20.02.22 Business as usual with a green veneer is simply not an option“ Interview with Dr. Michael Pahle, Working Group Leader at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research • Reading time: 5 min.

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Less inertia and more courage to tell the truth: This is the approach that Dr. Michael Pahle, Working Group Leader at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, would like to see from the new German government. He believes that everyone will have to make sacrifices to reduce the impact of climate change.

Dr. Michael Pahle, Working Group Leader at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research

The German traffic light coalition aims to make climate action its central theme. Do the plans that have been announced go far enough? 

The proposals are definitely very promising. However, the question is how many of them can actually be implemented and how well this will be done. Another question is how many sacrifices the government really expects the voters to make. The current discussions are all about funding and subsidies, while sacrifices and penalties, for example in the form of additional costs, have been put on the back burner. And finally, the third question: How do the German government’s plans match up with the targets on a European level? The new EU Taxonomy Regulation, for example, indicates how different the opinions in this area can be. 

What doubts do you have about the implementation of the government’s plans?

I think that there are two major problems. Climate action is increasingly coming into conflict with other societal objectives, in particular the need to reduce our impact on the environment, when it comes to building more onshore and offshore wind farms. The government will need to find a sensible compromise. Another major challenge is making the administrative processes simpler and more efficient. This also involves resolving the conflicts with the German states. One possibility would be for the federal authorities to centralize decision-making, for example as they have already done concerning grid expansion. So, we are also faced with the question of how to redefine federalism. Over the last few years, all these problems have been correctly analyzed, but now it is time to find compromises and solutions that will resolve the tough problem of the conflicting objectives within society. 

Will the Greens find themselves being pulled in two directions, for example over the conflict between tackling climate change and protecting the environment? 

That may well happen. An internal conflict has been brewing for some time in the Green Party between grassroots democratic idealism and highly organized realism. In order to press ahead with change, you have to remove many of the grassroots democratic elements from the administrative decision-making processes. Government policy needs to be based on realpolitik, even if the more idealistic wing of the Green Party is not happy with this. On the other hand, the Greens will also have to agree on compromises with the other coalition parties. The Social Democrats are focusing mainly on people on low incomes, while for the Free Democrats sound public finances are very important. There are too many compromises in the coalition agreement and several unresolved conflicts are likely to emerge when it comes to actually implementing the plans.

You have also mentioned the subject of sacrifices. Is the new German government expecting enough from its citizens when it comes to climate change? 

I hope it is, even though this is, of course, not an end in itself. The politicians need to dispense with the illusion that simply by greening the economy we can achieve our ambitious climate targets. We will not be able to avoid tough cutbacks and painful compromises. Of course, it is difficult to say this in so many words, but if we do not, we will raise hopes that will inevitably be dashed. People will be taken by surprise by new costs and charges, and their support for climate action will diminish.

Does this mean that combating climate change will be a painful process? 

You can see that already with the current energy price crisis. It may not have been caused by climate action, but it is a taste of the higher prices that we will see in the medium term as a result of the cost of combating climate change. Cushioning the shock with social measures is the right thing to do, but climate policy is a transformation process that will inevitably be accompanied by additional costs. One aspect of this is the growing price of CO2 and another is the energy efficiency of buildings. All of these things are extremely politically sensitive, but the government must face up to them. Business as usual with a green veneer is simply not an option. We have to make it clear to people that changing their behavior is unavoidable. Many of the measures introduced in the recent past gave people a warm, fuzzy feeling. There were a lot of subsidies, but very little emphasis on the actual reductions in emissions. But now we need to make real cutbacks. In the future, only those measures that genuinely contribute to combating climate change can be funded.

Are the coalition government’s plans in line with the climate targets of the European Union? 

In many areas the new government supports the European plans. The interesting question will be how the EU targets are divided up across the individual member states. Although the government has expressed its general support for the EU’s plans, we have yet to see whether there is any actual convergence between the national targets and the European targets. I am noticing at the moment that the subject of Europe is not being picked up by all the government departments or being pooled and managed centrally. Instead it is more of a side issue in the individual areas. That is not particularly promising. 

The EU Taxonomy Regulation is currently the subject of heated debate. What is your view on it?

In my opinion, the whole taxonomy approach is not at all useful. It was an indirect attempt to make climate policy and it has ultimately resulted in the introduction of a cluttered technology management mode. The individual member states have the right to generate energy in different ways. We should not attempt to put technologies into moral categories or impose our view on others. The German approach to climate policy does not have to be a model for the rest of the world. 

Finally, let’s take a look into the future. What will Germany be like at the end of the current parliamentary term? 

There will probably be more wind turbines. Or perhaps not, because according to Robert Hadeck, the Minister for Economic Affairs and Climate Action, the changes needed for the expansion may only be noticeable in a few years’ time. I hope that the processes in the government departments will be faster and more efficient. But the most important factor is the changes in the political decision-making and regulatory structures. We need to move into a different political mode where decisions are made more directly and quickly. 

Judging by the way the state managed the COVID-19 crisis, this does not seem very likely… 

That’s true. But on the other hand, we can hope that the failings that have emerged have made everyone aware of one thing. For everything to stay as it is – in other words, the climate – everything has to change in politics, in the administration and also among the people. There is no vaccine for the climate crisis. 


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