Germany Heating Law: How the Building Energy Act Became So … – Foreign Policy

As much of the world endures a summer of record-breaking temperatures, Germany is stuck debating a very different kind of heat: the future of the radiator. A controversial law championed by the government would ban almost all new oil and gas heating systems starting next year. Homes and businesses would have to purchase appliances that meet strict environmental standards, such as heat pumps.

The Building Energy Act, known colloquially as just the “heating law,” has opened yet another rift in the tenuous three-party governing coalition led by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. While Scholz has thrown his support behind the measure, some of his key governing partners stonewalled its initial passage. Meanwhile, the conservative opposition and far right have taken advantage of the discord to boost their poll numbers.

All of this means that a reform rife with scientific jargon and technicalities has now become the latest lighting rod in Germany’s ongoing culture war. Exalted by environmentalists but despised by most other voters, the heating law demonstrates how the political feasibility of serious climate action can become bounded by surges in populist discontent. A reform that experts see as central to achieving Germany’s climate goals could also catapult the far right into power.

“One reason this policy is so controversial is that it’s part of this bigger switch, where climate policy is moving from distant power plants to people’s homes,” said Noah Gordon, the acting co-director of the Sustainability, Climate, and Geopolitics Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “It doesn’t make such a difference to your daily life … where the electricity from the wall socket is coming from. But now we’re talking about people going into buildings to improve the insulation and rip out boilers. You get into all these very local politics.”

The law aims to phase out oil and gas heating systems in buildings throughout Germany. It is the brainchild of Vice Chancellor Robert Habeck, a member of the environmentalist Greens who also serves as minister for economics and climate action. If Habeck’s legislation is passed, new heating systems in the country would be required to rely on at least 65 percent green energy sources starting Jan. 1, 2024, and municipalities would have to devise environmentally friendly heating master plans by 2028 at the latest. The law is modeled on existing policies that are commonplace in many Scandinavian countries.

While Germany has dramatically reduced its emissions from the electricity sector over the past decade, it has made little progress in the building sector, which continues to account for about 40 percent of the country’s carbon output, according to the German Energy Agency. The heating law aims to close this gap to keep Berlin on track to achieve climate neutrality by 2045.

But so far, the still-pending reform has done little besides put the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) on track for major electoral gains. Since March, the party’s poll numbers have risen steadily, reaching a high of 22 percent on Aug. 31. The AfD has now overtaken each of the three parties that make up Scholz’s motley coalition in national surveys—and holds a steady lead in at least one state that is due to hold elections next year.

Analysts and pollsters see the politicking around the heating law as one of the main drivers of this trend. For Andrea Römmele, the dean of executive education at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin, the proposed measure is just the latest evidence of the federal government’s dysfunction—proving that Scholz’s coalition “does not support one another.”

Two years ago, when Scholz cobbled together a government with the support of his own Social Democratic Party (SPD), the Greens, and the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP)—the first coalition of its kind on a national level—the three groups agreed to the general contours of the heating law. But when Habeck introduced his first draft to the cabinet this spring, it became instant political dynamite.

The Greens lined up enthusiastically behind Habeck. The SPD was split, with Scholz endorsing the proposal while others in his party questioned its potential impact on consumers. And the FDP loudly dissented, calling the proposal too costly and preferring to let the market dictate technological innovation. The Greens and the FDP are fundamentally divided on the state’s role in confronting almost every major issue Germany faces today, and their constant bickering has stymied many of the coalition’s attempts to legislate. Nowhere is this more evident—and existential—than in climate policy.

“If we really want to tackle climate change, the state has to interfere more in what had been private issues because we have to change our behavior,” Römmele said.

But for many voters, a stronger state is not an alluring—or marketable—prospect. “The Greens have a sort of problem in German politics,” Gordon said. “They’re accused of being the party of bans.”

Germany’s right wing has seized upon this talking point to remarkable ends. The AfD has made Habeck public enemy No. 1 and promised to stop the vice chancellor’s “heating hammer.” On the floor of the German parliament, or Bundestag, the party’s co-leader has called to “replace Habeck, not heaters,” falsely implying that Scholz’s government intends to ban existing gas heating systems. Some members of the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) have issued similarly incendiary statements. One CDU politician claimed Habeck wanted to mobilize an “energy Stasi,” a reference to the notorious East German secret police.

Such remarks have been given a platform by right-wing outlets eager to propagate misinformation about Scholz’s left-leaning government. “Some of the tabloid press talked about how Habeck is coming for your gas-powered heater,” Gordon said, even though “[t]hat was never part of the plan.” The Stasi comment was immediately printed in fat, bold letters on the cover of the Bild tabloid, Germany’s most widely circulated newspaper, and the “heating hammer” has now become part of the publication’s standard lexicon.

“The Bild newspaper is very much running a campaign against the Greens,” Römmele said. She accused all outlets belonging to the conglomerate Axel Springer—which in 2021 acquired Politico—of being complicit. The company has a long history of smearing leftist activists and politicians, with sometimes fatal consequences.

In Gordon’s view, the tabloids are playing on “populist agitation” that the heating law is the work of “elite groups in Berlin that don’t know what it’s like to be worrying about how you’re going to pay for gas and petrol at the end of the month.” This sentiment is especially widespread in the states of the former East Germany, which are poorer than their Western counterparts and where the AfD is strong. As with many climate measures, Gordon stresses, the upfront costs of green technology can be expensive—but it pays dividends in the long run.

Scholz’s coalition seems to have registered some of these critiques. The Greens and the FDP fought publicly about the heating law for weeks before reaching a compromise that softened some provisions, “giving consumers and municipalities more time to figure this out,” Gordon said. For example, the latest draft of the law would allow buildings to continue to install fossil fuel heaters if they could feasibly be powered by green hydrogen once it is produced at scale. Consumer subsidies were also increased.

“Even though the current legislation is not as ambitious as what the Greens initially wanted, it’s still a necessary … step on the path toward cutting emissions from buildings,” Gordon added. A new report from a government watchdog warned that significantly reducing emissions from the building sector is dependent on passing the heating law—but even that might not be enough for Germany to achieve its climate goals.

Habeck had aimed to pass the heating law before the Bundestag’s summer break, but a CDU petition to Germany’s constitutional court stalled progress on the measure until the legislature convenes again on Sept. 4. The center-right party lamented the speed with which Habeck sought to move the heating law through parliament—claiming there was not enough time for proper debate—and the court agreed.

Both Gordon and Römmele have little doubt the measure will be approved swiftly once the Bundestag is back in session. Yet the political damage may have already been done. While October state elections in Bavaria and Hesse will probably see center-right incumbents opposed to the heating law prevail, “we will most likely have an extremely strong AfD” in three state elections in the former East Germany next year, Römmele said. “Perhaps the AfD will even manage to be the strongest party.”

The overwhelming majority of Germans remain fed up with Scholz’s coalition: The chancellor’s disapproval rating currently stands at 70 percent, and 64 percent of Germans want a new government, according to a survey published in August by polling institute INSA. The Greens in particular have suffered in recent months, and the party’s support base has shrunk to a five-year low. Habeck, who was once the most popular politician in Germany, is now reviled by many.

Although the opposition and media onslaught against the vice chancellor has been extreme, Habeck is the first to admit he made mistakes in their initial promulgation of the heating law. After Germans endured their first winter without Russian fossil fuels, most were tired of constantly discussing their heaters—a fatigue Habeck says he failed to take seriously. “Between the first months of this year and today, something happened in Germany, and I—or we—didn’t recognize it in time,” he told public broadcaster ARD in June.

Now, on the other end of summer, Gordon thinks the hot weather Germans experienced has the potential to be a boon for the home stretch of Habeck’s heat pump push. Most Germans don’t have air conditioning, but “a good thing about heat pumps is that some of them can be both heating and cooling,” Gordon said.

“Say you’re building a new house in Germany in 2025 and you want to live there for 20 years. It’s pretty likely that in the 2040s you’re going to want air conditioning,” Gordon said. “That could be another reason to get people to be like, ‘hold on, let’s think about the future. It’s not just that the cost of gas is going up and we need to stop burning it for climate reasons. It’s that the temperatures around the world are going up. And I want this technology that could also keep my place cool in August.’”

Source link

Source: News

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *