The Current

Can Germany regain its reputation as a climate change leader?

Climate change activists and policy makers are keeping a close eye on Germany to see if the country that once led the way on the transition to renewable energy can regain its reputation as a climate change leader.

Government plans to use coal until 2038, but young people push for faster action

Students gather at a Fridays for Future rally for climate change action at Invaliden Park in Berlin on Aug. 16. (Traven Benner)

Read Story Transcript

Originally published on September 23, 2019

An architect of Germany's clean energy transition says the country's reputation as a leader in the field is losing steam, and the country's leadership has lost its way.

"We were [the] front-runner about until 2005 and 2010, [a] positive example for the world how fast we could come to renewables, clean energy, climate protection," said Hans-Josef Fell, president of the Energy Watch Group.

"And now, Germany is not a front-runner."

Climate change activists and policy-makers are keeping a close eye on Germany, with its population of about 83 million, to see if it can regain that reputation. 

On Friday, hundreds of climate change rallies took place around the world, including thousands of people gathering in front of Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. The same day, Chancellor Angela Merkel announced the final details of a €54 billion (about $80 million Cdn) plan to curb Germany's greenhouse gas emissions.

The announcement comes just days ahead of the United Nations Climate Action Summit. 

Germany's Environment Minister Svenja Schulze has warned that the country's coalition government could fall if ministers can't agree on an aggressive climate action plan.

"The coalition cannot continue when it is not prepared to clarify without hesitation how Germany will achieve its climate goals by 2030," Schulze said in an interview with a German newspaper. "If we, as a nation of industry, cannot demonstrate how to do it, we cannot expect other countries will join."

Young climate activists attend a protest outside Germany's chancellery in Berlin on Sept. 13. (Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters)

Twenty years ago, Germany had a reputation as being a leader in addressing climate change. But after investing billions in renewable energy, Germany will miss its 2020 targets agreed to under the Paris Agreement. 

The Germany high-speed highway, the autobahn, maintains an almost sacred untouchability, and travelling within the country is often cheaper by plane than train.

Even today, coal is still the second largest source of electricity in the country. Earlier this year, the government came up with a plan to wean the country off coal — but not until 2038.

Transition is far from complete

Fell was a Green member of the German parliament from 1998 to 2013, and he's been referred to as the father of Germany's energy transition.

He was one of the people responsible for introducing Germany's Renewable Energy Sources Act, which became law in April 2000.

It was a keystone in the country's clean energy transition or revolution — Energiewende in German — whose goal was to transition Germany to a low-carbon, nuclear-free economy by mid-century.

Hans-Josef Fell, president of the Energy Watch Group, was a Green member of the German parliament from 1998 to 2013. He’s been referred to as the father of Germany’s energy transition. (Kristin Nelson/CBC)

"From 2000 to 2010 we had the massive investing of the whole population in Germany with renewables," says Fell. "Millions of people — private people — with solar rooftops, farmers with biogas, co-operatives ... they created wind farms and hydro power stations and plenty others. So it was a real success story."

In the early 2000s the German state invested massively in renewable energy, which helped to revolutionize the entire industry. Renewable energy only accounted for 3.5 per cent of Germany's power in 1990. By 2018, 35 per cent of the country's power came from solar, wind, biogas and other renewable sources.

You can see the effects right here in Berlin. ... Now I know kids who have never seen snow.— Clara Mayer

But Germany's energy transition is far from complete. Coal is still the second largest source of power in the country.

Fell blames Merkel's government for rolling back renewable energy policies and, he says, giving in to pressure from the fossil fuel lobby.

'We're just saying, "Keep the promises that you've made,"' says Clara Mayer, 18, a spokesperson for Fridays for the Future Berlin. (Kristin Nelson/CBC)

In recent years the German government has been pushed to act, in part, by students who have shaken the political landscape.

Fridays for Future protests, inspired by Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg, have spread like weeds throughout Germany over the last year. Demonstrations take place every week in dozens of locations, and the young people have seized the attention of the Germany public.

Even Merkel acknowledged the student protesters have pushed her to act faster.

"We're just saying, 'Keep the promises that you've made' ... and that's basically why we're on the streets," said Clara Mayer, spokesperson for Fridays for the Future Berlin. The 18 year-old carried a bullhorn, ready to address the crowd gathered in front of a fountain at a park in central Berlin.

Her message to German politicians was clear. 

"I say they have to act now. They have all realized that we are a strong force and that we can actually affect elections," said Mayer.

Mayer speaks with people at a Fridays for Future rally in Berlin. Politicians have realized 'that we are a strong force and that we can actually affect elections,' she says. (Traven Benner)

She has been protesting since February, and she is not alone in her concern.

Polls show climate change is the No. 1 concern for a majority of Germans.

In July, Germany experienced the hottest day on record. And for the second year in a row dry, hot weather led to crop failures, dying trees in the country's fabled forests and extremely low water in the Rhine River.

"You can see the effects right here in Berlin," said Mayer. She says her dad used to pull her to school in a sleigh in the winter, "and now I know kids who have never seen snow."

Protesters attend a Fridays for Future event in Berlin on Aug. 16. (Kristin Nelson/CBC)

Mayer wants radical change, and she believes young people must take the lead since they're "the people who would have to endure the catastrophes."

She is critical of Germany's leadership and has little patience for adults who ignore the problem and whose lifestyles contribute to climate change.

"That's where our movement can change things because we have the kids," said Mayer. "The kids can go home and tell their parents: 'Wait, no. We're not flying this summer.' And we have to vote for a party that will fight climate change."

Written by Kristin Nelson with files from The Associated Press. Produced by Kristin Nelson and Joan Webber.