Germany browbeats Canada and Japan into joining broad G7 pledge to cut emissions.
By SARA STEFANINI 6/8/15, 9:24 PM CET
It was a long, hard slog for German Chancellor Angela Merkel, but in the end the woman once dubbed the “climate chancellor” for her personal commitment to combating global warming pulled fellow G7 leaders to her side and triumphed over those resistant to putting an expiry date on fossil fuels.
Backed by French President François Hollande, U.S. President Barack Obama and EU leaders, the host of the summit in Schloss Elmau succeeded in putting tough, tangible commitments into the communiqué that the group agreed to Monday afternoon. That includes the crucial promise to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40 to 70 percent by 2050, compared to 2010 levels, and to limit global warming to below 2 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels.
The result was a round of applause from climate experts and campaigners.
“Merkel didn’t have to, but she really went all in in putting climate change at the top of the agenda,” said Daniel Boese, a media campaigner for the German civic group Avaaz.
It was not easy for the German leader, added Jennifer Morgan, global director of the climate change program at the World Resources Institute. “She’s been quite determined despite the discussions not being easy and in fact in one forum Merkel has described it as the most challenging issue she deals with.”
Germany has become the big economy most dedicated to shifting away from fossil fuels, although coal is still an important part of the mix. A 2011 decision to shutter its nuclear plants has led to surge in power generated by wind, solar and other renewables; last year they accounted for almost a third of Germany’s electricity production. The transition, called Energiewende, has become much more than an energy project, turning into a social revolution with broad political support.
Backed by the German public, and boosted by her own deep knowledge of climate change (Merkel is a trained chemist), her long and steady push is now being lauded for bringing other G7 leaders on board, and eventually forcing the two primary opponents, Japan and Canada, to back down, sources in Elmau told POLITICO.
Japan, in particular, had entered the negotiations with a three stage strategy: “Delay, decline, block,” said an advocacy group source. Canada started to backtrack when it realized the U.S. had little interest in supporting its insistence that the G7 was not the venue to promote an ambitious global warming agenda, others said.
“At the end of the day, Japan realized it was alone in opposing any commitment to climate change, and the Canadians, I hear, were quite quiet in the end, probably because they didn’t want to separate themselves too much from the U.S.,” said Lutz Weischer, the team leader for international climate policy at the NGO Germanwatch.
Japan’s resistance to ambitious climate change commitments stems from its shift to using coal to generate electricity after the Fukushima meltdown in 2011. Tokyo also exports coal-fired power plants.
The country, which does not have any of its own fossil fuel reserves, switched off its last of its 48 nuclear reactors in September 2013. It has since been generating the majority of its electricity with imports of oil, coal and gas. The three fuels accounted for 87 percent of the mix in 2013 (while nuclear contributed 1 percent), up from 61 percent in 2010. Hefty fuel import bills helped push the economy into an unexpected recession last year.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has sought to lessen the blow from climate change policies by benchmarking Japan’s planned emissions reduction target of 26 percent by 2030 to 2013 levels, when pollution from fossil fuels reached their peak. Japan has also balked at halting exports of coal technology, saying it offers a cleaner way burning the fuel and therefore qualifies for financing from its climate fund.
But as Sunday’s negotiations among government representatives (known as “sherpas”) spilled into early Monday morning, the Japanese camp started to buckle.
“The option was that either the sherpas would solve it, or it would have to go to leaders, and I think the thought of Abe having to explain why he disagreed with the world’s leading climate scientists, in front of Merkel, Hollande and Obama, was not a position they wanted to put their leader in,” said Weischer.
While Japan succeeded in softening some of the overall language, it was unable to keep out a call to increase the availability of insurance for negative effects from climate change in low and middle-income countries, according to a source in Elmau.
Canada has been similarly wary of calling for an end to fossil fuels because, even though a large amount of its electricity comes from hydropower, it also has large and lucrative oil and gas reserves.
The country stepped away from the Kyoto Protocol of 1990 in 2011 when it realized its emissions had actually gone up, according to a Greenpeace report. Its planned commitment for the December global climate summit in Paris has also been criticized as the least ambitious of all G7 countries, at 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.
Stephen Harper, the Canadian prime minister, has long defended fossil fuels. “We should not fool ourselves. Nobody is going to start to shut down their industries or turn off the lights. We have to find a way to lower carbon emitting energy,” he said after the summit.
For Hollande, the pressure is on to make sure the Paris summit is a success, unlike the COP15 meeting in Copenhagen in 2009, which is widely remembered as a failure for setting low targets and a weak outline for climate action.
For Merkel, beefing up commitments from Germany and others has been a long-running pursuit. With her training in science, she is adept at keeping abreast of the technical details and keeping in contact with German and international NGOs.
“Copenhagen was a disaster for her personally and she really was shocked by the result,” said a German NGO source who has worked on the issue with Merkel and her team throughout her chancellorship. That experience led Merkel to set up an annual climate change conference, the Petersberg Climate Dialogue, which she used to prepare patiently for a fresh opportunity on the global stage — this week’s summit.
Her government has set a target of phasing out nuclear power by 2022 and replacing it with renewable sources which, as of last year, accounted for almost a third of the country’s electricity supply, outpacing coal.
That said, there are also questions about Germany’s ability to meet its own targets, according to the energy analysis group Agora Energiewende. Germany’s exports of coal-fired electricity to neighboring countries are crowding out cleaner gas-fired power, and will continue to do so as their power systems become more interconnected. Germany and 11 neighbors signed an agreement Monday in Luxembourg to improve their connections by setting common rules, including not to interfere with prices.