Germany has fashioned itself a new brand for the 21st century as the global green leader, but it’s nowhere close to meeting the ambitious greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction targets it set for itself. The German government has targeted a 40 percent reduction of GHG emissions by 2020, as compared to 1990 levels, but with less than three years to go the country remains far from achieving that goal. Berlin already admitted that the 40 percent goal likely wasn’t possible, and instead lowered its sights to a 35 percent reduction, but even that seems unlikely now. A new study from the green think tank Agora Energiewende says Germany is likely to achieve only a 30-31 percent reduction.
That report lays the blame for this “drastically missed” target at the feet of bargain prices for both oil and carbon. The global crude market is awash in supplies today, which has meant cheap oil products (like transportation fuel) for consumers. People are driving further and more often, and that’s not helping German efforts to cut emissions. The European Union Emissions Trading System (EU ETS) is similarly flooded with supplies, though in this case it’s emissions allowances rather than barrels of crude. This glut of permits has produced a price of carbon far below what is necessary to incentivize heavy emitters to alter their behaviors, which (again) has made the German quest to cut GHGs more difficult.
Europe’s broken carbon market and today’s new oil reality are important trends to help understand why Germany is so far away from that 40 percent target, but the elephant in the room here is nuclear power. As part of Germany’s clean energy transition—its energiewende—nuclear power was phased out, a process hastened following the 2011 Fukushima disaster. Some environmentalists will have told themselves that the zero-emissions power produced by these nuclear reactors was replaced by Germany’s surging renewables sector, but wind and solar produce a much more intermittent type of power, unlike reliable nuclear workhorses. The perverse result is that even as Germany has lauded the “greening” of some parts of its energy mix, it’s had to increase its reliance on lignite coal—just about the brownest energy source around—to compensate for its shuttered nuclear fleet.
That’s the big “what if” of the energiewende: what would have happened if Germany had combined its lust for renewables with an level-headed, evidence-based approach to nuclear power? Undoubtedly Berlin would be well on its way to that 40 percent target. What Germany has accomplished in changing its energy mix is in many ways remarkable, but the fact that it’s going to miss its target by such a wide margin feels like a defeat, and it’s very much a self-imposed one.