Fueling debate German ministers argue over who's in charge of coal phase-out

Germany’s coal cleanup is set to be a monumental task. The economy and environment ministers have different ideas of who should be in charge.
This could get dirty.

Germany's coalition government is just a few weeks old and it’s already divided on one of its most important projects: ending coal-fired power generation.

The economy ministry, run by the conservatives, is at loggerheads with the environment ministry, run by the junior partner Social Democrats (SPD), over who should be in charge of the phase-out.

Newly-appointed Economy Minister Peter Altmaier of the conservatives, a close ally of Chancellor Angela Merkel, said it was his job. “That makes sense,” he said. “This isn’t just about climate policy.”

But Environment Minister Svenja Schulze, another new federal minister, has argued it’s up to both ministries. The center-left SPD member has admonished Mr. Altmaier’s comments as “irritating.” “Climate change is of main importance,” she said.

There’s not much time for debate. Germany needs to get it right if it wants to meet its CO2 reduction targets without sacrificing the stability of the power supply, risking sharp price hikes and triggering social dislocation in the regions affected.

The share of renewable energy has increased sharply to 35 percent, but there are still many weeks in the year when there’s not enough wind or sun to generate the required amount of power. Coal power currently covers 40 percent of energy in Europe’s largest economy. It will remain important for years to come, making it the economy ministry’s patch, Mr. Altmaier has argued.

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Germany has made virtually no progress last year in tackling global warming, according to government statistics released last week. Industry and transport even emitted more CO2 than in 2016. Total CO2 emissions fell only slightly, by around five million tons to 905 million, because a number of coal-fired power plants were shut down and replaced by wind and solar power.

The coalition government has already embarrassingly abandoned its plan to cut CO2 emissions by 40 percent by 2020 from 1990 levels. The coalition decided instead to focus on reaching the existing 2030 goal of a 55 percent decline.

Ms. Merkel's government now plans to set up a commission, which will include trade union reps, and regional and environmental groups, to set a realistic date for the complete phase-out of coal power. New energy-saving plans for building insulation and the transport sector are expected to be enshrined into a new law to ensure climate targets are reached this time around.

According to Stefan Kapferer, director of the energy industry association BDEW, getting agreement on all sides of the commission will be difficult. “All sides must be ready to compromise,” he told Handelsblatt. “That also goes for the environmental groups.”

Many in the German government want to focus on shutting down coal plants because that’s the quickest way to cut CO2 emissions, especially since the auto industry’s struggle to abandon diesel has shown how difficult it will be to reduce the transport sector's carbon footprint.

Klaus Stratmann covers energy policy and politics for Handelsblatt in Berlin. To contact the author: [email protected]