OPINION: Is Merkel planning a Christmas cracker?

While naughty children can expect a lump of coal in their stocking next month, a breadcrumb trail of small clues seems to be leading towards quite the opposite.

This week Germany has been clinging to its image as a climate change leader after hosting the COP23 conference in the shadow of some of Europe’s dirtiest coal-fired power plants.

Chancellor Merkel travelled from the current to the former German capital yesterday to tell delegates gathered in Bonn that the Paris agreement “is a starting point” and current national commitments were insufficient.

Back in Berlin, where a city-level phase-out has already been announced, talks desperately continued between the Christian, Liberal and Green parties as they attempt to bash out an agreement that will give Germany a new government before the end of the year.

The German media has been rife with speculation about the conditions each party has set, with it being widely reported that the Greens have demanded a commitment to moving Europe’s biggest economy away from Europe’s dirtiest fuel.

Chancellor Merkel is well known for taking the time to form a considered opinion, yet she is ultimately a pragmatist. She knows that she needs the Green party’s support. She knows that the market is turning on coal, with gas companies forming an alliance to force it out of lucrative back-up energy markets. She knows the price of wind power is plummeting and new technology is starting to emerge that will change the rules of the game for everyone.

Ultimately, she knows that a coal phase out is inevitable anyway.

But Merkel needs to balance this sensible bigger-picture thinking with a nod to some more hysterical voices within her own party and some kind of an acknowledgement for the major polluters, with whom she has enjoyed a close and warm relationship over a number of years (like when she shared a platform with a cowboy to lay the foundation stone for a new RWE brown coal plant in 2006).

What those calling for clear action on coal need to understand about Merkel, is that politically, she can neither be seen to be very keen on a coal phase out herself, nor to have been persuaded to do it by a much smaller party. She doesn’t want to be proven wrong; she doesn’t want to have lost an argument.

But this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be hopeful of positive news before Christmas – which is where we return to the breadcrumb trail.

Put yourself in Merkel’s shoes for a moment. You need to be able to sign off the coal phase out, but it can’t appear to be a rash or sudden decision.

The answer? You carefully delay the decision while letting the pressure grow until the point that it seems that a coal phase out is the natural and sensible option.

You’d welcome leaked stuff about how Germany is set to miss its international commitments.

You’d be happy to see opinion polls that show wide public support for a transition away from coal – even from your own conservative voters.

You’d want the support of industry for action on climate change.

You’d need to quietly distance the government from previous moves to protect coal, for example by deciding not to join Poland in appealing against new pollution standards (that you voted against back in April).

You may want to release new information about all the nasty stuff in coal emissions.

You’d want government departments and agencies to be making reassuring noises about the possibility of phasing out coal, ideally they should pre-empt scaremongering about blackouts by pointing out that cutting coal will increase the security of supply to the national grid.

Finally, you’d want to be speaking at the highest level about the need for further action on climate change – without being all that specific about what that is – yet.

So while some were disappointed that Merkel missed the golden opportunity to announce a phase out this week, the present might jut be already wrapped and waiting under the tree.