(Bloomberg) -- Angela Merkel is seeking to kick start her stalled climate agenda and make good on vows to clean up Europe’s largest economy amid unrelenting public pressure on her fractious government.
The chancellor will meet with the premiers of German coal mining states on Wednesday to see how already earmarked funds may hasten an exit from the dirtiest fossil fuel. The gathering in Berlin is part of a flurry of activity with climate at the top of Germans’ political concerns after a landmark climate package fell short with voters.
“Merkel is trying to make up for years of failures in climate protection and is paying a high price,” said Claudia Kemfert, head of the energy and transport department at the DIW institute in Berlin. “Far too much time has been wasted doing nothing.”
Sending a message that Germany is ready to invest in a cleaner economy, her administration on Tuesday unveiled an 86 billion-euro ($95 billion) package to overhaul the country’s rail network. The hope is to shift people and goods away from more polluting road and air transport.
On Monday in the Baltic port of Stralsund, Merkel said the government could pay hostile communities to host wind farms after a construction slowdown served as the latest setback to the country’s clean-energy push.
Having risen to prominence as an environment minister, Merkel has failed to keep Germany’s climate goals on track, missing 2020 targets under the Paris Agreement. The setbacks are clouding the twilight of her political career.
“Merkel started with a progressive climate agenda and was even the climate chancellor,” Gunnar Luderer, a researcher at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. “Once the financial crisis hit, the level of ambition she had subsided quite quickly.”
Pressure on the government has been intense in recent months as activists pursue their agenda. Environmental protests outside Siemens AG sites over a controversial coal contract point to strains between Germany’s biggest industrial firms and its increasingly powerful environmentalist movement.
Merkel’s coalition has been fraught with infighting since she began her fourth term in 2018 and could feel further heat if the Greens win in Hamburg elections next month. The environmentalist party has gained in polls after a series of extreme weather events and a lack discernible progress by the government to make good on its promises.
On Wednesday, Merkel will seek to hammer out a deal with state leaders to quit coal-fired power by 2038. The plan, decided in February 2019 by a government-appointed panel, hasn’t yet been enacted into law because of disagreements over compensation for utilities like RWE AG, Uniper SE and LEAG. Government officials met with executives on Tuesday.
The commission was established to build consensus between environmental and business interests over coal, which still provides Germany with a third of its electricity. The late exit date -- along with 40 billion euros in financial aid to regions impacted by the energy shift -- was meant to protect jobs and face down a political challenge from the far-right Alternative for Germany party, which is strong in East German mining regions.
Despite the promise of cash, the threadbare pact cracked as record-breaking droughts and heatwaves hit Germany, withering crops, forcing municipalities to take emergency measures and intensifying calls for immediate action. Merkel’s government hopes talks this week will seal a deal and get the coal exit underway while keep costs in check.
Activists are blaming the chancellor for being too soft on polluters.
“Angela Merkel’s legacy is the destruction of the transition to green energy,” said Kathrin Henneberger, one of the co-leaders of Greta Thunberg’s Fridays for Future movement in Germany. “This so-called compromise guarantees coal will be burned for another 20 years.”
The chancellor’s delicate position will be underscored by a separate meeting in Berlin on Wednesday, when her chief of staff Helge Braun hosts representatives from carmakers and labor unions. The meeting is aimed at addressing the risk of masslayoffs from the technology changes away from the combustion engine. German brands are particularly affected by a shift to electric cars, which require fewer parts and less labor to assemble.
At the same time, the government is nudging Germans away from the Autobahn, with plans to add more regular train services and overhaul 2,000 kilometers of track. The investment in its aging rail network complements measures to increase taxes for domestic flights that were announced as part of Merkel’s climate package in September.
“Her leadership style is a mix of sudden dashes then return to business as usual,” Frank Uekoetter, a lecturer in environmental humanities at the University of Birmingham. “She has a history of flagship events and doesn’t follow through.”
--With assistance from Arne Delfs.
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