Carbon Critical

May 02, 2023

The German Greens’ Identity Crisis

Germany’s Greens have been forced to compromise on many of their core beliefs while in government. To maintain their electoral support, they need to continue to combine pragmatism with climate-centered policies.

A graph showing the projected German gas overcapacity 2023-2030
Attribution CC BY

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has had profound political impacts, particularly on Germany which highly depended on Russian energy. In 2021 Germany imported 55 percent of its total gas—or 53 billion cubic meters (bcm)—from Russia. When this vulnerability was exposed, Germany’s newly elected leaders, the traffic light coalition of Chancellor Olaf Scholz and his Social Democrats (SPD), the Greens, and the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP), were forced to find new supplies.

This herculean task required scale and speed to avoid an energy security crisis. However, it also required compromise, particularly from the Greens—who, after 16 years in opposition, were forced to reshuffle priorities to meet the needs of marshalling Germany through a crisis. While this unlocked things that were previously politically impossible, it also opened the door to an identity crisis the party is now forced to grapple with.

The Greens’ “Transition” to Energy Security

The depth of this crisis is evident when it comes to nuclear power. Anti-nuclear identity has been integral for German Green party since its formation in the late 1970s, with Germany’s nuclear exit as their crowning achievement, originally scheduled for 2022. Given the energy emergency, the Greens supported the continued operation of Germany’s two remaining nuclear plants as emergency reserves. While they opposed extending operation beyond April 2023, this action showed the Greens straining to balance pragmatic necessity with the party’s strong aversion to nuclear power.

In prioritizing energy security, the Greens opted for fossil fuels. Last year over 20 German coal plants were reactivated or had their decommissioning delayed. And only three days after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, Chancellor Scholz announced the establishment of various liquified natural gas (LNG) terminals, followed in October 2022 with legislation to accelerate project approvals. Environmentalists are navigating legal opposition to this—in particular LNG’s use of chlorine. Yet, the Green Vice Chancellor who is also the Economy and Climate Minister, Robert Habeck, rebuffed these concerns due to the primacy of energy security. In his drive to secure gas for new terminals, Habeck arranged a 15-year LNG offtake agreement with Qatar.

While these measures are helping to navigate the immediate energy crisis, the response raises concerns. A report found that the reopened coal plants produced an additional 15.8 million tons of CO2 emissions in 2022. Their continued operation is raising German emissions while undermining its self-professed climate leadership internationally. Likewise, a new report from the Economy and Climate Ministry projected that the new LNG facilities could operate below half capacity by 2030. The plan costs €10 billion and combines 20bcm of floating storage regasification units (FSRU) capacity with 34bcm of onshore capacity to serve the 74bcm of German gas demand in 2030. This target prioritizes security and is deliberately conservative—or higher than necessary. This is interesting because the projection calculates that Germany could be supplied 69.3bcm by domestic production and pipeline or LNG imports from Belgium, France, the Netherlands, and Norway. Hence, almost all German gas needs can be met without using the new LNG facilities.

However, no margin for disruption is risky, and this also does not take into account gas transiting through Germany to Central Europe. The report hedges a 20bcm margin to account for this. Even then, 34bcm of surplus capacity, or the equivalent of all three onshore facilities, remains. Certainly, when the 20bcm of FSRU supply contracts expire a gap of 14bcm would be less egregious—but is Germany really expecting its gas consumption to remain stable beyond 2030? It appears so, despite the risk of fixed terminals becoming stranded assets. The usage of FSRUs now and the construction of one onshore facility are sensible amidst the crisis. However, the level of overcapacity is incompatible with climate targets and the justification of transitioning to green hydrogen—in the form of e-methane and ammonia—is incomplete at best. The prioritization of gas is evident in the fact that the first LNG terminals were announced, contracted, supported by legislation, and operational within 10 months.

All the while bottlenecks persist for renewables. German wind projects are a known mess—often taking longer to permit than construct. This energy crisis created a chance to fix this, and Habeck took it. In 2022 he introduced legislation to overrule German state rules and pushed for state guarantees for renewable power projects. Yet, offshore wind developers still face barriers. Coming into 2023, supply and material constraints, poor financial conditions, a 40 percent manufacturing cost spike, and the lack of skilled labor and port infrastructure left the industry calling for urgent action. Habeck has responded to this, offering order guarantees to renewable manufacturers and announcing a series of “wind summits.” While this could prove helpful, it is in no way near as decisive as the intervention for gas, the lock-in effect of which could become a political liability.

Unfortunate Optics

Growing divergence between the Greens’ policy and Germany’s climate movement, which until now hugely overlapped, was demonstrated in January at Lützerath in North Rhine-Westphalia, where a village will be demolished to expand the Garzweiler coal mine owned by energy company RWE. Activists had occupied the village since 2020 to block the project’s expansion. The expansion was supported by the Green leadership—including Robert Habeck and Mona Neubaur who serves as the state’s economy and climate minister. They argued expansion was needed for immediate energy security and long-term sustainability. However, those on the ground disagreed. Many activists are members of the Greens, and before their forced eviction, the party supported their demonstration—depicting them as concerned young citizens. To then being treated as criminals worthy of police violence is a significant U-turn and created images difficult for many Greens to accept. Especially when renowned figures like Greta Thunberg were carried off while others are beaten and detained.

Despite the optics, the Greens were in a difficult position. Expansion was a compromise between the federal and state governments and RWE. According to that compromise, demolishing Lützerath would block further expansion and that the German coal phase-out would advance from 2038 to 2030. This agreement was also reached in October, when the Greens would have been facing the looming threat of a possibly cold winter. And the village was mostly empty. All but one of the village’s inhabitants had reached agreements on compensation and resettlement. Hence, the protest seems to be less about preserving Lützerath and more about blocking coal expansion.

Yet, there are also merits to the obstructionist position. Numerous studies and scientific opinions have scrutinized the necessity of more coal. Some have highlighted that the expansion was unnecessary to meet coal demand projections or energy security needs. While others argue it would take Germany off its 1.5 degree Celsius commitment or that the phaseout by 2030 will not reduce emissions because coal would be uneconomical well before 2038. Government officials failed to address these concerns, and the agreement was rushed through with little external consultation. Pushback resulted in an open letter signed by over 500 scientists calling for the expansion to be stopped.

Balancing Contentious Policies and Pragmatism

While the eviction was not halted, trading political values for short-termism can amplify party divisions—particularly with young people. Both Lützerath and LNG expansion has been criticized by many climate activists who are members of the Greens. Luisa Neubauer, the leader of Fridays for Future in Germany dubbed the “German Greta,” is a primary example, as she frequently challenges Habeck’s policies publicly. Her frustration is likely shared by many young Greens, and her ability to manifest this frustration in opposition to the government is not to be underestimated.

The evolution of this could become problematic if the issue persists. Young people are politically important for the Greens. In 2021 they secured 23 percent of all voters under the age of 25. One of the main reasons for this level of support is because young people have identified with the Greens’ science-based urgency on climate. Moving from this position will cause problems for the party with this demographic.

However, it is hard to know how deep discontent goes. In March 2023, both the Green Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock and Habeck had the second and third highest approval rating out of German politicians and the recent state election in Berlin demonstrated that the Greens’ political support has remained firm even when the SPD faltered. Yet, despite this support, the Greens were still excluded from the local government in Berlin when the SPD opted to form a coalition with the center-right CDU. Even if done by a narrow margin, this instance showcases that the Greens risk being politically sidelined unless they make considerable policy concessions—as they did during coalition meeting in March when they supported highway expansion championed by the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP).

The Greens will need to keep this in mind. Their popularity seems to have taken a hit in recent weeks; in one “shock” poll published by tabloid BILD on April 25, the Greens found themselves in fourth place nationally, behind the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). This can be explained both by popular dissatisfaction with Habeck’s new “heating law” which forbids the installation of new gas and oil heating systems by next year. But it can, at least in part, also be explained by the Greens’ pragmatic positions on other climate-policy-related issues as well as their strong, principled support for Ukraine, including military help. It is a reminder that their political support is not a certainty. Neither is their inclusion in governance.

Going forward, the Greens should retain their tendency to find pragmatic solutions while working harder to keep climate-centered policies at the core of their political horizon.

Loyle Campbell is a research fellow in the Center for Climate and Foreign Policy at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP), where he assesses international climate and energy policy.

Leonie Oechtering is a research assistant in the DGAP’s Center for Climate and Foreign Policy.