Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel shook up Germany's energy revolution by firing her environment minister, Norbert Röttgen, who was a stalwart proponent of the shift to renewables as Germany phases out nuclear power.
Ostensibly, her sacking of Röttgen, who was considered a close ally and possible future chancellor, had nothing to do with the energy transition. At least this is what government spokespeople said. Merkel herself, said nothing…
Indeed, Röttgen flopped miserably in leading Merkel's Christian Democrats in regional state elections in North Rhine Westphalia. The party suffered its worst defeat there since World War II, and the campaign was marked by a series of unfortunate gaffes by Röttgen. He clashed with Merkel over the campaign and the chancellor apparently felt he had to go because of it.
Yet because Röttgen was a liberal among the conservatives, he had his share of enemies in his own party. Röttgen, for example, had been a proponent of phasing out nuclear energy as quickly as possible long before the Fukushima disaster prompted Merkel to change course. He also locked horns with the economic planning ministry, which, in the hands of the freemarketeer Philipp Rösler, has been a loyal representative of Germany’s four big power companies, no friends of a transition to renewables. Indeed, there were old guard conservatives very eager to send the green-minded minister to North Rhine Westphalia for good, should he have pulled off a victory. This didn’t happen, but Röttgen got the boot anyway.
So what does this mean for the Energiewende? Merkel’s new environment minister, Peter Altmaier, is a trusted senior lawyer and Merkel confidant with little to no experience in energy or environmental matters. He now has a lot on his plate as energy development has stalled and grumbling about its lack of progress has been growing for months. Germany is falling behind schedule and a firm hand is needed to drive it forward.
All of the opposition parties — the Greens, Social Democrats, and the Left Party — have been fiercely critical of the coalition's indecision and have increasingly questioned its commitment to the transition. The Green Party’s Jürgen Trittin, for example, said: "You can't just exit, you have to enter. The government has failed to explain how it will plug the gap between the shuttered reactors and targets for renewables." The Greens argue that Germany's 2020 targets for renewable energy could be considerably more ambitious. (The existing targets are basically pre-Fukushima.)
Days before the election, the government’s bill to slash solar-power subsidies (opposed by Röttgen, though timidly) was voted down by Germany’s upper house, composed of the 16 federal states. The coalition’s energy policy had been roundly criticized by the renewables lobby for its proposed cuts and obstruction of EU energy efficiency targets. The government has to come up with a plan for expanding and updating the country’s energy transmission grid, which is critical to the energy transition’s success. Moreover, other major questions like storage capacity and the construction of cleaner gas works need to be addressed.
Is Altmaier the man to take all of this on? Well, if he means to do it — and not block it — it’s clear that having the chancellor so close to his side will help. Even though Röttgen was considered a Merkel ally, she didn’t intervene on his behalf in his struggles with the economic planning ministry. On the contrary, she let him lose.
It’s now up to Merkel and Altmaier to show the leadership necessary to get energy policy back on track. Röttgen’s heart was in the right place, but he couldn’t win the battles. Altmaier could do better — but he could do worse, too.
Paul Hockenos is a Berlin-based journalist. His own blog is Going Renewable.
Image: Tobias Machhaus via Shutterstock
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