Angela Merkel faces an unexpectedly strong challenge from the far-right Alternative for Germany, or AfD, the leading opposition party, which has questioned Germany’s national consensus on the role humans play in contributing to climate change.
On a Sunday in September, at the moment when part of the nearby coal-fired power station went dark for good, 600 people lifted white miner’s helmets from their heads and placed them on folding chairs in the main square in Cottbus, an industrial town in eastern Germany.
It was a silent protest to mark the number of jobs lost.
“You have to think that every one of those places represents a job, an income that an entire family depends on,” said Mathias Felsch, a 26-year-old whose father and grandfather both worked in the coal mines. “When you see it like that, it really is a whole lot.”
Even so, for Germany, it is not nearly enough.
If the country is to meet its commitment to the Paris Climate Accord — to reduce carbon emissions by 80 to 95 percent by 2050 — it must also address the economic and social impact on the roughly 22,500 people whose jobs depend on coal.
Increasingly, for Chancellor Angela Merkel it is a question of wavering political will in the face of mounting challenges, including from the far right, in eastern regions where a bulk of those jobs would be lost.
More than 15 years ago, Germany embarked on an ambitious plan to shift to renewable energy sources. Promoting that energy transformation, known as the Energiewende, helped earn Ms. Merkel international admiration and the moniker of “the climate chancellor.”
Yet even as Ms. Merkel was a leader in setting ambitious targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and decided in the wake of the Fukushima disaster to shutter the country’s nuclear plants by 2022, successive governments under her leadership have failed to take the necessary, painful political decisions to quit coal.
“In the past Chancellor Merkel has been seen as the ‘climate chancellor,’ riding on the wave of renewable energy successes,” said Jennifer Morgan, a director of Greenpeace International. “But unless she turns her full attention to reducing emissions in Germany, particularly from coal, with clear support for a phaseout of coal by 2030, her legacy will not be green. It will be dirty brown.”
Today, nearly a quarter of all electricity produced in Germany still comes from burning lignite, often called brown coal, one of the dirtiest fossil fuels, making Germany the world’s leader in the mining and burning of lignite, according to the International Energy Agency.
That record runs contrary to a United Nations report released Monday, which found that time is running out for action as global temperatures are rising much faster than previously understood. The dire report, compiled by 91 scientists from 40 countries, recommended “phasing out coal in the energy sector.”
For Ms. Merkel, the news could not have come at a worse time. Already, in August, the environment ministry said the country will fail to meet its ambitious targets to cut carbon emissions to 40 percent of 1990 levels by 2020.
The pressure to save her country’s international reputation comes as Ms. Merkel faces an unexpectedly strong challenge from the far-right Alternative for Germany, or AfD, the leading opposition party, which has questioned Germany’s national consensus on the role humans play in contributing to climate change.
The party is particularly strong in three of the eastern states where mining regions sit, where the economy is among the weakest, and where sensitivities run deep over a history of economic displacement since reunification of the country in the 1990s.
“People here remember the trauma of losing nine out of 10 jobs with the changes that happened after the collapse of communism,” said Philipp Zirzow, a leader of the union representing local coal workers. “Now they are supposed to experience that all over again.”