Voters in the eastern German states of Saxony and Brandenburg head to the polls on 1 September for crucial state elections. The results could have an outsized impact on German climate policy for three reasons.
First, these states are home to many of the coal communities most affected by Germany’s coal phase-out and are therefore a testing ground for the government-driven change required to avert a climate crisis. Second, the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, which is increasingly defining itself by its climate change denial, is near the top of the polls in both Brandenburg and Saxony. Third, if the Social Democrats (SPD) suffer—as expected—another defeat, it could hasten the end of the coalition government in Berlin. As the hottest summer on record comes to an end, Berlin and Brussels will be looking at the East.
“You have to offer something concrete,” says Christine Herntier, the mayor of Spremberg in Brandenburg. “And the concrete thing for Spremberg, for my city, is that we are betting on hydrogen. In the next 20 years, it will be about building something new, but something still focused on energy. And then the region will do well too.”
Few people spend more time thinking about Germany’s coal exit than Herntier, who was also a member of Germany’s “coal exit commission”. Spremberg is a town in eastern Brandenburg, about 30 kilometers from the Polish border and just next to Schwarze Pumpe, a lignite power plant that emits the sixth highest amount of carbon dioxide of any power plant in Europe. Herntier says that 2,000 of her constituents, about 10% of the population, work in coal. She makes it clear, however, that she sees both the opportunities and the challenges presented by the energy transition in Germany. In this regard, she is emblematic of her entire region and indeed the country.
Polls suggest that climate protection was the most important issue for German voters in May’s European elections, in which the Green party achieved its best ever result nationwide, a close second to the Christian Democratic Union (CDU). On the other hand, the climate-denying AfD also reached new heights, coming first in Herntier’s Brandenburg and neighbouring Saxony, eastern coal states where the Greens did relatively poorly. This polarisation comes in the context of Germany, once a climate protection trailblazer, admitting it will miss its climate targets for 2020. Under pressure from both the Greens and the AfD, the ruling CDU-SPD coalition is working on a comprehensive climate action law, debating carbon pricing, and preparing to implement the coal exit that so concerns the coal miners of Spremberg.