Germany: Climate Disappointment of the Year

29 December 2023, 0945 EST

With a symbolically successful COP28 and substantively significant investments in clean energy around the world, 2023 boasts some positive news on climate change. Not a moment too soon: global GHG emissions continue to rise and global warming continues to worsen. We can hardly rest on our laurels. The team at Brown University’s Climate Solutions Lab looked at where we expected better in 2023, and ought to demand better in the future.

Germany is our choice as Climate Disappointment of the Year. We do not choose Germany lightly, as there were lots of contenders for this dubious honor. China is the world’s clean energy leader but also the biggest carbon emitter. The United States is starting to get its house in order but still lags Europe. Canada did some notable climate backsliding. And overall, Germany, and Europe more broadly, is still considered a climate leader or at least better than average.

But while there are bigger polluters than Germany, we focused on each country’s performance relative to where they started at the beginning of 2023, and what it might have accomplished given its resources, domestic situation, and global position. Germany is not only a rich country, it is run by a coalition government boasting five Green Party cabinet members (including the powerful economy and foreign ministries), and has voters who have historically supported pro-climate action.

Alas, Germany stands out in 2023 as a disappointment for the rather stunning list of setbacks, foolish decisions, reversals, and missed opportunities that its leaders managed to accrue. German leaders spent the first half of the year largely bemoaning the fact that the United States was attracting green businesses because of the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act, rather than taking US action as impetus to pro-climate action of its own. But then Germany really shifted into reverse and revved its engines. Consider this list of farcical moves:

  1. A rollback of billions of planned green investments, after a German high court decision on government spending rules, including €12 billion for the Climate and Transformation Fund (KTF) and additional cuts to environmental subsidies to homeowners.
  2. Huge new natural gas contracts with Norway’s Equinor, to supply fossil fuels through 2039, a mere 11 years before Germany’s supposed Net Zero target of 2050
  3. A painful lack of progress on wind investments, with major negative consequences for German and European wind companies like Siemens Energy. German investments in wind have fallen after the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022, a war that should have spurred wind investments (and have, happily, helped solar energy).
  4. Doubling down on billions in subsidies for fossil fuels. The Climate Solutions Lab’s peer-reviewed estimate of Europe’s excess fossil fuel spending in 2022 was over €1 trillion, and while falling energy prices lowered this bill in 2023, Germany continues to subsidize natural gas and other fossil fuels.
  5. Weakened energy security, by continuing to leave Germany dependent on fossil fuel imports: now from mostly non-Russian sources, these imports are still insecure, as the recent shipping attacks in the Red Sea demonstrate: natural gas prices surged.
  6. Low climate policy ambition, such as Germany’s endorsement of the EU target of generating 42.5% of its electricity from renewables, when the EU is already on pace for 45%. Independent analysis by think-tank Ember suggests that not only could it get to 50% by 2030 but could also decarbonize 95% of its power sector by 2035 with higher ambition.
  7. Ongoing permitting and regulatory red tape for renewable energy projects, which contribute to most of the problems already mentioned on this list.
  8. The last three nuclear power plants in Germany were shut down in April 2023, completing a nationwide nuclear shutdown that had been in the works since 2011. Nuclear power continues to have an unblemished safety record in Western Europe, and the loss of Germany’s nuclear fleet means continued reliance on coal and natural gas.
  9. Lobbying efforts by state-owned German companies to persuade the U.S. government to authorize a massive new liquified natural gas (LNG) export terminal in Louisiana.

On the flip side, we must give Germany credit for its rapid increases in solar energy since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the steady growth in renewable energy generation over the last decade. But those positive developments are mostly a product of earlier decisions and aren’t enough to mitigate the disappointments, especially from the Green Party.

It is true that the Russian invasion of Ukraine put Germany in an energy security crisis, as it scrambled to find alternative suppliers of energy, particularly natural gas. Still, while some rapid action to shore up supplies in the short-term are understandable, the crisis ought to have also served as impetus to address the fundamental energy vulnerabilities of imported fossil fuels, and spur investment in renewables and other sources of secure energy supplies. Germany could have invested far more rapidly in low-carbon options. Instead, Germany has largely let a crisis go to waste (as have others in Europe).

The slim silver lining to all these dark clouds is that many Germans, including business leaders, are demanding better. The CEO of Schaeffler, a German car parts manufacturer, for instance, speaks of “unease and nervousness” sparked by Berlin’s withdrawal of funding for climate-related projects. Germany’s long-term economic prosperity depends on using today’s resources wisely.

In 2023, Germany failed its people and the global environment. In 2024, we hope it will do better.