Berlin’s grand green energy transition is falling short of the lofty targets that inspired it. Earlier this month, the think tank Agora Energiewende released a report that projected Germany would fall well short of its goal to cut greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions—far shorter than was previously believed. Berlin had committed to cutting 40 percent of its GHG emissions by 2020 as compared to 1990 levels, but as that year looms large, the country has achieved a reduction of “just” 28 percent (a remarkable decrease, though nowhere close to the target), and it’s expected to only shave off another 2 or 3 percent over the next few years. Now, a new study from the BEE renewable energy group suggests that the country is going to fall short of its Brussels-set target of sourcing 18 percent of its energy production from renewables by 2020.
According to BEE, Germany’s green energy will amass “just” 16 percent (again, this is by itself a remarkable number, but it’s still off the targeted pace) of the country’s energy consumption by 2020, short of the 16.7 percent level that was previously forecasted, and shorter still of the 18 percent goal. BEE seems to lay the blame at the feet of “increased consumption in the heating, transport and electricity sector,” but that doesn’t tell the full story.
The only way Germany has been able to jumpstart its wind and solar power sectors so effectively has been through the use of feed-in tariffs—a form of government subsidization, in which Germany guarantees renewable power producers locked in, long-term, above-market rates for their supplies. These feed-in tariffs were wildly effective, but they were also costly, and they were ultimately paid by consumers in the form of a line item green surcharge on power bills that ended up making German electricity some of the most costly in Europe.
Expensive power is harmful for households and businesses alike, and its effects are most keenly felt by the poor, for whom the power bill represents a larger slice of the monthly budget. Acknowledging the problem of the country’s runaway power prices, the German government moved to rein in feed-in tariffs and replace them with a system of auctions for new renewables projects, hoping that competition might help bring costs down. (This auction system has been utilized to less than stellar effect in India, where in their race to underbid one another companies have ended up locked into rates for solar power below what’s needed to turn a profit.)
Since Berlin’s green success so far has been built on government subsidization, it makes sense that a move away from generous subsidies would be accompanied by a drop in projected renewable energy growth. Similarly, it makes sense that Germany’s emissions reductions are off the pace when you consider that the country is shuttering a fleet of zero emissions nuclear reactors, and having to up its consumption of über-dirty lignite coal as a result.
So how should we assess Germany’s green progress, then? On the one hand, the country is undoubtedly a global leader in renewable energy production, though it’s paying through the nose for that distinction. On the other, its perverse aversion to climate friendly nuclear power is undercutting those same climate goals that its fixation on renewables is meant to work towards. By pursuing such extreme energy policies, Berlin has given the rest of the world a chance to learn from its achievements and mistakes alike. And, when Germany misses its major milestones in 2020, hopefully Berlin will look critically at its energiewende and try to learn, as well.