Climate protection? Yes please, but not in my cellar!

Opinion polls show Germans worried about the climate crisis and in favor of more climate action. The fallout of global warming is one of their most pressing concerns, indeed as it is across Europe. And yet, when it comes to modifying lifestyles or paying higher prices to curb emissions, most say they’re not willing, or only as much as it doesn’t sting. Paul Hockenos reports. 

In spring 2023, the Federal Ministry of Industry and Climate Protection, led by the prominent Green Robert Habeck (Green Party co-chair 2018 to 2022), weathered this contradiction in the form of a nasty backlash against its original proposed amendment to the Building Energy Act. As part of its climate protection strategy, it aims to transform Germany’s building sector, which accounts for a third of the country’s emissions and has recently become a geopolitical dilemma in light of Russia’s attack on Ukraine. Germany had relied on Russia for about half of its fossil gas supply; in September 2022 Russia cut off its gas exports through pipelines to Germany.

In contrast to the electricity sector, which Germany has been decarbonising for decades, heating is practically virgin territory – in the form of hundreds of thousands of buildings, offices, homes, and factories, too, that heat their rooms and power their furnaces with gas. According to Foreign Policy Magazine, insulating the country’s building stock is treacherously slow: building by building. And the likes of solar thermal, deep geothermal, and bioenergy – all alternatives to gas – would be a very costly and inefficient way to cover the total heat demand of Germany.

These deficient options explain why the preferred plan is to electrify heating, primarily through the mass installation of heat pumps. An energy-efficient alternative to furnaces, heat pumps, like an air conditioner in reverse, use electricity and heat from a warm space (such as ambient heat around us or geothermal heat beneath our feet) to provide heat, be it for space heating, for hot water, for district heat networks or industrial processes.

In the EU, heat pumps on average are already cost-competitive option, roughly 30 percent cheaper to run over their lifetime compared to fossil gas boilers according to recent calculations by consultancy Cambridge Econometrics. By replacing gas boilers, the newest generation of heat pumps under certain conditions can reduce energy costs by as much as 90 percent, and cut emissions by about a quarter relative to gas, and three-quarters relative to an electric fan or panel heater. As fossil gas prices and carbon prices climb higher, running a gas boiler will become ever more expensive, and in the long run heat pumps will be the less costly buy, by far.

The German federal government had wanted the connection of 500,000 heat pumps to the grid every year from 2024, hitting a total of six million by 2030.

But the sticking point that the front guard of climate action – to which Habeck definitely belongs – must confront is the mindset of his countrymen as the ecological modernisation of our societies and economies advances. The challenge is to get better at anticipating the degree of sacrifice that everyday Germans are willing to bear – and ready them for it, one way or another.

“The fundamental question is,” according to the daily Süddeutsche Zeitung, “How can Germany be restructured in a climate-friendly way without creating a feeling among the people that they are constantly overburdened?”

In Germany, nearly two thirds of households still heat with fossil fuels and, in a time of inflation and uncertainty, heat pumps are a hefty investment for households on a budget. An air-source pump – about the size of a travel trunk – currently in Germany costs €20,000 to €30,000, including installation, which is at least twice as much as a new gas boiler. On top, depending on the buildings’ energy performance and its existing heating system, heat pumps might require additional adaptations, resulting in even higher investments.

This is why hell broke loose when the Habeck ministry’s draft law was leaked to the press. It stipulated that old oil and gas heaters that break down after 2024 must be replaced with modern heating systems, namely units that rely on renewable energy for 65 percent of their energy use. This disqualifies gas and oil systems amounting to a de facto ban on new fossil fuel heating systems. In the draft plan, the government agreed to subsidize 30 percent of all heat pump installations.

This pronouncement jarred many people, and the government began to see before its eyes nightmare visions of the 2018 Yellow Jackets Protests in France, when working class French people took to the streets en masse in opposition to fuel taxes. Not only Germany’s boulevard press but even the Green Party’s coalition partners turned on Habeck, thundering that this measure wasn’t in the coalition contract (though it was) and that this was far too great a burden to impose on workaday Germans from one day to another (which the Greens had tried to address but were stifled by their partners.)

According to a poll conducted by the populist Bild-Zeitung, which led the charge, 61 percent of Germans were worried about the cost impact. Somewhat fewer thought the ban of gas and oil heating was wrong-headed in the first place.

This is why a new, watered-down compromise was negotiated, which extended the period during which fossil-fuel based heating systems can be installed. As of 2024, the obligation to install heating systems powered by 65 percent renewables will only apply to new buildings, while in standing buildings owners may build-in new oil and gas heating systems until the municipality in question has presented its local plan for transiting to climate-neutral heating. Under new law, homeowners will need to install low-emission heating systems, such as heat pumps and solar energy, by 2045. The government plans to cover 30% to 70% of the investment costs of the new heating system. Additional subsidies are available for the refurbishment of the building.

In hindsight, the Greens should have known better than to so flagrantly expose their Achilles heel: the perception that German Greens are elitist snobs with no feeling for ordinary folk with ordinary problems.

“Today, it is becoming increasingly clear that virtually everything must change as soon as possible: housing, driving, heating,” writes Die Zeit editor Petra Pinzler. “The energy transition is no longer something that is negotiated at distant climate conferences or in political circles in Berlin and that can be avoided. It has arrived in everyday life. Many people are now realizing that something also has to change in their own boiler room.”

The compromise on the law is a disappointment for environmentalists, as well as those who want to carve out energy independence from Russia as fast as possible. “The gas lobby is obviously still succeeding in brutally sabotaging the heat transition,” stated Barbara Metz of Deutsche Umwelthilfe.

The views and opinions in this article do not necessarily reflect those of the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung European Union.


Paul Hockenos is a Berlin-based journalist and author of Berlin Calling: A Story of Anarchy, Music, the Wall and the Birth of the New Berlin.

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