Dutch, German Liberals Split on Climate, Sustainability

The Dutch center-right understand they can no longer cede climate policy to the left.

Christian Lindner
German finance minister and Free Democratic Party leader Christian Lindner boards a government plane to Washington DC, April 22, 2022 (Bundesfinanzministerium)

Germany’s Free Democrats are turning their backs on climate and sustainability. Across the border in the Netherlands, by contrast, a liberal-led government has accelerated its program to halve greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.

The Dutch coalition — which includes two Christian democratic and a left-liberal party in addition to the Free Democrats’ ally VVD — is raising taxes on coal use and carbon dioxide (CO₂) emissions in order to pay for subsidies on green hydrogen, solar panels and secondhand electric cars. It is also banning most gas-powered boilers in favor of electric heat pumps by 2027.

The German liberals resist a similar ban. They nearly torpedoed an EU phaseout of diesel and petrol cars.

German liberals stab Dutch liberal in the back

An EU law banning the sale of newly-manufactured cars that emit greenhouse gasses in 2035 was shepherded through the European Parliament by a Dutch liberal, Jan Huitema.

Fellow liberal Volker Wissing, the German transportation minister, withdrew his support at the last minute, demanding an exemption from the ban for cars that run on carbon-neutral synthetic fuels. Other EU institutions and member states had little choice but to agree: a German veto would have scuttled the whole deal.

Dutch liberals have come around

It’s not like banning diesel and petrol cars was a priority for Huitema’s voters, but his VVD decided some years ago it could no longer cede climate policy to the left.

Passenger cars emit 12 percent of Europe’s greenhouse gasses, trucks and vans another 8 to 9 percent.

In addition to electric cars, the VVD has come around to road pricing and reducing the speed limit on Dutch highways.

Germany’s Free Democratic Party (FDP), by contrast, was willing to throw away two years of negotiation in order to protect one German automaker: Porsche. No other brand believes synthetic fuels are the future for passenger cars. (Maybe for trucks.) Volkswagen plans to stop selling diesel and petrol cars in 2033. Tesla opened its first European electric-car factory outside Berlin a year ago.

Freedom to drive a car

Of the nine million cars sold in the EU last year, 12 percent were electric, according to the European Automobile Manufacturers’ Association. That is up from 2 percent as recently as 2019.

Green liberals like me would accelerate the transition. Conservatives in the Netherlands complain the VVD has gone too far. Car magazine AutoReview complains it is carrying out the Green party’s manifesto.

Nobody would accuse the FDP of the same. “You still define freedom as the freedom to drive a car,” Petra Pinzler, a journalist for Die Zeit, told FDP group leader Christian Dürr on ZDF television.

Election defeats have spooked FDP

The FDP returned to government in 2021 after it had successfully appealed to forward-looking middle- and upper-income professionals in its election campaign.

Now it is back to bashing car- and meat-banning Greens. That may appease some reactionaries, but surveys suggest they prefer the Christian Democratic Union and far-right Alternative for Germany anyway.

The FDP have been spooked by a string of state election defeats. They failed to clear the 5-percent threshold in Berlin and Lower Saxony. In North Rhine-Westphalia, they managed 6 percent, down from 13.

Nationally, the FDP is polling at 7 to 9 percent. The Social Democrats, with whom they govern, are down too. The two right-wing opposition parties are up in the polls while the far left is teetering on the 5-percent line.

Not doing enough

The liberals’ instinct is to lurch to the right. That’s where the voters appear to be going. But Pinzler pointed out the reason especially younger liberal voters are walking away is that they feel their party is stuck in the past. That may explain why support for the Green party is stable at 15 percent. For progressive liberals, they are the second-best choice.

German greenhouse gas emissions are down 40 percent since 1990, according to the German Environment Agency. In order to meet the EU’s reduction goals, they need to fall another 6 percent every year. The yearly average since 2010 has been 2 percent.

Agriculture and industry are doing their part. The mobility sector and built environment are not reducing emissions as fast as they should.

In their coalition agreement, the Social Democrats, liberals and Greens agreed to double passenger rail and put 15 million electric cars on the road by 2030. They are not on track to meet either goal. Previous governments neglected rail. The three-party coalition must invest in long-overdue maintenance first before it can even start thinking about expanding the network. Germany, which has five times the population of the Netherlands, only surpassed one million electric cars this year.

Backtracking on heat pumps

Phasing out gas- and petroleum-powered heating would go a long way to reducing emissions from homes. Half the country relies on gas for heating.

The three parties agreed to switch to electric heat pumps in their coalition deal. The FDP is reneging on that agreement, citing the high cost of electricity. “I take note of the fact that the FDP does not keep its word,” Robert Habeck, the economy minister and Green party co-leader, told journalists. I imagine he used stronger words behind closed doors.

Habeck had proposed subsidies to cover up to 80 percent of the cost of electric heat pumps, including installation. For a single-family home, the price can reach €25,000: three to four times the price of a new gas boiler.

78 percent of Germans oppose Habeck’s plan. The FDP’s change of heart has directed all opposition toward him.

Also against renovation goals

Similar subsidies in the Netherlands cover only 30 percent of the cost of heat pumps.

There is an EU dimension here as well: the European Commission has proposed mandatory renovation targets in order to fully decarbonize buildings by 2050.

Again, a liberal German minister is fighting back. Marco Buschmann, the FDP minister of justice, has characterized the Commission’s plan as a “hard-to-justify encroachment on property rights.”