German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande staked out their countries’ claim to global green leadership today with a joint statement pledging to phase out fossil fuels and “decarbonise” the global economy by the end of the century. But while Berlin may believe itself a paragon of environmental virtue, its growing hunger for a particularly dirty variety of coal called lignite (a direct result of the country’s “green” energy transition, called the energiewende) says otherwise. The FT reports:
[Germany’s] exit from nuclear power has led to a greater reliance on fossil fuels. High gas prices and cheap coal has meant that Germany has leaned on the most-polluting fossil fuels as partners for its renewables.
Lignite provides more than 25 per cent of Germany’s electricity and coal generates nearly 18 per cent, according to figures published this year.
Green groups are taking note, and taking aim at Germany for its increasing coal consumption. Greenpeace International’s executive director Kumi Naidoo warned that “Germany cannot get around the truth that in order not to fail its climate commitments it has to reduce its emissions from its enormous fleet of lignite coal technology.” This is, of course, a problem of Berlin’s own making. By choosing to shutter its nuclear reactors as part of its energiewende, Germany rid itself of a fleet of zero-carbon baseload power sources. And while wind and solar have blossomed under an over-generous (and extraordinarily costly) subsidy regime, their intermittent nature means they can’t take nuclear’s place. And so, enter coal.
Of the two countries, France would seem to be serving a better example of how future generations might phase out fossil fuels—it relies on nuclear energy for roughly three-quarters of its energy needs. But France’s nuclear fleet is aging, and it’s questionable whether the political will exists to build the next generation of reactors. In fact, Paris seems to be eying the German model as it considers phasing out nuclear and boosting fledgling renewables with government support.
Germany hoped to teach the rest of the world something about energy policy when it pursued its ambitious energiewende, and by that metric the policy has been a success. It should be seen as a cautionary tale for policymakers about the dangers of letting politically expedient and nice-sounding green rhetoric cloud sound judgment, because this “green” strategy has somehow managed to increase the country’s reliance on coal while raising electricity costs.
Germany isn’t the green leader the world needs.