Germany has fashioned itself to be a global green leader in recent years, aggressively pursuing renewable energy sources while setting ambitious greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets. Its energiewende, or energy transition, has attracted the attention of policymakers around the world, and earned the admiration of environmentalists eager to point to an example that “proves” that wind and solar power can solve all of humanity’s problems.But when you check under the hood of the energiewende, you quickly discover that it’s not all it’s cracked up to be, and just this week the UN’s climate change envoy expressed disappointment in the poor example Berlin has been setting lately. The Guardian reports:
Mary Robinson, the former president of Ireland and UN special envoy on climate change and El Niño, said she had to speak out after Germany promised compensation for coal power and the UK provided tax breaks for oil and gas. […]Robinson said that while Germany had made some positive steps such as aiding developing countries on climate change, it was sending mixed messages.“Germany says its on track to end coal subsidies by 2018 but the German government is also introducing new mechanisms that provide payment to power companies for their ability to provide a constant supply of electricity, even if they are polluting forms, such as diesel and coal,” she said. She called on Germany to make a real commitment to get out of coal.
Robinson’s biggest issue with Germany’s energy policies has to do with its continued reliance on coal, and more specifically lignite, an especially dirty variety of the already heavily-polluting fossil fuel. Perversely, Berlin can’t shake its coal dependence because of its energiewende, which has hastened the closing of the country’s nuclear reactors. Nuclear power is a zero-emissions source of baseload power—it can keep the lights on 24/7 without producing any greenhouse gases—which means Germany’s decision to shut down its nuclear sector was a setback for its green goals. Wind and solar can’t replace the supplies nuclear reactors contributed because those renewable sources are intermittent, and so Berlin has had to turn to lignite, and is now (rightfully) earning the ire of the UN’s climate envoy.And if you needed a reminder, Germany’s energiewende isn’t just falling short on the environmental front, it’s also been an economic mess: the subsidies that have propped up all its new wind and solar farms have been paid for by businesses and households in the form of green surcharges on their power bills, which have produced the second highest electricity rates in Europe.