Germany: Trade unions' approach to climate change policies

While the international trade union movement is calling for a more effective implementation of the Paris Agreement on climate change, national trade unions differ regarding  the way forward. German unions are taking a traditional path in joining forces with employers and calling for governmental support for innovative technological and industrial policy solutions.


The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) played a significant part in the UN Climate Conference (COP23) in Bonn, Germany, in November 2017, calling for:

  • a better implementation of the Paris Agreement on climate change;
  • more awareness of climate change;
  • a phase out of fossil fuels;
  • funds for a just transition to a low-carbon economy.

The ITUC, the world’s largest trade union federation, represents workers affected by climate warming, cyclones and floods in the Global South, as well as those in the highly industrialised countries in the Global North. It is the leading voice in the international policy arena. However, national trade union confederations and sectoral trade unions differ in perceptions and policies on how to lower CO2 emissions, possibly because of differences in national economies, industrial relations systems and government policies.

The Paris Agreement, adopted at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, has been in force since December 2016. It commits the signatories to keeping the global average temperature increase ‘well below 2 degrees Celsius’ above the pre-industrial levels, and urges the countries to pursue efforts to limit global warming even further, to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

The European Union has committed itself to reducing its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 20% (below 1990 levels) under its Europe 2020 Strategy, and has a longer-term commitment to reduce emissions by 80%–95% by 2050, again from the 1990 base.

Germany is the world’s sixth-largest producer of GHG emissions but, following the recommendations of UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), it pledged to reduce emission by 40% (below 1990s levels) by 2020. With its announcement that it would phase out the use of nuclear energy and shift to renewable energies, Germany consequently gained the reputation of being a leader in global climate change policies.

However, as reported by the EU Commission, by 2016 Germany was one of seven EU Member States which had not reached its targets (PDF). It had reduced GHG emissions by 34%, but its planned reduction of 40% by 2020 seems unlikely. Moreover, in order to meet the UN targets in time – which environmental experts consider the minimum necessary for preventing the worst impacts of climate change – Germany must speed up its reduction in emissions. Phasing out the use of lignite coal mining is the most debated option and, by the time Germany hosted COP23, its reputation as a leader in climate policies had been tarnished.

Canada and the UK lead a new alliance of 19 countries (the Powering Past Coal Alliance) for phasing out the use of coal. In Germany, however, while the Federal Minister for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety, Barbara Hendricks, has chosen to close the oldest and most CO2-intensive coal power plants, the Federal Minister for Economic Affairs and Energy, Brigitte Zypries – backing trade union positions – is defending the coal industry, promoting a slow phase out by 2050 and the development of cleaner technologies in coal mining in the meantime.

A national Climate protection plan 2050 (Klimaschutzplan 2050) (PDF) put forward by Minister Hendricks in November 2016, has not yet been endorsed. It comprises strategic considerations on the transformation of all sectors with high CO2 emissions – energy, construction/buildings, traffic/transport and agriculture – and a national multistakeholder commission on economic transformation. In the plan, the Ministry states that the transformation to a low-carbon economy has to be carried by broad public support, which can be gained only by taking into account social justice, affordability (of energy costs), efficiency, participation and the plurality of democratic processes. However, it has to be noted that the traditional political and sociocultural dividing lines between the promoters of economic growth, industrial policies and the supporters of climate change policies are extremely strong, particularly in Germany.

Since September’s 2017 federal elections, the yet to be formed coalition government has made no decisions on climate policies.

UN Climate Conference – COP23

These dividing lines were evident when Germany hosted COP23 in November 2017. With 22,000 participants it was the largest ever intergovernmental conference held in Germany. The ITUC lead a delegation of 130 trade union members from 40 countries. Independent of ITUC, a new network, Trade Unions for Energy Democracy (TUED), which comprises 70 trade unions and trade union federations from around the globe, called for re-municipalisation or re-nationalisation of energy companies.

From the German side, the political foundations of the Greens and the Left Party supported a Peoples’ Climate Summit for environmental activists and trade unionists from all over the world. The Friedrich Ebert Foundation, a German political foundation associated with the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), together with the German Confederation of Trade Unions (DGB), and the dominant metalworkers’ union in Germany (IG Metall), organised a trade union event on the role of co-determination in promoting energy efficiency and climate change.

Nevertheless, participation by the German trade unions was extremely limited considering the importance of the event and the calls by the ITUC and the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) for public money for the Just Transition fund to support workers to cope with the upcoming economic transformation and structural changes. (After COP23, the EU Commission decided against such a fund).

German trade unions’ demands

Preparing workers for the transition to a low-carbon economy with reduced CO2 emissions is not on the agenda of the German trade unions. Nor do they criticise German companies for high CO2 emissions.

The Industrial Mining, Chemistry and Energy Union (IG BCE) takes a very strong position against marches calling for the closure of the lignite coal mine. In December 2017 some 1,000 works council members issued the Berlin Declaration, saying that they see a new conflict evolving on industrial policies and that they are ‘getting sick’ of the way their jobs are treated by politicians. They called for a long-term strategy for the promotion of good-quality jobs, for technological innovation and for public investments in research and development.

Only one out of eight affiliates of the German Confederation of Trade Unions (DGB) is a member of the German Climate Alliance, which comprises environmental NGOs, fair trade organisations, church-related organisations and banks. The Construction, Agriculture and Environment Workers Union (IG BAU) actively promotes the active refurbishment of buildings and, in the autumn, called on the government to set up climate task forces to accelerate and intensify the implementation of climate change policies. The union says that industrial growth and climate policy should be seen as two sides of the same coin. The issue was taken up in a joint statement by DGB and leading business organisations calling on the government to continue subsidising energy-efficient refurbishment.

IG Metall which, on the one hand, calls for more public support for the wind and solar industry, on the other, is on the defensive about the CO2 emissions of the steel and automotive sector. However, it has taken a clear position in focusing on the growth potential of the new sectors and technologies, calls for more investments in research and development, and for legislation to protect the stability of the new sectors.

The DGB summarises the trade union demands as follows:

  • stability in the long-range planning of the energy shift, with clear targets and clearly defined steps to a reduction in the use of fossil fuels in all sectors;
  • active industrial policies for promoting innovation along the supply chains of the manufacturing companies;
  • climate policies and affluence should be seen as two sides of a coin – with the aim of qualitative growth;
  • long-term objectives of climate and energy policies should contain strategies on innovation, investments and qualification;
  • employment growth, good quality jobs and collective bargaining coverage are to be guaranteed;
  • expansion of the share of renewable energies, as well as of grid and storage capacities;
  • subsidies to coal power plants for securing a stable income;
  • promotion of more energy efficiency in buildings;
  • energy costs to stay affordable.

The DGB proposes a broad public debate on the finances of investments, innovation and qualification, and tax-based public support of the climate change process.


What has been reported here has to be seen against an international trade union landscape that takes very different positions on similar issues. For example, the next UN Climate Summit will take place in November 2018 in Poland, where there is opposition to a phase out of coal mining. In contrast, in the autumn of 2017, the British Trade Union Congress (TUC) voted for a disinvestment strategy on fossil fuel companies. What is evident in Germany is a clearly defined path forward, focusing on technology and innovation in cooperation with the employers, and backed by public policies.

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