Merkel Grabs Climate Change Baton from Blair
BERLIN -- Angela Merkel has pushed global warming to the top of her international agenda in a bet that rising public awareness and her close ties to Washington can help deliver results that have proved elusive in past years.
The German chancellor has put aggressive action to curb greenhouse gases, which scientists say are swelling sea levels and causing droughts and floods, at the heart of her twin presidencies of the European Union and the Group of Eight industrialised powers.
Analysts say her motivation is twofold. As a physicist and former environment minister, Merkel takes the problem seriously and is committed to pressing other world leaders on it at the G8 summit she will host in June.
That commitment will be on display at an EU summit in Brussels next week, where Merkel will push her European peers to commit to ambitious cuts in carbon dioxide emissions and binding targets on biofuels and renewable energy.
But Merkel is also pushing the issue of climate change on the global stage because she sees a chance to burnish her image, distancing herself from contradictions on energy and environment policy that have plagued her coalition and past governments.
Her big test will come at the G8 summit in the Baltic resort town of Heiligendamm, when she tries to bridges gaps between Europe, the United States and countries like China and India.
"It is clear that Merkel sees a chance to raise her profile with this issue," said Alexander Ochs, an expert on climate policy at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. "She believes the time is right to continue the talks that Tony Blair started at Gleneagles."
Two years ago, the British prime minister failed in his bid to forge an international consensus on combating global warming at a G8 summit in Gleneagles, Scotland amid resistance from U.S. President George W. Bush.
Bush refused to repay Blair's loyal support for the U.S.-led war in Iraq with a victory on climate change at the time.
In pressing the issue again, Merkel is betting that a shift in public perceptions of the risks of climate change -- notably in the United States -- and her personal ties to a weakened Bush can help her succeed where Blair could not.
German officials are taking care to lower expectations for the G8 summit. They have made clear they don't expect the meeting to produce a deal to replace the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, whose first period expires in 2012.
But there is hope in Merkel's camp that the foundations for a post-Kyoto accord can be laid by finding common ground between the technology-focused U.S. approach to fighting global warming and Europe's "cap and trade" strategy of mandatory emissions limits and timetables combined with a carbon-trading system.
Experts who advise the German government and corporations on environmental issues say they expect Merkel to press Bush and other countries for agreement on technology targets, R&D cooperation, energy efficiency goals and broad aims for renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power.
"The question is whether they can establish a technology focused approach that is parallel to Kyoto but also supports it," said Hermann Ott of the Wuppertal Institute in Berlin.
By inviting non-G8 members Brazil, China, India, Mexico and South Africa to Heiligendamm, Germany has ensured that countries producing close to 90 percent of global emissions will be there.
An influential report by British government economist Nicholas Stern on the costs of climate change and a stark Oscar-winning documentary by former U.S. Vice President Al Gore have given Merkel's diplomatic drive vital momentum.
But if she is to succeed in making the environment her signature issue, analysts say she will have to answer critics who question Germany's own record on global warming and history of defending its big firms against climate-friendly rules.
Merkel protested earlier this month when the European Commission proposed new emissions limits on cars that would hit German luxury automakers like DaimlerChrysler, BMW and Porsche.
And her government initially resisted efforts by the Commission to impose an annual 453.1 million tonne cap on German carbon dioxide emissions, before bowing to Brussels.
Her coalition of conservatives and Social Democrats remains split on such crucial issues as nuclear energy and "ownership unbundling", that would break up the generation and distribution activities of German energy giants like E.ON and RWE.
"A lot of our hope for progress on climate change lies with Germany, but they do have these contradictions," said Steve Sawyer, climate and energy policy adviser to Greenpeace.
"Which Germany are we dealing with when push comes to shove? That is what we'll find out over the course of next few months."