Merkel’s rush to renewables

By Bryan Walker 12/05/2011

I’ve become wary of politicians’ commitments to clean energy, having been disappointed by the rapidity with which the rhetoric of leaders like Obama or Rudd loses substance when the political going gets tough. But it was hard not to pay attention to a striking article in Yale Environment 360 this week in which Der Spiegel journalist Christian Schwägerl wrote of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s new energy policy. In March, following the Fukushima disaster in Japan, she announced an accelerated phasing out of all 17 German nuclear reactors by 2022 at the latest.

’We want to end the use of nuclear energy and reach the age of renewable energy as fast as possible.’

This is a radical turnaround for Merkel, who previously favoured nuclear power continuing as an important segment in Germany’s electricity sources. Schwägerl explains:

’Merkel’s scientific sense of probability and rationality was shaken to the core [by Fukushima]. If this was possible, she reasoned, something similar might happen in Germany – not a tsunami, of course, but something equally unexpected. In her view, the field trial of nuclear energy had failed. As a self-described rationalist, she felt compelled to act.’

This doesn’t mean giving up on the commitments to CO2 reduction. Merkel vows Germany will have cut CO2 emissions (compared to 1990 levels) by 40 per cent in 2020, by 55 per cent in 2030, and by more than 80 per cent in 2050. What the ’energy turn’, as Merkel describes it, means is that renewable energy is going to have to move from currently supplying 17 per cent of Germany’s energy to supplying 35 per cent by 2020, 50 per cent by 2030, 65 per cent by 2040 and more than 80 per cent by 2050.

Offshore wind energy will play a major part in the transition, and Schwägerl notes several offshore wind farms are now under construction. He sees Merkel betting that environmental technology will be one of Germany’s most important sources of income, providing the job creation and economic growth vital to her party and government. The environment minister Norbert Röttgen says that renewable energy has generated 300,000 `green collar’ new jobs in the past decade.  Big companies like Siemens and Bosch are determined to become ’green multinationals’. Thousands of small- and medium-sized technology companies see green technology as an important part of their business and investment strategy.

The change will not be without cost. Already consumers in Germany pay a surcharge to finance the feed-in tariffs which enable the selling of renewable energy to the grid at favourable rates. An average family of four is paying around US$220 a year, and a growing surcharge is likely to meet future investment needs. However Röttgen expects mass deployment of renewable energy to drive costs down and points out that the money now spent on imported energy will be able to go instead to green-tech engineers and local craftsmen.

New grid arrangements will be necessary, and storage questions will need to be addressed. Public opposition to changes to the landscape can be strong. Problems and pitfalls lie ahead, but Schwägerl reports that the new course is already attracting admiration from abroad. He quotes William Reilly, the former administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, on a recent visit to Germany: ’It was breathtaking to see this huge change by a conservative government.’  He also report officials in the Japanese embassy in Berlin already wondering aloud how their government will justify sticking with nuclear energy when a country like Germany is taking bold steps to thrive without it.  I see  that the Japanese Prime Minister has now announced the abandonment of plans to build new nuclear reactors, saying his country needed to ’start from scratch’ in creating a new energy policy. It appears they’ll be looking to renewable energy and conservation as new pillars of energy policy.

Schwägerl comments that Merkel’s intentions make Germany the world’s most important laboratory of ’green growth’.

’No other country belonging to the G20 club of economic powers has a comparable agenda… Germany is Europe’s largest economy. Making such a country a renewable powerhouse would transform it into the undisputed mecca for everyone on the planet concerned with the environment and green-tech business.’

Meanwhile in the UK there is less determination than we were led to expect from the coalition government. Jonathon Porritt, former chair of the recently scrapped Sustainable Development Commission, has written a substantial report for Friends of the Earth which concludes that the government is failing to deliver on most of its key green pledges. In recent days there has been a public division of opinion within the government ranks over whether they are going to follow the recommendation of the independent Climate Change Committee that a 60 per cent carbon reduction target be set for 2030. Business secretary Vince Cable and others believe the target would harm prospects for jobs and growth. Energy secretary Chris Huhne and foreign secretary William Hague want the target respected, as might be expected from their stances reported here and here on Hot Topic. Cameron’s ’greenest government ever’ boast is under suspicion of bombast and Friends of the Earth has urged Chris Huhne to resign if the government fails to honour the recommendation of the Climate Change Committee. Merkel’s conservative government in Germany looks a model of clarity and purpose by contrast. Unless, of course, her ’energy turn’ offers more in words than it will deliver in action.

Somewhere, sometime there must surely be a major government which will start to act with the decisiveness and firm purpose the climate crisis demands. Maybe Germany really is stepping up to the plate. The Yale Environment heading describes Merkel as the ’unlikely champion’ of a radical green energy path, presumably because she is a pro-business conservative. But she is also, according to Schwägerl, a self-described rationalist. Rationalism is all that is needed to discern the reality of what climate change threatens and to act appropriately to lessen it. The colour of one’s politics is a minor matter by comparison.