BRUSSELS – Feted as Germany's "climate chancellor," Angela Merkel won international plaudits for her efforts to tackle global warming, but as she prepares to leave office, critics say domestic emissions cuts stagnated under her 16-year watch.
Merkel's conservatives were narrowly defeated in Sunday's election while the Greens emerged in a kingmaker role, suggesting climate issues will have an even higher profile in German politics over the years ahead, political analysts said.
"(The election result) will also shape next year's German G7 presidency, with Germany now set to solidify the G7 as an engine for climate action," said Jennifer Tollmann, a senior policy adviser for the E3G think tank in Berlin.
Merkel won plaudits from campaigners for persuading the leaders of the Group of Seven wealthy countries in 2015 to phase out fossil fuel subsidies.
She was credited by a senior official in former U.S. President Bill Clinton's administration with making possible the Kyoto Protocol, a 1997 climate pact that preceded the Paris Agreement.
"There is no doubt that she personally helped to advance international climate action at critical moments, despite multiple challenges," Christiana Figueres, the former U.N. climate chief, wrote in emailed comments.
But Merkel's critics say the center-right leader also approached the climate crisis as an everyday issue of give and take that could be balanced by concessions from all sides.
"Merkel's record on climate policy over the last 16 years is disastrous," said Juergen Trittin, a Green former German environment minister between 1998 and 2005.
"In the past 16 years, Germany has lost its leadership in technologies such as wind power and (solar) photovoltaics to China and the U.S., investments into clean energy have decreased and tens of thousands of jobs in these future technologies were lost," he added.
In 2019, Merkel accepted a target for Germany to achieve net-zero CO2 emissions by 2050. But in the same year she postponed a coal phase-out until 2038 under industry pressure, raising questions about how the 2050 goal could be achieved.
In April, her 2050 emissions-cutting blueprint was declared unconstitutional by the German courts because it loaded the burden of painful emissions cuts onto future generations.
She helped to push through in 2007 Germany's target to cut emissions to 40% below 1990 levels by 2020, which critics say the country only managed to achieve due to economic havoc caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
Merkel implicitly admitted that her green policies had moved too slowly in one of her last news conferences, after floods in July killed more than 180 people.
"The objective circumstances show that we cannot continue at this pace but that we must move faster," she said.
But Merkel did not treat global warming as a crisis, said Martin Kaiser, the head of Greenpeace Germany, who has met her several times.
The floods were "really a trauma for her," he added. "After 16 years, it had become obvious that Germany had not done enough to prevent the worst consequences of the climate crisis."
Besides the devastating flooding, more trees died in Germany last year than ever before due to climate-related problems such as droughts and wildfires, the country's agriculture ministry said in February.
Merkel often faced pressure from the country's influential business lobbies, said Claude Turmes, Luxembourg's energy minister.
"At the end of the day, she almost always gave in to these lobby interests," said Turmes, a former vice president of the Green group in the European Parliament.
Turmes cited her defence of the car and coal industries in particular, while accepting that she had persuaded EU leaders to sign up to 2020 climate targets for renewables, emissions and energy efficiency.
In 2013, an election year, Merkel blocked an EU attempt to legislate for an emissions target of 95 grams of CO2 per kilometer by 2020, which had been bitterly opposed by Germany's powerful car industry.
Five years later, she shielded auto manufacturers from obligations for hardware refits after the "Dieselgate" emissions test cheating scandal.
"On the car industry, I regret that she was unfortunately on the other (car industry) side," said Peter Liese, a senior MEP in Merkel's Christian Democratic Union party.
But he added that she had played a key role in persuading Poland to soften its opposition to climate action.
"We had major resistance from central and eastern Europe for many, many years and she was always determined to bring those countries along," he said.
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