On Friday the German parliament approved a law that from 2024 will require the installation of alternative systems in new buildings to traditional gas heating systems, which are currently the most widespread and polluting. The law provides that heat pump systems must be installed in newly constructed buildings, which are less polluting but also on average more expensive. Further down the line, anyone who has to replace an old system will only be able to do so with heat pump systems.
It is a law with very ambitious objectives because it would like to make most German buildings more sustainable. But although huge subsidies have been promised for the replacement of the systems, there is much concern among the inhabitants, who fear having to face high costs to change the heating systems. Precisely for this reason the law has had a rather complicated path, it has divided public opinion, it has been harshly opposed by the opposition parties but also by a substantial part of Olaf Scholz’s government itself, which has suffered greatly in terms of popularity.
The law was proposed by Robert Habeck, Minister of Economy and Energy and former leader of the Greens, one of the parties that make up the majority of the government together with the Social Democrats and the Liberals. The government had given preliminary approval to the bill in April and after months of discussion the law finally passed parliament. There was no doubt about the outcome of the vote: the votes were there and the majority did not need external support for approval. Despite this, the government emerges greatly weakened, with approval ratings at low levels and with opposing parties showing strong growth in the polls.
In detail, the law provides that traditional gas heating systems can no longer be installed in newly constructed buildings. The buildings will have to be heated using heat pump systems that are powered by 65 percent renewable energy. These systems are on average more expensive than gas ones, but the law provides both the possibility of making subsidized loans to purchase them and subsidies which should reimburse a portion of the expense to replace the heating systems. The reimbursement will vary depending on the income of the person requesting it.
Compared to the original version of the law, corrective measures have been made which provide for some exceptions and more accommodating timescales: for example, in the government’s initial intentions from 2024 anyone who had to change the heating system would have to do so with a heat pump.
Spiegel has calculated that in a condominium with 6 apartments, installing a pump can cost from 38 to 78 thousand euros: even with subsidies, those who have a house could find themselves spending several thousand euros. And these costs would affect many people: in two out of three homes the heating is still powered by natural gas. A survey by German public television indicates that around two-thirds of Germans fear that the new law will penalize them in an unsustainable way from an economic point of view.
Despite certainly significant costs, the law however has the objective of cutting emissions: it is estimated that 15 percent of the emissions produced every year in Germany are due to heating systems.
However, the question of costs prevailed in public opinion, while the benefit that the country would derive from it in environmental terms remained under the radar. With the result that the law has become very unpopular. Among the main opponents is the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, which has exploited general dissatisfaction with the law to mount a strong opposition campaign against the government. Political experts argue that this position against the law is one of the causes of the party’s growth in the polls.
However, the law also divided the parties within the government, namely the Social Democrats, the Greens and the Liberals. Part of the social democrats and liberals were worried about the cost of this law, which was supposed to provide large subsidies for the replacement of systems. But even among the Greens there was some perplexity, even though they are the most environmentalist component of the government, and the reform was considered too audacious in some cases. For example, Winfried Kretschmann, Prime Minister of the Greens of the state of Baden-Württemberg, told the Zeit weekly that the government is moving “too fast” on these issues, and that “pragmatism” is needed in politics.
This law demonstrates how the political feasibility of serious climate action is strongly conditioned by public opinion and above all by the propaganda of the most populist parties. Measures like these will be needed in the future if European countries are to achieve the ambitious climate goals that the European Union has set itself. However, there is the risk that, seeing the price that the Scholz government has paid in terms of politics and popularity, other governments will be reluctant to take similar actions.
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