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Germany’s decision to phase out coal by 2038 lags behind citizens’ timing preferences


Coal-fired power generation is the single most important source of carbon dioxide emissions in many countries, including Germany. A government commission recently proposed to phase out coal by 2038, which implies that the country will miss its 2020 climate target. On the basis of a choice experiment that assessed 31,744 hypothetical policy scenarios in a representative sample of German voters, we show that voters prefer a phase-out by 2025. They would uphold their support for greater climate ambition up to an additional cost to society of €8.5 billion. Voters in Rhineland and Lusatia, the country’s main coal regions, also support an earlier phase-out, but to a lesser extent than voters in other regions. By demonstrating that political decision-makers are more reluctant than voters in overcoming energy path dependence, our analysis calls for further research to explain the influence of particular stakeholders in slowing energy transitions.

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Fig. 1: Share of coal in German electricity mix and energy-related greenhouse gas emissions, 1990–2018.
Fig. 2: Average effects of policy attributes on respondents’ preferences for a coal phase-out.
Fig. 3: Average effects of the timing attribute on respondents’ preference for a coal phase-out.
Fig. 4: Average effects of the timing attribute on respondents’ preference for a coal phase-out in Rhineland and Lusatia.
Fig. 5: Composition of the Commission on Growth, Structural Change and Employment.

Data availability

Replication data for the study are available in the Harvard Dataverse with the identifier

Code availability

Replication code for the study is available in the Harvard Dataverse with the identifier


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We acknowledge support by the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment at Princeton University, the Swiss Center of Competence for Energy Research SCCER CREST, the Swiss National Science Foundation (grant no. P1SGP1_174939) and Greenpeace Germany, who funded data collection. Design of the research project and data analysis was the sole responsibility of the authors.

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A.R. designed the study and analysed the data. A.R. and R.W. wrote the paper.

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Correspondence to Adrian Rinscheid.

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Supplementary Tables 1–10, notes 1–2 and Figs. 1–2.

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Rinscheid, A., Wüstenhagen, R. Germany’s decision to phase out coal by 2038 lags behind citizens’ timing preferences. Nat Energy 4, 856–863 (2019).

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