Rising German Greens Leader on Climate Politics Going Mainstream

As a young woman, Annalena Baerbock ditched an incipient career in journalism to join the German Greens party. Today, the 40-year-old is party co-chair and one of the country’s most influential politicians.

The decision by Chancellor Angela Merkel, the world’s longest-serving female head of state, not to run in the upcoming Sept. 26 elections leaves many options open. Baerbock could take her place if the Greens choose her over co-chair Robert Habeck in the spring, and if they secure a strong enough result in the polls. The Greens have a real shot at the country’s top job — they were briefly the country’s most-popular party before the coronavirus crisis, and have remained Germans’ second-favorite since. 

This week Baerbock met with Bloomberg News to talk about how green politics has become mainstream, the U.S.’s return to the Paris climate agreement and Europe’s way out of the coronavirus crisis.

Her answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Many other parties have adopted environmental issues in recent years. You applaud that, but isn’t it a risk as well for a party like the Greens? Do you have to go mainstream yourself in order to survive?

Those times are definitely over for us. We govern in 11 out of 16 regions in Germany. For many years now we are the center of German politics. We approach society as a whole, not only on environmental issues.

How about Green parties elsewhere? Should they follow the German Greens’ path? 

There's no one-size-fits-all solution for all parties. Societies are very different and party systems are very different. We have seen in other countries —like in Finland where Greens are in government and hold the Interior ministry—that Greens broaden their footprint. You can do that best if you're very strong. If you only have 8%, you obviously cannot take half the ministries.

We have seen the European Union announce ambitious plans for a green recovery out of the coronavirus crisis. But how serious are Europe and Germany about cutting emissions? 

It would be dramatic if we slipped from one crisis into another, from the Covid crisis into the climate crisis. The slogan of the U.S. and the UN —build back better—also needs to be the slogan in Europe and Germany. All funding given to business must follow a guideline for climate neutrality in that sector.

How do you work with a party like the (conservative) CDU? Do you have to remain radical to keep the ball moving?

We’re all in this together so we have to find solutions together. But unfortunately not every party goes at the same speed. We need to be quicker. We try to push the conservatives, but also the Social Democrats in Germany, to fulfill the Green Deal. So far, unfortunately the coalition hasn't delivered enough.

You want to increase the use of renewable power, phase out coal faster and quintuple wind energy. What impact will that have on electricity costs?

When we started with renewables 20 years ago in a red-green coalition here in Germany, the price for wind and solar energy was very high. These days they are well below the price of coal —unfortunately we still subsidize coal and therefore there's no level playing field. So we want to price in the cost of fossil fuels with the CO₂ tax. Then renewables are very competitive and in some regions even cheaper than fossil energy.

Joe Biden’s inauguration this week marks the return to the U.S. to the Paris Accord. What impact will that have on climate diplomacy? 

This return to the Paris Agreement is crucial because the withdrawal was also an attack on international treaties. On the other hand, a piece of paper doesn’t help if you don’t reduce CO₂ emissions very dramatically.

So a big transatlantic agenda on climate between Europe and the U.S. would be a very important signal for the world. That starts, for example, with the question of producing green steel and how to have electric cars on the road. And I believe Europe and the new U.S. administration can work very closely together in these fields.

What would you tell the young people who participated in the Fridays for Future movement, who may be a bit frustrated at the pace of progress?

Movements are very important for change in politics, but also for accelerating the instruments we have. We won’t save the world if we have very high goals but we don’t have the instruments to go that path. Therefore the pressure from youth, from Fridays for Future is very important.

On the other hand, pressure alone is not politics. You always need to see that you have the majority to change the laws into climate-neutral laws.

What would your top priorities be if you were elected Chancellor?

To take the hand Joe Biden extends to Europe as a gesture of friendship, to fight the climate crisis and to invest in our future.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

BQ Install

Bloomberg Quint

Add BloombergQuint App to Home screen.