Three Reasons Why the Green Party is Set to Dominate German Energy Policy

In recent months, the German Green Party has established itself as a serious rival to Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, and even as a contender for the chancellorship. Especially in energy politics, the party has become a force to be reckoned with. With the next general elections coming up in 2021, the Greens are likely to further cement their influence. Taking Germany as an example, this trend can serve as a blueprint for many other Western democracies.

A powerful German Green party has not always been the case. Born from the 1980s anti-nuclear movement, sustainable energy policy has always been at the heart of the party’s political agenda. However, for much of the party’s existence, this has not materialized in direct political influence respectively government participation. As the Greens have been stuck in the opposition in the Bundestag since 2005, German energy policy and the “Energiewende” (or German energy transition) has been mostly shaped by Chancellor Merkel’s Christian Democrats.

So, what has changed? As the Green Party has been moving closer to the political centre and rising in popularity and compatibility with other parties, three new levers have materialized through which the party will have—and partially already has had—a significant influence on German energy policy.

  • Associations turning Green: While the Green Party has always enjoyed the support of environmental activists and NGOs, the coal and nuclear-dominated German energy sector traditionally viewed the Greens with suspicion for many years, believing them to be inherently anti-business. As the energy transition is progressing (albeit slowly) and the days of fossil-fueled energy are gradually coming to an end, more German business leaders are now embracing “green” values and sustainability initiatives—either out of conviction or due to public pressure. This is especially evident in the energy sector, where traditionally fossil-fuelled operators like RWE or Vattenfall have announced ambitious emission reduction campaigns and almost every small municipal utility is implementing strategies to increase its share of renewables. This is also reflected in the sector’s lobbying approach. After former Green Party leader Simone Peter took over the role as President of the German Renewable Energy Federation (BEE) in 2018, the largest German energy association BDEW followed suit last year and appointed former Green MP Kerstin Andreae as its General Managing Director. Thus, the German energy industry (a formerly fossil-fuel dominated boys club) is now being represented by two prominent female Green politicians — a clear indication that the energy sector is adapting to a new Green reality.
  • The State Level: Even though the Greens have not yet been able to convert their growing popularity into a larger share of parliamentary mandates, they do exert considerable influence on federal legislation through their historically strong presence in state governments, and thus also in the Bundesrat (or Federal Council), which represents the interests of states in the legislative process. The Greens currently serve as junior coalition partners in 10 of 16 German states and even govern the state of Baden-Württemberg, Germany’s largest industrial hub next to Bavaria. This strong position allows the Greens to block or delay certain laws and to push for changes. A prominent example is an increased national CO2 price for heat and transportation, which at least in part resulted from Green Party pressure in the Bundesrat.
  • Next Step – Federal Government: Lastly, with the Green Party on the rise and a general lack of enthusiasm for a renewed “Grand Coalition” between Christian and Social Democrats, the party will likely play an important role in the next government following the 2021 German general elections. Either as a coalition partner with the Christian Democrats or even in a leading position together with Social Democrats and the Left Party. Seeing that sustainable energy is at the core of the Green’s DNA, a Green coalition partner will push for the historic opportunity to take the lead in Energy Policy (currently located the Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy) and to subsequently shape the German Coal and Nuclear Phase-out and a Green Energy Future.

With the COVID-19 pandemic currently dominating the public discourse and political decision making, it appears that the climate debate—which fuelled the rise of the Green Party throughout 2019—has somewhat become less prominent on the public agenda. However, this does not mean that Green issues have become less relevant. To the contrary, major political milestones like the EU’s Green Deal, the German climate program, which includes extended carbon pricing, and the German coal phase-out are all on a good path and prove that the legislative foundations are stronger than ever. The Greens continue to have a strong political presence on the state level. Moreover, together with Green politicians, German climate activists and economists are currently calling for the government to link climate measures to a post-coronavirus economic stimulus program. This makes a roll-back of German energy policies unlikely and further cements the Green party’s influence in energy policy for the next years to come.