Overline: Lessons from the coal phase-out
Headline: Sustainability Needs a New Approach to Interest Intermediation

Sustainability policy in Germany currently falls short of what is needed, despite ambitious rhetoric. In a study, IASS researchers show that the established way of mediating interests between politics, industry and trade unions stands in the way of a more ambitious agenda. For a successful transition, policymakers must remould the relationship between capitalism, democracy, and sustainability.

The 2030 coal phase-out could greatly reduce Germany's emissions.
The 2030 coal phase-out could greatly reduce Germany's emissions. Shutterstock/FrankHH

The coal phase-out has been a contentious issue in Germany for years. In 2020, the Bundestag created the legal basis for a coal phase-out by 2038, and the current governing coalition wants to bring it forward to 2030 – a plan it is holding on to despite the Ukraine war. While there is broad support for an early coal phase-out, the plans are also meeting with fierce opposition from right-wing populists. In their study, the authors analyse these tensions and draw general conclusions for sustainability policy.

Environmental interests marginalised

“The debates on the coal phase-out make it clear that the conciliation of industry's pursuit of capital accumulation, the democratic claim to legitimise decisions, and concerns about climate protection is increasingly prone to crisis. The phase-out plan was delegated to a broad-based commission in an attempt to increase the acceptance of political decisions, but in the end, this undermined the chance to implement a more ambitious coal phase-out and reshape the political-economic and cultural legacy of the fossil fuel economy in Germany," says first author Tobias Haas.

The authors' analysis shows that the commission was dominated by employers and unions, while the interests of environmental groups were marginalised. The findings are based on historical and political-economic literature, position papers from actors in the coal phase-out negotiations, and 13 interviews with participants and advisers in the coal commission.

Subsidies don’t really help in countering populism

The fact that the coal commission's proposal fell short in terms of climate policy was also due to an intervention by the governors of Brandenburg (Dietmar Woidke, SPD), Saxony (Michael Kretschmer, CDU) and Saxony-Anhalt (Reiner Haseloff, CDU). They obtained an extension of the commission's work, citing insufficient consideration of questions concerning support for structural change in their states. At the time, their governments were under considerable pressure due to voter polls showing strong support for the far-right AfD party in the upcoming elections.

"As a result, generous support for structural change was negotiated for the affected regions. However, this had little impact on subsequent election results, as the AfD achieved very good results in the affected regions in both the 2019 local and European elections, as well as in the 2021 federal elections," explains Tobias Haas. Like other right-wing populist parties in Europe, the AfD denies anthropogenic climate change and opposes the coal phase-out.

Corporatism in crisis

Against the backdrop of the ambitious but often vague energy policy agenda of the German government, the authors draw two conclusions regarding the political possibility of a post-fossil transition in Germany. First, they criticise the legacy of corporatist politics in Germany, which has traditionally focused on conciliating interests between politicians and different stakeholders. This model of policymaking tries to strike a balance between economic interests (accumulation of capital), broad acceptance of political decisions (legitimation), and sustainability; however, this is becoming increasingly difficult and can only succeed if tensions such as the growing inequality between Eastern and Western Germany as well as between industrial peripheries and urban centres can be overcome.

Second, sustainability issues should be given higher priority. In Germany's strongly export-oriented model, the energy transition has been designed not only to not jeopardise the competitiveness of German industry, but to contribute to the renewal of the export model through the development of German renewable energy technologies. Yet if economic interests dominate too strongly, social and environmental concerns will continue to lose out.

Haas, T., Herberg, J., Löw Beer, D. (2022): From carbon democracy to post-fossil capitalism? The German coal phase-out as a crossroads of sustainability politics. - Sustainability: science, practice, & policy, 18, 384-399.