifted, and a protracted spat over the minimum distance between wind turbines and residential areas was brought to an end. Germany has also approved a stimulus package worth 130 billion euros, containing a number of measures designed to constrain its carbon emissions. Some pundits were critical, including the environmental group Greenpeace, which dubbed it as “pale green” at best. However, it won plaudits for snubbing the nationally influential car lobby, favoring e-transport rather than succumbing to industry calls for fresh subsidies for traditional cars.

Despite these glimmers of hope, there remain precious few clues on the detail of what is in store during the upcoming German leadership. Climate-minded observers bemoaned the lack of specifics during this year’s Petersberg Climate Dialogue – an annual meeting which includes about 30 environment ministers from around the world. This year it was particularly closely watched as the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow at the end of the year has been cancelled amid COVID-19. Speaking at the Petersberg Climate Dialogue, Merkel notably did not talk about the presidency at all, instead she talked in general terms about the Green Deal but she did endorse the Commission's proposal to raise the EU's 2030 emissions reduction target from 40 percent to 50 to a 55 percent.

Kai Niebert, an environmental scientist and President of Deutsche Naturschutzring (DNR), an environmental umbrella organization, called Merkel’s support for the higher goal “an important step in the right direction in these difficult times,” but added, “Germany must now put its words into practice and use its forthcoming EU Presidency seriously to actively promote the implementation of the European Green Deal”.

Slipping from one crisis to the next?

In the context of its European peers, Germany continues to perform fairly strongly in terms of its environmental policy in the SGI ranking, scoring 7.2 out of a possible 10 points for 2019, compared to an average European score of 6.4. But this slight lead may come under pressure in 2020 as Germany’s climate ambitions are tempered by the outbreak of a pandemic.

The international emergency has disrupted national and European decision making but it also teaches a valuable lesson, according to DNR President Kai Niebert. “The corona pandemic shows how unprepared we are for such a global shock,” he said. “The only logical response to the current health and economic crisis can therefore only be more climate protection, not less, so that we do not slip from one crisis to the next.”

As the countdown to the German presidency picks up speed, it is clear that not all member nations are fans of pro-climate policies. Amid the urgent need to react to the pandemic, a Polish government official has spoken out in favour of removing the EU emissions trading scheme while the Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis has urged for the European Green Deal to be shelved. This suggests a double challenge during Germany’s stint at the top, beyond the all-encompassing issue of COVID-19. Not only does Germany need to put action behind its promises for environmental protection, but it will also face staunch opposition to climate protection measures.

Jess Smee is a Berlin-based journalist who writes for The Guardian among others and is an editor of SGI Newsand the Bertelsmann Stiftung's BTI Blog.

First published by The EU Observer