Germany’s ‘traffic light’ coalition is sending strong green signals. But political roadblocks lie ahead.
It has barely been ten weeks since Germans woke up to the news of the narrow federal-election victory by the social-democratic SPD over the conservative CDU-CSU union. The SPD, led by the outgoing vice-chancellor, Olaf Scholz, promised change after 16 years of rule under the Christian democrat Angela Merkel.
Even before the results had been announced, speculation as to the likely coalition had begun: the SPD was predicted to partner with the Greens and the neoliberal Free Democrats (FDP). And two weeks ago, the three parties, dubbed the ‘traffic light’ coalition due to their respective political colours—red, green and yellow—reached a deal after two months of intense negotiations, weeks ahead of their self-imposed Christmas deadline.
Last Saturday, the SPD voted by almost 99 per cent in favour of the coalition agreement. The next day, the FDP followed suit, with a 92 per cent majority. And on Monday, the Greens sealed the deal, with 86 per cent of party members backing the agreement. With all parties giving their blessing, Scholz’s cabinet was sworn in on Wednesday.
Not an easy ride
Yet, even with the undeniable support for the SPD-led government from the members of the coalition parties, the newly formed political alliance is unlikely to be an easy ride. Notably, the Greens and the FDP lock horns on several key issues—not least in relation to the environment.
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Will the three-way alliance give the green light for radical climate policies, compared with those under Merkel? Or will the Greens take a moderate approach, considering this power-sharing agreement was their golden ticket to the frontline of German politics?
So far it seems the Greens have not backed down; nor do they appear willing to do so any time soon. The new coalition deal puts climate change at the centre of German political debate, including environmental pledges that would have seemed unattainable during the Merkel administration.
While she may have been nicknamed the ‘climate chancellor’, critics argue Merkel’s legacy is mixed. The former environment minister and career scientist may have been concerned about climate change far earlier than most global leaders but she had her political blind spots—Germany’s addiction to fossil fuels perhaps the most notable.
For many Germans, Merkel was more successful in pushing the climate agenda abroad than at home. In Germany, the chancellor was faced with competing demands from powerful car and coal industries. Greenpeace called the automotive sector an Achilles heel for the CDU, with its close ties to the country’s leading export industry.
Change of climate
With the new government, however, Germany could finally experience a change of climate at home. The coalition treaty includes ‘ideally’ fast-forwarding Germany’s coal exit from 2038 to 2030—rapidly speeding up the country’s transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy.
A part of this transition is the new commitment to 80 per cent renewable energy by the end of the decade—about twice the contribution renewables make today. This will certainly be a challenge for Europe’s powerhouse: for years critics have accused Germany of falling behind other European countries in the shift to green energy. But the coalition pledge is a breath of fresh air, signalling a willingness to curb Germany’s reliance on fossil fuels and enter a greener, post-Merkel era.
The coalition also plans to have at least 15 million electric vehicles on German roads by 2030. While this is vital to meet the country’s global commitments on reducing its greenhouse-gas emissions, there are however roadblocks ahead.
Car-loving Germans are not exactly thrilled about the switch to Evs. A recent survey in 22 countries discovered that Germans were the most sceptical about EVs, with 58 per cent saying their next car would ‘probably not’ be electric. Unions have also sought to protect the jobs of around 800,000 Germans employed by the automotive sector, amid fears that tens of thousands could be lost if the transition is not executed with caution.
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Transport is the only industry that has failed to curb greenhouse-gas emissions since the 1990s. In the past, a strong car culture has championed traditional models and Germany did not join the COP26 pledge to sell only zero-emission vehicles by 2035.
Given public resistance towards rapid electrification, renewables such as biofuels could soften the transition. A plausible biofuel alternative comes from south-east Asia, where Malaysia has successfully certified roughly 93 per cent of its palm oil as sustainable under the legally binding MSPO scheme—and, by doing so, managed to reduce deforestation for four consecutive years. The efforts of biofuel-producing nations to render their industries sustainable could assist countries such as Germany steadily to reduce their fossil-fuel consumption.
Out of sync
A recent United Nations report reveals that, despite increased climate ambitions, governments’ fossil-fuel production plans are still dangerously out of sync with the Paris Agreement temperature limits. This essentially leaves us no time to waste. Yet while the new coalition has demonstrated willingness to ramp up Germany’s climate ambitions, it won’t be plain sailing.
The two smaller coalition parties enter the government with opposing agendas and approaches which vastly differ. The Greens seek to protect the environment from polluting industries with tougher environmental laws, while the FDP wants to liberate the same industries from ‘burdensome’ regulations and focus on market-based solutions.
The FDP has the image of a party of men who drive fast cars. Unsurprisingly, it has opposed a speed limit on the Autobahn and, due to its ‘pro-business’ stance, it is unlikely to favour imposing government targets on the car industry. Yet several young, newly-elected members of the Bundestag have close ties to the environmental movement. They are unlikely to settle for bland compromises when it comes to execution of these plans. Overall, this could signal a more hard-line approach to climate policies.
While the Greens’ election result failed to secure the chancellorship, it did grant them leverage in the coalition negotiations. They secured notable ministerial positions for the party’s co-leaders, Robert Habeck and Annalena Baerbock. Habeck is vice-chancellor and minister for the economy and climate, while Baerbock is foreign minister—the first woman ever to hold the position.
Shifting the continent
If the new coalition can strike a compromise on how to finance its climate-protection initiatives, this could pave the way towards a greener future. As Europe’s biggest economy, the German government’s decisions are likely to shift the continent’s climate agenda. Heading to the polls in September, Germans sought change in a vote which was labelled the ‘climate election’.
Only time will tell if the Ampelkoalition is able to deliver this. At the moment, there is no reason not to remain hopeful.
Isabel Schatzschneider is an environmental activist and researcher specialising in food ethics, religious ethics and animal welfare, as well as politics in the middle east. She is currently working as a research associate at the Friedrich-Alexander University Erlangen-Nürnberg.