Germany: Robert Habeck poised for climbdown on controversial gas boiler rule


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Jan 31, 2024

Germany: Robert Habeck poised for climbdown on controversial gas boiler rule

Robert Habeck stepped back from banning new gas heating installations by next

Robert Habeck stepped back from banning new gas heating installations by next year after a furious reaction

Germany's beleaguered climate minister had to make an embarrassing climbdown on plans to ban gas heating this week, as bad economic news cast a gloom over Berlin.

Robert Habeck, ‘super minister’ for the economy and climate, told a local newspaper that he wanted to "make his law better" as he stepped back from a hard deadline of banning all new gas heating installations at the beginning of next year.

Ever since the first details of the law emerged in March it has been picked apart by a diverse coalition of tradesmen, economists and homeowners, who claim that Germany lacks both the technical know-how and the production capacity to switch away from gas heating at the stroke of midnight on December 31st.

Mr Habeck's ambition to install six million heat pumps, which run on electricity, by the end of the decade, is a number that critics counter with a current six-month waiting time for deliveries by one of Germany's main manufacturers, Bosch.

"I take the criticism and social concerns very seriously," Mr Habeck told the Funke Media Group on Friday, saying he was prepared to weaken the deadline to mean that it would only apply to new houses at first.

"Given concerns about shortages of specialist tradesmen and supply bottlenecks, a little more time will also help," he conceded.

On the defensive on two fronts after a sleaze scandal was unexposed in his ministry, Mr Habeck has struggled to explain his marquee law to an unnerved public.

The bill has also exposed an ideological rift within Olaf Scholz's centrist coalition, pitting Mr Habeck's Greens, who want to take on billions of euros in new debt to radically drive down carbon emissions, against the small-state Free Democrats who are increasingly concerned about the country's economic competitiveness.

In the spring the Free Democrats agreed to a timeline for passing the law by the summer recess.

But, with just three weeks left until the Bundestag breaks up, they have held up the law in cabinet, claiming it needs to be "completely renovated".

That led Mr Habeck to bitterly accuse the coalition partner of "breaking its word".

Analysts point out that both the Greens and the Free Democrats are currently languishing in polling, suggesting that both parties are more interested in appeasing their core voters than in finding compromises. Few expect the coalition to collapse over the issue, however.

Throughout the debate Mr Scholz has kept quiet, following a tactic that Berlin watchers say served his predecessor Angela Merkel well.

"Like Angela Merkel, Olaf Scholz leads by waiting and sitting debates out," political scientist Jürgen Falter told the Merkur newspaper.

But the skies are darkening over the chancellor, too.

Last year Mr Scholz, 64, claimed that his government's investments in "green" technologies would lead to an economic boom to rival the wirtschaftswunder or economic miracle that lifted Germany from the ashes of the Second World War in the 1950s.

Instead, the national statistics agency announced on Thursday that the country had unexpectedly slumped into a recession, news that has hardened the battle lines inside the government.

Finance Minister Christian Lindner from the Free Democrats said the recession showed that Germany "needs to renounce bureaucracy and debts".

That is not a message that Mr Habeck will be glad to hear.

He has promised to cover 30 percent of the costs of switching to heat pumps with state money, something that experts say will cost the state tens of billions of euros.

From the sidelines, Germany's opposition Christian Democrats have been happy to stoke the conflict, claiming that it is only a matter of time before Mr Scholz will have to put his 18-month-old government to a vote of confidence in the German parliament.