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Germany and U.S. Climate and Energy Policies at the Local Level: Common Puzzles

By: Nilda Mesa

January 04, 2018

For all that we may think Germans have climate and energy policies figured out, they are tackling many of the same issues as we are, with a few twists. So I found when participating in the U.S. Embassy's Speakers' Program in the fall of 2017, when I traveled to five cities in Germany to exchange ideas and speak about how New York and other U.S. cities and states are moving forward in the face of a new federal reality, and how sub-national governments relate (or don't) to federal governments, and in their case, to the European Union.

A key takeaway was that the decision-making structures differ in significant ways across the Atlantic, with pluses and minuses each way, shaping the development and implementation of climate and energy policies. In the U.S., the Constitution grants significant authority directly to states, which they use to delegate other powers to cities at their own discretion. This allows states such as New York and California, along with cities, to provide meaningful counterbalances to federal policies with initiatives such as "We're Still In," and the Urban Sustainability Directors Network.

However in Germany, as well as in the rest of the European Union (EU), states' authorities are derived from their federal governments, rather than directly and independently from their Constitutions. In addition, the EU dictates many standards and rules related to climate and energy that the federal governments on down must follow, leaving even fewer tools for subnational governments at their disposal. With that legal context, it was eye-opening to see how German states, with their resources and intellectual capacity, play a significant leadership role. For example, Baden-Wurttemberg as the co-founder with California of the Under2 Coalition, which has become especially important in the subnational arena. Yet the same restrictions on German cities and states' decision-making authority on climate and energy would be disastrous for U.S. cities and states in these days of retrenchment from Washington; as such, the flexibility and independence built into the U.S. system is a real advantage.

A big upside of centralized policy-making is that the German government provides significant funding to local and state governments to carry out EU and national policies at the local level. Implementation appears to be more uniform. For example, multi-modal transportation like bike sharing and lanes are well-subsidized, as is public transportation, which was consistently high performing and well-planned to reach myriad urban neighborhoods. In addition, the German government supports robust research and development at the university and private levels. German federal funding even extends to local climate and sustainability NGOs and think tanks, whose budgets are subsidized by the national government rather than relying as heavily as their U.S. counterparts on foundations and other types of fundraising. More surprising was that the funding is considered almost as of right even for organizations who oppose certain federal policies whether through their publications or public protests. No one I spoke with claimed to feel any interference from the federal level to curb their opposition activities.

As I described initiatives and policies underway in New York City and State, however, many of my German hosts and colleagues were surprised at how much discretion we have, and at how decentralized the policymaking can be here. They were also surprised at the independence of our private sector, and how the drive for profit leads to the growth of solar and wind in New York and red states such as Iowa and Texas, regardless of climate skepticism from politicians. As their system is so centralized, they assumed ours is much the same, which led them to believe that the pronouncements coming from our federal government meant that all states and cities had no choice or flexibility to create their own policies on climate and energy.

For example, New York's policy levers to meet 80x50 greenhouse gas emissions targets, such as REV and OneNYC, were seen as wholly original and one-off, unlikely to be generated with our counterparts in Germany at the same level of local authority and capacity to carry out policies if they were not in line with federal and EU policies. Another example German officials raised was local building energy codes — in their case they are set by the EU, rather than at the local level, and so cannot be set at the local level to promote local goals (although these codes are generally tough in any case).

In addition, my hosts and counterparts were surprised that in the U.S. the private sector by and large decides where to spend their own capital with little interference from the federal government. The German government and private sector seem to be more intertwined when it came to how to invest and plan on the industrial side. For example, past robust government subsidies for R&D are now being re-evaluated as Germans believe that much of their technology was stolen for the benefit of other governments with less stringent intellectual property regimes. Solar panels were cited more than once.

In addition, my German counterparts were largely unfamiliar with the dynamics of onshore and offshore wind developments in the U.S., including how even Texas has come to develop its wind resources to be such a significant part of its electricity mix, regardless of red and blue politics. They were surprised that the independence and strength of our private sector meant that if there was profit to be made, even green energy could move forward regardless of Washington rhetoric, so long as tax and other incentives were in place. Little news reaches them through their media about U.S. local and state climate and energy policy, and thus they had the impression that Washington pulling out of the Paris climate agreement prohibited states and local entities as well as the private sector from following their own course.

As in New York, nuclear power and distribution of clean energy are big issues in Germany and in many of the same ways. For example, Germany is phasing out its nuclear power plants as we are phasing out Indian Point, yet low-carbon energy sources are not yet in place at the same scale. In fact, unlike in the U.S., German energy generation still relies on the coal industry, with about 37% of its gross power production from coal in 2017. For all the strong support of the Paris climate goals, the reality is that the Merkel government has already acknowledged that it likely will not be able to meet its greenhouse gas reduction goals on time.

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One strategy for their federal government is to sell coal to Eastern Europe and the Ukraine, while buying nuclear energy from France — a strategy that may lower their national emissions but does not necessarily help with worldwide goals. The Energiewende, the comprehensive and impressive federal plan to transform the national energy system to all renewables, however, is a high priority for the Merkel administration, with significant resources devoted to innovation and implementation of its goals.

Some of their obstacles are familiar to New Yorkers: the bulk of energy generation is in the less populated and more rural north, while the loads are in the south, in the heavy manufacturing areas of Bavaria. Like New York, German transmission capacity from north to south is not fully adequate for future demand and the development of green energy, and they also have their own NIMBY issues of opposition to building more lines. And while we do not hear much of their climate skeptics, they do exist and are vocal during elections, though not at the same scale as in the U.S.

Overall, I found a great deal of interest and appreciation of New York State and City climate and energy initiatives. We share with our German colleagues a common determination and urgency in moving forward, a belief that success is possible and will boost the economy, and a hunger for information, technology and innovative strategies from any source to meet the Paris climate goals. We should continue sharing.


WhoIs:

Nilda Mesa is the Director of the Urban Sustainability and Equity Planning Program with Columbia University's Urban Design Lab in the Earth Institute, as well as an adjunct professor with the School of International and Public Affairs. She served as NYC Director of the Mayor's Office of Sustainability under Mayor Bill de Blasio, where she directed climate, energy, and other initiatives including OneNYC, the city's long-term sustainability plan. Previously she served in the White House Council of Environmental Quality, the U.S. Air Force, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the California Attorney General's office. She is a graduate of Harvard Law School.

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