How has climate policy been affected by the war in Ukraine? Is it fading into the background?
This war is absolutely terrible, and overshadows everything else. The focus now is on bringing peace and ending the suffering of the people in Ukraine. At the same time, though, the war highlights the problematic dependence of many states on fossil fuel imports. Everyone now knows where Germany gets its oil and gas from. That changes the perspective: investments in renewable energies are investments in our independence and our freedom. We need to view climate policy as geopolitics. And we need to anchor this understanding globally. Then the war might even speed up the global energy transition.
That said, no one is doing better out of the war at the moment than the fossil fuel industry.
The faster we free ourselves from fossil fuels, the faster those profits will melt away. It is up to us in government to introduce the right incentives. The energy transition is a once-in-a-century opportunity for German business and industry. We have to support those who are investing as quickly as possible in energy efficiency, renewables and green hydrogen. In my first conversations with companies, I have already seen that many have recognised that it is cleverer to invest in the future than in the past.
How does that tally with the most recent emissions data for 2021? The data suggests that greenhouse gas emissions have reached record new levels, and that China is destroying all the progress made in the rest of the world.
There is still great attachment to the old ways, no question. Especially at times of crisis, many cling on to what they already know – without realising that we are living in a new world and that old certainties no longer hold true. Today it makes more sense, both from an economic and a security viewpoint, to invest in solar and wind power rather than in fossil fuels. We have to convince other states of the truth of this, and prevent them from taking decisions that cement emissions for upcoming years and decades. That is also a task for diplomacy, and that’s why climate policy is now also at home in the Federal Foreign Office.
The war has made gas incredibly expensive, so more cheap coal is again being burnt across the world.
Yes, that’s a move in the wrong direction. That is exactly why we need to act. Many states have huge potential – India, for example, in solar energy. We need to use persuasion; the facts are on our side. That is not to say that it will be easy. We are seeing how energy security, climate change mitigation and peace bump up against each other in the current debate. This is a huge power struggle.
In Germany, too, there are calls to keep coal-fired power plants going for longer.
The next few months will be decisive in showing whether we can fill the emerging fossil gap with real alternatives. The Federal Government has decided to pursue an ambitious, future‑oriented climate and energy policy. To that end, we will need everyone on board – the population, the business community. The energy transition is a task for the whole of society. In Germany, but in other countries too, there are many who do not want to return to the world of fossil fuels. But it’s an ongoing fight. In Germany we are doing everything we can to accelerate the energy transition significantly and to phase out coal by 2030.
What is your role in this fight?
My tools are talks, knowledge and facts. We need strong partnerships and solidarity with the states hardest hit by the climate crisis. That is why my first trip outside Europe will take me to Bangladesh. My daily fight consists of talking to many partners, showing solidarity, working to persuade, letting the facts speak. Germany can be a shining example and show just what’s possible beyond the bounds of fossil fuels.
One of the facts is that China is building new coal-fired power plants.
I, too, am concerned at what is happening in China. Like every country, China must raise its climate targets, otherwise we will not be able to tackle the climate crisis effectively. But there is a debate going on in Chinese society as well about the energy supplies of the future. Many people recognise that it is not in their own interest to keep on investing in coal. Many people are suffering as a result of the air pollution, and at the same time China itself is greatly affected by the impact of the climate crisis. We are extending a hand, but China has to move too.
But China doesn’t think much of Europe’s plans for a “Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism” that will put a carbon price on imports. Does that pose an obstacle?
If necessary, this instrument is also part of a responsible climate policy. We want everyone on board in order to achieve the 1.5°C target. We need alliances, but also economic fairness. That also means preventing distortions of competition. And this mechanism opens the door for talks on that very subject. But it is the last resort. It shouldn’t actually come to that.
One important partner in Europe is France, which is facing presidential and parliamentary elections. President Macron has once before had to deal with a protest movement, the “yellow vests”, following petrol price increases. Are Paris and Berlin pulling in the same direction on climate issues?
The situation in France is a reminder that one always has to consider environmental and social aspects together. The country is in the midst of an election campaign, but there are a great many stakeholders in France, too – local mayors, for example – who want to drive climate change mitigation forward. President Macron is a strong voice for climate change mitigation on the international stage, and now in the election campaign he has the opportunity to show that he wants to do the same at national level.
Federal Chancellor Olaf Scholz wants to set up a “Climate Club” to that end. Is it your job to drum up members?
The Climate Club is an idea from the Federal Chancellor to fulfil our ambitions. We will use Germany’s G7 Presidency to talk with our partners about how to support energy-intensive industries in the energy transition. We will also talk about carbon pricing, which is an important instrument for enhanced climate change mitigation.
How many applications for membership have there been already? Countries like the United States and Japan don’t think much of carbon pricing.
The concept covers more than just carbon pricing. We are picturing an alliance in which the energy-intensive sectors can forge ahead in order to meet the 1.5°C target. Carbon pricing is part of that. We have to see what’s possible. Moreover, it is not just a question of the G7 states, but also of involving other countries and making it clear that climate change mitigation is an international advantage for business locations.
Foreign Minister Baerbock has announced that she wants to establish international climate partnerships. How will they work?
The idea is to talk as equals with individual countries about how they can meet in concrete terms the 1.5°C target agreed in Paris. We can establish in scientific terms what is needed – phasing out coal, for example, or improvements in energy efficiency, or the expansion of renewable energies. We can identify the key sectors and make available the relevant know-how. And it is a matter of putting in place the necessary financing at international level. It sounds easy, but it is new and so far is only being put into practice in a few cases, for instance with South Africa, where we are working together with the United States, France, the United Kingdom and others. Only through international cooperation can the 1.5°C target be attained.
But South Africa accounts for only 1.3% of global emissions.
The energy transition must take place everywhere, but a handful of countries are crucial for the 1.5°C target. We have already spoken about China and India. We will use all available instruments and establish a progressive coalition. International financial institutions in particular, like the World Bank or the IMF, can play an important role here.
Will this work at a time when countries are focused primarily on topping up their military budgets and fighting a pandemic?
The world is complex, and we must deal with many challenges simultaneously. Climate change will not go away if we do nothing. That is why we must make it clear over and over again that the climate crisis is the biggest challenge facing us. It must not be allowed to fade into the background, no matter what other priorities we have. Despite the war.
Before you took up your post here, you were head of Greenpeace. There was much criticism of the fact that an environmental lobbyist was brought straight into the Federal Government.
I am here as an expert on climate issues, with 25 years of experience in the area. I am working for climate change mitigation, for the future of our children, not for industry. I thought it was good that there was a debate about what lobbying is, about what one is working for. Throughout my life, I have always gone where I could make the biggest difference with my know-how and my networks. I am here for the cause and as an expert – and I will talk to everyone. Companies, partner states. We need them all.
Interview: Michael Bauchmüller and Paul-Anton Krüger