After President Donald Trump announced his decision to pull out of the Paris climate accord on June 1st, the media turned its proverbial head to another head of state for an instant reaction: Angela Merkel. The German chancellor is the de facto leader of the global green caucus, as she is an outspoken proponent of the international approach to combatting climate change, and her country is the undisputed leader in rolling out renewable energy. Merkel was predictably displeased by Trump’s renunciation of the Paris deal, saying that the decision was “extremely regrettable” while reaffirming her commitment to the UN-organized effort to help reduce global greenhouse gas emissions. To the casual observer, Merkel and Germany are now playing the virtuous hero in this climate change story, a foil to the new Trump administration. But there’s a problem with that surface level reading of events: Merkel’s Germany isn’t the green champion so many environmentalists seem to believe it to be. Let’s take a look.
Modern German energy policy is in a period of upheaval, as the country pursues what it calls its energiewende—a comprehensive plan to overhaul the way it produces and consumes electricity with the ultimate goal of reducing carbon emissions. On some fronts, Berlin has been extremely successful in this endeavor: for the past two years, it has sourced 29 percent of its power from renewables. Of course, in order to kickstart its clean energy industries, Germany was forced to subsidize the production of wind and solar power by offering producers long-term above-market rates for their supplies. Those feed-in tariffs, as they’re called, have produced some of the highest power bills in Europe, though Berlin is moving to roll back that government support as the costs of renewables drop and the outcry against high power bills grows. Increasing renewables’ share of the national energy mix to nearly one-third wasn’t cheap or easy, but getting it there is still a major achievement. It’s also why so many people think of Germany as a green leader.
But the reality is a lot more complicated—and a lot “browner”. One major part of the energiewende has been the phase-out of nuclear power, a process that Germany accelerated in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima disaster. Germany’s decision to nix nuclear was motivated partly by security concerns (not exactly a rational fear, considering nuclear’s safety and the relative lack of natural disaster threats that German reactors face), and partly by the long-held revulsion the environmental movement has held for the energy source. How ironic, then, that a phase-out so foundational to a green energy transition would end up increasing greenhouse gas emissions: nuclear power is a zero-emissions energy source, which means that unless every watt taken offline during this systematic shuttering is replaced by a similarly clean supplier, German emissions are going to rise.
Sure enough, German emissions crept up 0.7 percent last year. Some analysts are pinning that increase on the growing German economy, but the country’s biggest brown problem is its reliance on coal. Coal is just about the dirtiest fossil fuel around, but it’s been in increased demand in Germany following all these nuclear shutdowns. Germany imports hard coal to supply 17 percent of its power, and sources another 23 percent of its electricity from domestically produced lignite, an especially dirty variety of coal. All of that adds up to a lot of emissions.
There’s a limit on how much renewables will be able to do, going forward. Wind and solar are intermittent by nature, and can’t be relied upon to replace more consistent energy sources like nuclear power or coal en masse. Germany’s reactors would have made a nice foundation on which to build this renewables revolution, but Merkel’s mind seems made up. But however hard she tries to position herself as the virtuous green, the fact remains that German emissions rose last year, while America’s fell three percent (thanks to cheap, abundant shale gas displacing coal). Words matter, but so do numbers, and the data tells us that lately—whatever Trump is trumpeting—the United States is doing more to combat climate change than Germany.