Ignore her reputation for supporting green initiatives. The German chancellor’s record on environmental policy has been a disaster.
Which living person has done most to destroy the natural world and the future wellbeing of humanity? Donald Trump will soon be the correct answer, when the full force of his havoc has been felt. But for now I would place another name in the frame: Angela Merkel.
What? Have I lost my mind? Angela Merkel, the “climate chancellor”? The person who, as German environment minister, brokered the first UN climate agreement, through sheer force of will? The chancellor who persuaded the G7 leaders to promise to phase out fossil fuels by the end of this century? The architect of Germany’s Energiewende – its famous energy transition? Yes, the very same.
Unlike Trump, she has no malicious intent. She did not set out to destroy the agreements she helped to create. But the Earth’s systems do not respond to mission statements or speeches or targets. They respond to hard fact. What counts, and should be judged, as she seeks a fourth term as German chancellor in the elections on Sunday, is what is done, not what is said. On this metric, her performance has been a planetary disaster.
Merkel has a fatal weakness: a weakness for the lobbying power of German industry. Whenever a crucial issue needs to be resolved, she weighs her ethics against political advantage, and chooses the advantage. This, in large part, is why Europe now chokes in a fug of diesel fumes.
The EU decision to replace petrol engines with diesel, though driven by German car manufacturers, predates her premiership. It was a classic European fudge, a means of averting systemic change while creating an impression of action, based on the claim (which now turns out to be false) that diesel engines produce less carbon dioxide than petrol. But once she became chancellor, Merkel used every conceivable tactic, fair and foul, to preserve this deadly cop-out.
The worst instance was in 2013, when, after five years of negotiations, other European governments had finally agreed a new fuel economy standard for cars: they would produce an average of no more than 95g of CO2 per km by 2020. Merkel moved in to close the whole thing down.
She is alleged to have threatened the then president of the European council, Irish taoiseach Enda Kenny, with the cancellation of Ireland’s bailout funds. She told the Netherlands and Hungary the German car plants in their countries would be closed. She struck a filthy deal with David Cameron, offering to frustrate European banking regulations if he helped her to block the fuel regulations. Through these brutal strategies, she managed to derail the agreement. The €700,000 donation her party then received from the major shareholders in BMW does not suggest they were unhappy with what she had achieved.
In 2014, the European commission wrote to the German government, warning that the air pollution caused by diesel engines was far higher than its manufacturers were claiming. The government ignored the warning. Even now, two years after the dieselgate scandal broke, Merkel has continued to defend diesel engines, announcing that “we will use all our power to prevent” German cities from banning them, and stifling the transition to electric cars. The “mistake” made by the diesel manufacturers, she insists, “doesn’t give us the right to deprive the entire industry of its future”. Instead, her policy deprives thousands of people of their lives.
But this could be the least of the environmental disasters she has engineered. For this lethal concession to German car companies was predated by an even worse one, in 2007. In that case, her blunt refusal – supported by the usual diplomatic bullying – to accept proposed improvements in engine standards forced the European commission to find another means of reducing greenhouse gases. It chose, disastrously, to replace fossil fuel with biofuels, a switch Merkel has vociferously defended.
Merkel and the European commission ignored repeated warnings that the likely consequences would include malnutrition and massive environmental destruction, as land was converted from forests or food crops to fuel production. The European biofuel rule is now a major driver of one of the world’s greatest environmental disasters: the razing of the Indonesian rainforests and their replacement with oil palm.
Not only has this wiped out vast and magnificent ecosystems, and the orangutans, tigers, rhinos, gibbons and thousands of other species they supported; but it has also, by burning trees and oxidising peat, caused emissions far higher than those produced by fossil fuels. What makes this history especially bitter is that the target she derailed in 2007 was the one that had first been proposed, in 1994, by a German environment minister called – let me think – ah yes, Angela Merkel.
Is this the worst? It is hard to rank such crimes against the biosphere, but perhaps the most embarrassing is Germany’s shocking failure, despite investing hundreds of billions of euros, to decarbonise its electricity system. While greenhouse gas emissions in other European nations have fallen sharply, in Germany they have plateaued.
The reason is, once more, Merkel’s surrender to industrial lobbyists. Her office has repeatedly blocked the environment ministry’s efforts to set a deadline for an end to coal power. Coal, especially lignite, which vies with Canadian tar sands for the title of the world’s dirtiest fuel, still supplies 40% of Germany’s electricity. Because Merkel refuses to restrict its use, the peculiar impact of Germany’s Energiewende programme has been to cut the price of electricity, stimulating a switch from natural gas to lignite, which is cheaper. (In Germany they call this the Energiewende paradox). But Merkel doesn’t seem to care. She has announced that “coal will remain a pillar of German energy supply for a prolonged time span”.
Shouldn’t the European emissions trading system have sorted this out, pricing coal power out of the market? Yes, it should. But it was sabotaged in 2006 by a German politician, who insisted that so many permits be issued to industry that the price fell through the floor. I think you can probably guess who.
All these are real impacts, while the paper agreements she helped to broker have foundered and dissipated as a result of special favours and dirty deals of the kind I have listed in this article. Yet still she attracts an aura of sanctity. This is quite an achievement, for the world’s leading environmental vandal.