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German homeowners worry about the cost of meeting the country's climate targets


OK. Imagine it's winter, and your home's heating system breaks down. I mean, you'd typically have it fixed, right? But if you live in Germany, new rules being debated in parliament this week could force you to replace your old boiler with a new, expensive heat pump.

As NPR's Rob Schmitz reports, German homeowners are scared of the crippling cost of meeting their country's climate targets.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: The green future of German heating is a white box the size of your refrigerator. It also happens to use the same technology as your refrigerator, but in reverse.

WOLFGANG GRUNDINGER: It takes the temperature from the food inside the fridge and then kind of blows it out. And a heat pump is just the other way around.

SCHMITZ: Wolfgang Grundinger heads the startup Enpal, which sells heat pumps. He stands in front of two of them propped up near a foosball table inside the company's buzzing Berlin office. The cost of electricity needed to power a heat pump is a third cheaper than natural gas. The savings are even better for those who run heat pumps from solar panels.

GRUNDINGER: People realize that gas is super expensive - that we are dependent on foreign countries when it comes to gas. And they can just make their electricity on their own rooftop and have their heat pump at home.

SCHMITZ: Germany's Green Party is overseeing a bill that aims to do away with the country's gas and oil heating infrastructure for good. An early version of the bill leaked to German media revealed the plan would be to, starting next year, require all new buildings in Germany to install heating systems that use at least 65% renewable energy. The heat pump is currently one of the only ways to meet this goal. Early bill language also mandated that any building in Germany, including family homes whose heating systems had broken down, would also be required to meet this goal. It was this part of the proposed bill that sent German homeowners into a frenzy.

KAI WARNECKE: This law will instantly reduce the value of the building stock in Germany in a very dramatic way.

SCHMITZ: Kai Warnecke is the president of Haus Und Grund, an association that represents nearly a million private homeowners and landlords in Germany.

WARNECKE: The estimation for a standard one-family house which needs to be redone and have a heat pump installed is around 100- and 150,000 euro per one-family home. And therefore, the calculated outcome for the whole German building stock is, on a conservative level, 1 trillion euro.

SCHMITZ: That is equal to more than a quarter of Germany's GDP last year. Warnecke says this bill, should it become law, would bankrupt middle-class homeowners and tank the country's economy.

But this week, as Germany's parliament prepared to debate the bill, German media reported that new language in it may water it down, only requiring new buildings to conform to the new climate rules and giving homeowners more time to comply. That'll be a relief to German homeowners. But Andree Boehling, an energy expert at Greenpeace, says the climate cannot wait.

ANDREE BOEHLING: (Speaking German).

SCHMITZ: Boehling says the revised bill will result in Germany failing to hit its 2030 climate protection targets and that it's up to Parliament to ensure it's tightened up with stricter measures.

Outside of Berlin's parliament building, Tanja Baer, a 44-year-old chemistry teacher visiting from the city of Mainz, says she's watching all of this closely.

TANJA BAER: (Speaking German).

SCHMITZ: Baer says she's all for climate protection, but she says the Green Party wants to do this too quickly. Baer and her husband have four children, and they're looking to buy a new house. She says she can only afford an older home with a gas or oil boiler, and she says there's no way she can afford replacing that with a new heat pump, even with subsidies the Green Party's promising. Baer says she's always voted for the Greens, but she doesn't plan on doing that in the next election. Germany's Parliament plans to debate the new boiler ban bill in the coming days.

Rob Schmitz, NPR News, Berlin.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.

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