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Angela Merkel Will Leave a Mixed Climate Legacy. Other Leaders Will Fare Far Worse

9 minute read

German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s acknowledgement of the elephant in the room at the climate summit she convened this week came so subtly the average listener could easily be forgiven for missing it. Squeezed between a welcome message and a new commitment to accelerate her country’s climate goals, Merkel mentioned Germany’s high court had ruled against her government’s 2019 climate law for not going far enough to protect future generations.

“The Federal Constitutional Court—in a groundbreaking ruling—has tasked us to pay more attention to intergenerational fairness in climate protection and to also describe in more concrete terms the path to climate neutrality,” she said at the high-level kickoff of the Petersberg Climate Dialogue. She quickly transitioned to what would be the event’s headline: a pledge to eliminate Germany’s carbon footprint by 2045, five years earlier than previously promised.

In a sense, the moment encapsulated what supporters and opponents say will likely be Merkel’s climate legacy: groundbreaking work on the international stage, and sluggish progress at home. “It’s not just black or white,” says Connie Hedegaard, who served as the European Commissioner for Climate Action between 2010 and 2014. It was good to have her there “because she understands the issue and you could count on her and Germany to support a relatively ambitious line… But it was also clear that, domestically, there were some decisions that came very late.”

That mixed assessment of Merkel’s climate legacy is the result of many factors: her prioritization of stability over disruptive climate policy in challenging times, the growing public concern over climate change today and a body of science that is far more decisive about the urgency of climate change now than it was 15 years ago. Merkel—who was dubbed the “climate chancellor” early in her long tenure—may be an obvious target for having that legacy reviewed as she prepares to exit. But as history is written, she won’t be alone. Leaders across the political spectrum in every corner of the globe didn’t do enough. In comparison, Merkel’s mixed legacy may not look so dim.

On paper, Merkel seemed to be a natural fit to lead the world on climate change. Before ever running for office, she received a doctorate in quantum chemistry and worked as a research scientist. As she ascended the ranks of her political party, the center right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), she was made environment minister in 1994, a position which gave her the reins at the 1995 UN climate conference in Berlin and put her in a key position to help broker the Kyoto Protocol in 1997.

When Merkel became chancellor in 2005, she inherited a country that had already put into place policies intended to transition the country away from fossil fuels—a broad agenda known in Germany as energiewende, which translates to “energy transition.” And she quickly worked to put climate change at the center of the international agenda. At the German-hosted G8 summit, she convinced then-U.S. President George W. Bush—who had disputed the science of climate change—to sign onto a statement accepting the science. At the European Union, she used her position as the head of the bloc’s biggest economy to push for region-wide emissions reductions targets. Within a few short years, she became known as the climate chancellor.

But Merkel’s agenda was quickly taken over by developments outside of her control. The global economy crashed in 2008, making stability a priority over forward-looking change. The Fukushima nuclear disaster sparked a strong backlash against nuclear power that led Merkel to commit to shut down Germany’s plants in just over a decade—a dramatic turnaround that threatened to leave the country even more dependent on fossil fuels. And, a few years later, a migrant crisis consumed the political discussion in Germany and the EU more broadly.

Merkel kept Germany relatively steady in these choppy waters, but struggled to put significant climate policy atop her domestic priorities. Between 2005 and 2015, the country’s domestic climate policy agenda was largely stagnant. Greenhouse gas emissions fell by about 8% in that period due in large part to policies put in place by the previous government, but the country was far off track from its 2020 emissions reduction target. (Germany ended up narrowly meeting the target, thanks to the drop in emissions driven by the economic slowdown during the COVID-19 pandemic).

“She does not create opportunities, but she uses opportunities,” says Ottmar Edenhofer, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, who has advised Merkel’s government on climate policy. “That’s her policymaking style.” Others are more direct. “One decade, nothing happened,” says Juergen Trittin, a member of the Bundestag from the Green Party who preceded Merkel as Germany’s environment minister. “That’s the truth.”

More opportunity for action opened up in the final years of her tenure as climate change moved closer to the center of European politics. The Paris Agreement—negotiated and agreed to in 2015—provided Merkel with an international obligation to act at home. And, within a couple of years, climate change would rise as an issue of concern for German voters—at first slowly, and then suddenly. By 2019, it replaced immigration as Germans’ top concern, according to polling from German research group Forschungsgruppe Wahlen, and today ranks second only to addressing the COVID-19 pandemic.

With these considerations in mind, and under the pressure from a new coalition government that formed in 2018, Merkel ramped up her domestic climate agenda. In early 2019, a group known widely as the “coal commission” recommended phasing out coal-fired power by 2038, an important step given the political power of the country’s coal mining regions. Later that year, and after much internal wrangling, she introduced a comprehensive climate law that enshrined the country’s emissions reduction targets into law. The accompanying policy package laid out a slew of programs to get there: a carbon price on Germany’s transport and building sectors, policies to hasten the adoption of low-carbon vehicles and measures to facilitate the coal exit and grow renewable energy.

Even with these measures, supporters and opponents say she didn’t do enough. The biggest repudiation came on April 29 from a surprising source: the country’s highest court. In a ruling that shocked the political establishment, the German Fed­er­al Con­sti­tu­tion­al Court ruled that provisions of Merkel’s climate law “violate the freedoms” of young Germans because they “irreversibly offload major emission reduction burdens onto periods after 2030,” threatening the future of younger generations.

“That changes the debate completely,” says Luisa Neubauer, the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit and a leader of the Fridays for Future climate strikes in Germany. “That fundamentally changes the movement’s position in society, but also the movement’s position when confronting the government because it’s the Constitutional Court. That’s holy in Germany.”

Climate change was already playing a central role in the march toward the German federal election scheduled for September. The court ruling solidified its position atop the election agenda as the major parties now race to roll out new climate campaign commitments. Though Merkel is not up for re-election, the court ruling has given her a last chance to prove her green credentials—and by extension those of her party—ahead of the polls.

“A landmark ruling from our top court has brought new impetus to the climate debate,” Svenja Schulze, Germany’s environment minister said Thursday at the Petersberg Dialogue. “I plan to use this ruling to set the bar even higher.”

On Thursday, in addition to moving forward the country’s net zero emissions target date, Merkel said the country would step up its target for 2030 emissions reduction from a 55% to a 65% cut from 1990. Still, the task for the next several months will be for the government to lay out the details of how to accomplish that. Schulze suggested Thursday that the government would have a new proposal this summer, but others remain skeptical that the CDU, which has acted with trepidation to previous aggressive policy moves, will go along. Regardless, the final act in Merkel’s climate story will transpire over the coming months. “Her climate legacy depends very much on what happens now,” says Edenhofer of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.

Voters will have their say soon enough. The Green Party currently leads the polls with 26% of the vote, according to a May 7 poll from Deutschlandtrend, and has sought to contrast itself with Merkel’s CDU by offering a robust climate plan that includes not only targets but commitments to end coal-fired power by 2030 and dramatically increase the country’s carbon price. Even if Greens don’t finish in first place in the fall, observers agree that the party will likely play a key role in whatever coalition forms a government. “There is a broad feeling in the atmosphere that we want to take our fate in our own hands,” says Trittin, who previously served as the Green Party leader in the Bundestag, arguing that the CDU’s cautious approach will not work anymore. “We represent the new way.”

For 15 years, Merkel has been a bulwark, maintaining German influence on the global stage and protecting German prosperity—all while heading off the bouts of populist blowback that have rocked the rest of the west. As the consequences of climate change become increasingly apparent, many Germans are now asking themselves, at what cost?

“When thinking about Merkel’s legacy, I’m a bit sad actually,” says Neubauer. “She has just given the illusion that things are alright.”

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Write to Justin Worland at justin.worland@time.com