While a government commission recently proposed to phase out coal in Germany by 2038, voters would prefer a phase-out by 2025. Policymakers may underestimate public willingness to support an expedited transition away from high-carbon sources of energy.
Messages for policy
A more ambitious timeline for phasing out coal would be better aligned with voters’ preferences in Germany.
Although voters are willing to incur additional costs for a phase-out by 2025, every €10 increase in annual household cost decreases voter support by about seven percentage points.
In coal-producing regions, creating new jobs in low-carbon industries is important to voters and can outweigh concerns about job losses.
In the area of the energy transition, systematic incorporation of the views of the population into future government commission recommendations could lead to more publically acceptable policies.
Raising awareness for the scientific consensus on climate change could foster public acceptance of ambitious climate policies.
based on A. Rinscheid & R. Wüstenhagen Nature Energy https://doi.org/10.1038/s41560-019-0460-9 (2019).
The policy problem
Coal-fired power generation is the single most important source of carbon dioxide emissions in many countries, including Germany. According to many modelling scenarios, achieving the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement is incompatible with operating coal-fired power plants globally after 2030. Several governments have started to design public policies for phasing out coal. In Germany, where 35.3% of electricity generation came from coal in 2018, a government commission has recently proposed a phase-out by 2038. While some observers consider the proposed timeline a reasonable compromise between public acceptance and climate change mitigation, others have criticized the plan as not ambitious enough to deliver on Germany’s climate policy targets. Citizen groups were underrepresented in the German government commission, and, until recently, little was known about voters’ views on a coal phase-out.
We find that German voters prefer a coal phase-out by 2025, whereas policies aiming at a later date find less support. Voters would uphold their support for a phase-out by 2025 even in light of additional household costs, although every €10 increase in annual household cost decreases voter support by about seven percentage points. Voters in the two coal-producing regions affected by the phase-out (Rhineland and Lusatia) also prefer an earlier phase-out. Individuals who are aware of the broad scientific consensus that climate change is caused by humans have particularly strong preferences for an earlier phase-out. In contrast to the government commission’s proposal, the more ambitious timeline preferred by voters would increase the chances of achieving the goals of the Paris Agreement in Germany. While our study suggests that policymakers may underestimate public willingness to support an expedited coal phase-out, we did not explicitly investigate the role of other stakeholders in the policy process. The study focused on Germany and as such does not allow generalization to other countries.
Our study is based on a choice experiment with a representative sample of 2,161 Germans who are eligible to vote. In addition, 1,034 individuals living in the country’s main coal regions, Rhineland and Lusatia, were surveyed. As part of the experiment, study participants had to evaluate a number of policy scenarios for a coal phase-out. These scenarios differed in terms of the timeline of the phase-out, costs, employment effects and supporting measures for the transformation of the coal regions.
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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 were the sole responsibility of the authors.
The authors declare no competing interests.
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Rinscheid, A., Wüstenhagen, R. German voters would prefer a more ambitious timeline to phase out coal. Nat Energy 4, 1016–1017 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41560-019-0509-9