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The German Bundestag has passed a heavily amended version of a contentious heating law, drawing a line under an episode that became a political debacle for Olaf Scholz’s ruling coalition and a symbol of the challenges of imposing radical environmental laws on homeowners.
The country’s parliament approved a watered-down version of a plan that originally would have amounted to an effective ban on all new gas and oil boilers, requiring new systems to be powered by a minimum of 65 per cent renewable energy from January 2024.
The plan, the brainchild of the Green economy minister and vice-chancellor Robert Habeck, was one of Germany’s most ambitious pieces of climate legislation. It was aimed at accelerating the shift to heat pumps, solar panels and hydrogen boilers as part of a broader drive to reach a national target of carbon neutrality by 2045.
But a public and political backlash against the proposals damaged support for Scholz’s coalition government, which descended into infighting over the issue, and helped to fuel the popularity of the far-right Alternative for Deutschland (AfD).
After strong objections from the liberal Free Democrats, one of the partners in the coalition alongside Scholz’s Social Democrats and the Green Party, as well as a delay imposed by the constitutional court in July, Habeck agreed to significantly amend the draft law.
The legislation passed by the Bundestag on Friday, which is expected to clear its final hurdle of approval by the 16 federal states at the end of September, gives more time for households to make the transition, provides additional subsidies and builds in extra exceptions for the elderly and those on low-incomes.
It also shifts more responsibility on to municipalities for the change, exempting homeowners from the requirement to adopt new systems using 65 per cent renewables if their local authorities have not yet come up with detailed plans on expanding sustainable district heating.
Habeck on Friday defended the amended bill as a “good law” and criticised the opposition for its constant attacks on the plans, which aim to tackle the large amount of CO₂ emitted by buildings in Germany.
“I think it is justified to respond to this law with specific and concerned questions,” he said. “What you shouldn’t do, however, is pull the wool over people’s eyes — to say that we set [climate] goals but we do nothing to ensure that these goals are achieved.”
But his ministry admitted that, under the weakened plan, the building sector would miss its 2030 emissions targets.
The Bundestag’s approval of the law marks the end of a bruising episode for the economy minister and vice-chancellor, who was previously one of the Greens’ most popular figures but suffered a plunge in popularity and drew criticism from within his own party for his handling of the affair.
He was subjected to a months-long campaign in Bild, Germany’s best-selling tabloid, which dubbed the proposal the “heating hammer”. The AfD — which has surged to second place in the polls in recent months — also seized upon the plans, describing them as a “slap in the face to all hard-working citizens” and an “ideological attack on our prosperity”.
The subject created one of the most bitter fights yet within Scholz’s fragile coalition, which has also been plagued by disputes on issues from nuclear power to child benefit.
The Green’s co-chair in parliament, Katharina Dröge, admitted during the final debate on the law’s adoption that her had party made mistakes over the issue, saying there was too much government infighting and too much uncertainty for citizens. “We will do better in the future,” she said.