Carbon Critical

Jan 06, 2022

Will the Traffic Light Turn Green?

Intra-coalition infighting, questions about EU policy, a mismatch between targets and policies—no sector better represents the climate challenges facing Germany’s government than transport.

A graph showing CO2 emissions/targets for Germany's transportation sector
Attribution CC BY

When Angela Merkel was appointed environment minister by then Chancellor Helmut Kohl back in 1994, climate change was a niche issue. Since Germany didn’t have a climate minister, Merkel presided over the first UN climate conference, COP1, in 1995 in Berlin. Her colleagues at the head of the transport, economy, and agriculture ministries had bigger fish to fry than what was then called “global warming.”

As 2022 begins with Merkel having departed the political stage, climate change is an issue for every ministry across government. The new coalition treaty between the center-left Social Democrats (SPD), the Greens, and the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP) requires every ministry to do a “climate check” of its legislation, and Germany has created a new energy and climate “superministry” under Vice-Chancellor Robert Habeck of the Greens. Habeck ended 2021 with some New Year’s realism, telling the weekly DIE ZEIT that Germany “would probably miss its climate targets for 2022 … we are starting with a dramatic backlog.” No sector better tells the story of that backlog, or of German climate policy as a whole, than transport.

Keep Your Eyes on the Road

There are three reasons why the transport sector is German climate policy in microcosm.

First, unprecedented action is needed, but the policies to enable it are not yet in place. When it comes to cutting greenhouse gas emissions, the German transport sector has made almost no progress in three decades: from 1990 until 2019—the last year before pandemic-related restrictions distorted the data—transport emissions fell just 0.4 percent even as overall emissions fell by 35.1 percent. Fossil-fueled motors have gotten more efficient over that period, but the fact that more people are driving more (and heavier) vehicles longer distances has cancelled out any emission reductions. Current German law requires transport emissions to decline by 42 percent from their pandemic-distorted 2020 levels by 2030, so there’s a lot of work to do.

Second, intra-coalition disputes are key, as demonstrated by a coalition treaty whose authors found it easier to agree on long-term targets than immediate policies. The new government wants 15 million full-electric vehicles on the roads by 2030 alongside a “massive acceleration” of charging infrastructure. It wants Germany to stop allowing the registration of new carbon-emitting vehicles before 2035, which is the European Union’s target date. It wants to for the first time “invest significantly more in train tracks than in roads.” And it wants to abolish subsidies harmful to the climate, about half of which are in the transport sector, according to the German Environment Agency. 

From Artist’s Sketch to Blueprint

Admittedly, coalition treaties are always closer to an artist’s sketch than a blueprint, and some concrete policies need to be negotiated over time in the Bundestag or implemented at the state level. Yet it is noticeable than a document titled “Dare More Progress” and containing quite a few concrete, trailblazing positions—from reducing the voting age to 16, to legalizing recreational marijuana, to restructuring the feed-in tariffs for renewables that have driven the move to renewable energies, the so-called Energiewende—had no “big bang” for transport, no massive discounts for public transport riders, or E-bike subsidies to match those for electric cars. Scandal-ridden outgoing transport minister, Andreas Scheuer of the Bavarian center-right Christian Social Union (CSU), said of the new government’s plans that “the continuity shows that I must have done a lot right”; the SPD and the Greens will not have taken that as a compliment.

The three coalition parties did rule out some shorter-term measures. There will be no speed limit on the autobahn under this coalition—here the Free Democrats were able to put their mark on the treaty. The head of the transport ministry will be Volker Wissing of the FDP, who has already irritated his Green colleagues by saying he would work to compensate drivers of diesel vehicles, who will soon face higher fuel taxes, by reducing their vehicle taxes. SPD Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who in his campaign had warned that higher gasoline prices were a hardship for working people, will have been pleased that the coalition agreement made clear the new government’s intention to keep the national carbon price for the transport and heating sectors at its current low level of about €30 per ton. There are sure to be other clashes on climate policy between ministers of the three parties: Habeck told DIE ZEIT “there are [transport] measures that are not ruled out in the coalition treaty, which the transport minister will surely introduce” if Germany misses its targets.

Third, EU policy looms over the debates in Berlin. The coalition agreement explains that the justification for freezing national carbon prices is that the European Commission intends to develop its own emission trading system for road transport and buildings. Some EU member states, however, have concerns about the social impacts of expanded carbon prices; skeptics include Poland, Hungary, and Spain. Given that Europe is facing record-high prices for fossil gas this winter, with some heavy industry being forced to shut down, it does seem a tricky time to raise the price of heating fuel. What is clear is that the German government’s ability to achieve its national transport target will depend in part on its ability to push through transport policy at the EU level.

New Year’s Resolutions

Habeck’s ministry has announced that it will implement one of the few concrete transport policies that made it into the coalition agreement, extending the current subsidy for electric vehicles purchases (up to €9,000) until the end of 2022 but thereafter limiting it to vehicles with a “demonstrated positive effect on climate protection”, i.e., favoring pure electric over hybrids. These subsidies have proven quite effective: 25 percent of cars sold in Germany from January to November 2021 were electric vehicles, 13 percent of them pure electric. That’s twice the market share electric vehicles had in 2020, and a reminder that a lot of the short-term emission cuts in transport (and beyond) will come from technological progress and the delayed results of previous policies.

If the new German government can overcome the roadblocks in the transport sector—uncertainty around European Commission proposals, a dearth of concrete policies to achieve targets, differences of opinion between coalition partners—it can achieve its goals in all sectors and be the climate leader it aspires to be. By next New Year’s Day, Habeck will no longer be able to blame the previous government for being stuck in neutral.  

Noah J. Gordon is INTERNATIONALE POLITIK QUARTERLY’s climate columnist.

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