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In Germany, a halting green revolution blows a chill wind for Merkel

The German chancellor Angela Merkel has been so busy saving the euro she has not found time to save the planet.

Her ambitious climate plans to put Europe’s biggest economy at the forefront of global efforts to curb global warming are unravelling just a year after she presented them. With a general election looming in the autumn next year, she knows the costs associated with her huge energy revolution could scupper her chances of a third term.

Mrs Merkel sounded hypocritical when she warned delegates in Berlin this month that world leaders must soon reach a deal on greenhouse gas emissions.

Just a day earlier, her environment minister, Peter Altmaier, a close ally, had questioned whether Germany could meet its own targets for 10 per cent energy savings and 1 million electric cars on the roads by 2020.

Mr Altmaier said his top priority was to ensure electricity remained affordable to households and companies – a strange comment for an environment ministerwhose job is to implement the most important domestic project of Mrs Merkel’s second term.

His remarks were echoed by the economy minister, Philipp Rösler, who said the energy targets may need to be adapted to protect jobs.

Given the scale of the task Germany has set itself, such statements from the two key ministers in charge of carrying it out are an unmistakable sign they have lost faith in the plan.

It was the first time the government openly admitted what has become increasingly evident in the past six months – that Germany is falling hopelessly behind in its drive to boost renewable power generation from 20 per cent now to at least 35 per cent by 2020 and 80 per cent by 2050.

Mrs Merkel announced her energy plan in June last year after the Fukushima disaster in Japan led her to perform a dramatic U-turn, bringing Germany’s exit from nuclear power forward to 2022 just five months after she had controversially extended the lifetimes of some reactors into the mid-2030s.

She won praise for her bold vision of a green future of giant wind farms along the country’s northern coast, a European supergrid capable of balancing out the fluctuations caused by the weather, insulated energy-efficient buildings and streets filled with electric cars.

“We can be the world’s first industrialised country to successfully navigate the transition to the electricity of the future,” Mrs Merkel declared.

Since then, though, not much has happened. The revolution has ground to a halt because of red tape, cabinet in-fighting, disputes between central and regional government and local opposition to infrastructure such as new power lines with unsightly masts 80 metres tall.

Up to 4,500km of new high-voltage lines are needed. Just a few hundred have been built. New gas-fired power stations are not being built because the government has not come up with sufficient investment incentives for them.

Energy firms are warning they may shelve their plans to expand offshore wind power because of delays in connecting the turbines to the grid.

The costs of building new infrastructure will amount to hundreds of billions of euros. If the transition to green energy does not go smoothly energy prices may well surge.

The obstacles are immense but that was evident from the outset.

Mrs Merkel should not listen to the warnings of an industrial lobby bent on slowing the changeover so it can go on raking in profits from coal-fired power stations.

What is needed now is leadership. Mrs Merkel must overcome resistance to her plans, she needs to introduce clever new incentives to boost green investment and she has to persuade, or force, people to drop lawsuits against ugly power masts and switching stations.

She must also have the courage to explain to people electricity will have to become more expensive because, at just 2.5 per cent of household spending, it is so cheap that people are still not bothering to turn their televisions off.

But the chancellor has her hands full coping with the debt crisis. German taxpayers are fed up footing the bill for euro bailout agreements that have boosted the country’s total liability to €310 billion (Dh1.37 trillion).

She can not afford to put off voters with the prospect of more costs and risks simply for the environment’s sake.

Mrs Merkel can not afford to abandon her energy vision – the loss of credibility would be fatal. But she is too astute a politician to put her political survival at risk by pursuing it with the necessary vigour.

Germany will keep on investing in green technology but at a slower, milder pace than planned.