Europe's leading economies play catch-up on climate policies

Bold goals affected by political wrangling and public backlash affect

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Finance Minister Olaf Scholz attend a news conference at the Futurium in Berlin, Germany, September 20, 2019. REUTERS/Hannibal Hanschke
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Europe’s biggest economies are lagging badly in their response to the climate crisis but officials have been promising a fresh start ahead of the UN Climate Summit in New York on Monday.

With its government promising a green revolution, Germany could be on the way to becoming the first nation to build one million charging points for electric vehicles.

As German politicians outbid each other to attract the rising eco-voter, Olaf Schulz, the finance minister, grabbed headlines by mooting the magic number. “The truth is that climate protection cannot be achieved at zero cost,” he said. Chancellor Angela Merkel told parliament a new direction was needed. “Doing nothing is not an option,” she said.

A package of measures announced on Friday came as Berlin said it would invest €54 billion (Dh219bn) in a green budget to reduce emissions by 55 per cent to 1990 levels by 2030.

Efforts to agree on the package revealed differences within the ruling grand coalition of Ms Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and Social Democratic Party (SPD). Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the leader of the conservative CDU, is determined to stick to market-led incentives. She declared last week she wanted an economy-led focus to the challenge.”We want a climate-efficient Germany that is innovating for the future,” she told a party meeting.

In contrast, the SPD fought for both taxes on carbon emissions by industry and that shaped personal behaviour so that individuals change their energy footprint.

While the CDU largely opposes taxes, it has allowed some increase in air levies and other revenue penalties. Broadly, its politicians want to avoid a backlash. The lessons of neighbouring France where a carbon tax triggered the Gilets Jaunes popular revolt, haunts the party. “The commuter does not pay,” explained CDU politician Andreas Jung. “We will do it gradually, we do not want to over-tax people.”

The reforms have been welcomed as both wide-ranging and well-funded but some worry that the headline-grabbing charging points initiative will prove a white elephant.

“According to our calculations, 350,000 public charging points are perfectly adequate for the planned 10 million electric cars,” said Stefan Kapferer, chief executive of the energy association BDEW.

Overshadowing the government’s deliberations is the dramatic rise of the German Greens as a political force. It threatens to eclipse the SPD as the main leftist political force.

Winfried Kretschmann, the Green party premier of Baden-Wuerttemberg, led the party's rejection of the new policies on Sunday. His party is polling at 38 per cent in what is one of Germany’s richest and most industrialised states and Mr Ketschmann is tipped by some as a potential future chancellor.

The Greens co-leader Annalena Baerbock said the government had “wasted a historic opportunity”. The party is demanding a beefed up carbon tax to curb emissions.

The target of a one million charging points revived memories of the failed 2010 initiative to get one million electric cars on the roads by January 2020. There are currently 100,000 electric vehicles on German roads and 20,000 charging points.

“It helps nobody if Germany is littered with charging stations that are hardly used and thus not economical for the operators,” said Mr Kapferer.

Indeed a raft of relatively slow-rated sub-50 kilowatt points would not be as good for innovation as a fewer number of 100KW fast-loading pillars such as those promoted by Elon Musk’s Tesla.

“It must be remembered that these cars once charged up last a long time,” said Andreas Holzel, an industry expert. “On the move, what’s needed above all else is fast-charging [pillars].”

Just over 14,000 fuel stations in Germany service a national fleet of 57 million vehicles.

One estimate published last week put the optimum number of electric charging points at 33,000 – far below the million target.

Germany is further down the road than France where President Emmanuel Macron suffered a setback last year. As the country where the Paris Climate Change accords were signed, France is keen to be a world-leader in tackling rising temperatures.

The roiling Gilets Jaunes, or yellow-vest, protests cratered his signature carbon tax initiative.

The issue has not gone away after a summer heatwave that took dozens of lives as temperatures topped records. French scientists working in the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change produced a alarming forecasts for global temperature increases last week, with one laboratory predicting that global temperatures were set to rise by 7°C by the end of the century.

French officials have recommended to the Macron government that it return to a “carbon tax trajectory”.

Politically wounded, the government has instead turned the matter over to a 150-strong citizens convention. “Very clearly the government has chosen not to pursue the path of taxation that was planned in 2018,” said Elizabeth Bourne, the transport minister. “We will not make a decision without listening to the French. The proposal must come from the citizens convention.’

In the UK, the government has set a goal of becoming the first carbon neutral developed economy by 2050. Emissions have already been reduced by 44 per cent since 1990, the government said when the plan was unveiled in June.

However, there have been few policy initiatives to support achieving the target. One route is via carbon capture and deep storage, but the government cancelled a £1bn (Dh4.6bn) investment in the necessary research. In the 2018 budget the government scrapped tax concessions for some popular types electric cars, resulting in a 12 per cent on-year drop in sales.

Political wrangling in the world’s fourth, fifth and sixth-largest economies is doing no favours to Earth’s beleaguered atmosphere.