Climate policies loom large in German election

After 16 years, Europe’s largest economy will no longer be led by someone with a Ph.D. in physical chemistry. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a former scientist, will step down following parliamentary elections on 26 September, and all three politicians vying to replace her studied law. “We have been very lucky with Angela Merkel to have a chancellor who knows how science works,” says Martin Stratmann, president of the Max Planck Society, which funds research at its 86 member institutes.

Yet scientists have little to worry about, at least in terms of research funding. Annual rises of 3% are locked in through 2030, and all the major parties vouch for the importance of science. “There has always been a broad consensus on this, and I am confident that whatever the new government will look like, this basic attitude will not change,” says Otmar Wiestler, president of the Helmholtz Association, which includes 18 research centers.

The competing parties differ on other issues, however, including how to promote innovation and biomedical research, and how to address climate change, one part of Merkel’s legacy that many scientists are disappointed with. Although she publicly emphasized the importance of the issue, Germany has repeatedly failed to meet its emissions targets. Under her leadership, the country phased out nuclear power and solidified plans to keep its coal power plants running through 2038, while building a new natural gas pipeline from Russia. “I am not as happy about those policies as I am about the budgets,” says Johannes Orphal, a climate researcher at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology.

It is far from clear who might replace Merkel. Her own party, the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), and its Bavarian sister party—together called “the Union”—are lagging in the polls. Their candidate, Armin Laschet, governor of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state, has been criticized for his response to massive floods in July and his laissez-faire approach to the coronavirus pandemic. Leading the race is the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), the junior partner in the “grand coalition” with the CDU that has been in power since 2013. Its candidate, Olaf Scholz, is the current finance minister and has campaigned as a source of stability and an heir to Merkel. Polling in third place is the environmentalist Green Party, led by Annalena Baerbock. In the weeks following her announcement as candidate, the Greens shot to the lead in the polls, reaching a record 26%, but accusations of plagiarism in her recent book about her vision for Germany and other stumbles have since dampened some voters’ enthusiasm.

No one is set to win a majority—typical in Germany’s political system, where six parties are likely to win seats in the parliament. If current polling holds, three of the six will need to cobble together a coalition to form a government—which could blunt strong policy shifts as the parties hammer out inevitable compromises.

Although Afghanistan, digital infrastructure, and tax cuts have all made headlines, climate change is the problem the largest number of voters—43%—say is most important, overtaking the coronavirus pandemic in polls in late August. In April, the country’s highest court found the government’s 2019 Climate Change Act unconstitutional, agreeing with young activists who claimed that by postponing most emissions cuts until after 2030, the law restricted their future freedom. In response, the parliament passed a revised law in June mandating that Germany by 2030 reduce its greenhouse emissions 65% compared with 1990 levels and be climate neutral by 2045.

The parties differ, however, on how to meet the 2045 deadline. The Greens say their plan, which includes a new climate ministry, would achieve climate neutrality by 2041. The Union plan would boost investment in renewable power to reach zero net emissions by 2045. The SPD also sticks to the 2045 goal, focusing on emissions trading as well as subsidies for electric vehicles and clean heating systems. (Other approaches range from that of the socialist Left Party, which aims to be climate neutral by 2035, to the far-right Alternative for Germany Party, which denies that human activity is affecting the climate.)

Who’s next?

The wide-open race to succeed Angela Merkel as chancellor means a three-way governing coalition is likely, a first for Germany. The parties’ climate policies, including their target date for zero net emissions, vary significantly.

Party Candidate Polling Politics Climate neutral date
Social Democratic Party Olaf Scholz 26% Center left 2045
Christian Democratic Union Armin Laschet 21% Center right 2045
Green Party Annalena Baerbock 16% Center left, environmentalist 2041
Free Democratic Party None 13% Center right, libertarian 2050
Alternative for Germany Party None 12% Far right/td> None
Left Party None 6% Left 2035

The Green and Left parties also pledge to help state governments rebuild crumbling university buildings sustainably. “If the public sector would invest on the side of climate innovation … that would be a big move forward,” says Antje Boetius, director of the Alfred Wegener Institute. Procurement laws and limited budgets often thwart climate-friendly decisions, she says. In everything from planning a new research vessel to choosing electricity providers, rules generally require giving contracts to the lowest bidder, with few standards for climate impacts.

All of the main parties mention “innovation” in their election platforms. The libertarian Free Democratic Party and the Greens call for a new funding agency focused on technology transfer. The SPD wants to amp up the state-owned investment and development bank to “become a modern investment and innovation agency,” whereas the Union wants to increase tax breaks for companies that do R&D and strengthen existing programs that fund tech transfer. For any of these plans to work, leaders will need to step back, says Wilhelm Krull, director of the New Institute, which funds research on ecology, economics, and democracy. “It’s very difficult in Germany to take risks and to accept that of course you will have quite a number of failures,” he says. Any new innovation scheme will need “a different governance structure that is at least at arm’s length—if not further away—from the government.”

The CDU also calls for a new national agency focused on biomedical research and development that, like the U.S. National Institutes of Health, would combine basic and clinical research. Although the German company BioNTech developed one of the most successful coronavirus vaccines—the messenger RNA shot produced by Pfizer—the pandemic has also highlighted weaknesses in the country’s clinical research capacities, says Georg Schütte, secretary general of the Volkswagen Foundation, a large private research funder. For example, he says, “Germany is a powerhouse for life science research, but there is no national platform for clinical trials.”

Enacting these policies and creating these agencies will depend heavily on who ends up in charge of the research and education ministry. The current minister, CDU member Anja Karliczek, who helped shepherd through the 2019 budget agreement guaranteeing research funding rises, has said she would be happy to continue, but many say that is unlikely even if the Union ends up in the governing coalition because she is not part of Laschet’s inner circle. “We are all a bit nervous” about who might fill the post, Orphal says. The eventual choice will depend on coalition negotiations, certain to involve horse trading for control of different ministries.

Still, a three-way coalition could have advantages, says Matthias Kleiner, president of the Leibniz Association, which includes nearly 100 research institutes. A coalition “can be a fruitful source of different perspectives to solve the big problems that we face,” he says, forcing disparate parties to find common ground. “In the end, it can be good when multiple parties come together.”

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