Fields blanketed with solar panels and hills sprinkled with wind turbines are nowadays as much a German staple as beer and sauerkraut. That’s because Germany is deservedly famous for its green ambitions, expressed in the term Energiewende, which could mean “energy transition” or “energy revolution.” How embarrassing, then, that Germany already exceeded — in March! — its full-year quota for carbon dioxide emissions of 217 million tons. At this rate, 2018 could be the year Germany’s energy reputation turns from green to black.
So commentators, inside and outside the country, are lining up to dismiss the Energiewende as a flop. Worse, they argue, Germany is being hypocritical. Even as it poses as the planet’s knight in green armor, it has not even set a target date by which it will phase out coal-fired power plants, and especially those running on lignite, the dirtiest form. The country appears to have no hope of meeting EU goals to eliminate emissions. If there is a saviour in Europe, the choir chants, it is now Emmanuel Macron of France, who has replaced Chancellor Angela Merkel as the continent’s energy revolutionary.
These critics are off the mark. Yes, Germany has so far failed in honoring its commitment to the EU’s short-term climate targets. And no, that does not mean the country has strayed from the EU’s climate agenda or its own.
On days when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine, fossil fuels must still pick up the slack.
Since 2000, when the first version of the so-called Renewable Energy Law was passed, Germany has made policy with a goal of cutting emissions. Legislators focused first on electricity generation, aware that cleaning up emissions from running vehicles and warming houses would be harder and take longer. And in the electricity sector, Germany has made huge progress: A third of the country’s power now comes from renewable sources such as the wind and the sun.
Moreover, even Germany’s remaining coal lobbies by now understand that the country has journeyed too far to turn back. Last year, 37 percent of the country’s power generation still came from coal. But coal power will end, the only question is when. The reason that Germany has not yet set a fixed date for the phase-out is not a lack of commitment. Instead, it is a pragmatic sense of responsibility that the inevitable phase-out must not cause economic shocks or disrupt power supply.
Another reason why Germany has not phased out coal faster in fact deserves credit: Germany decided to turn off its nuclear power plants first. These do not emit carbon dioxide, but they are dangerous in other ways, as the disaster at Fukushima reminded Germans. It was after those three Japanese reactors melted down that Chancellor Angela Merkel, a trained physicist, made her policy U-turn and declared that the last nuclear plant in Germany would go offline in 2022.
Germany has fallen short of its emission targets in part because those targets were ambitious to begin with.
More than half of the 17 existing plants are already off, and only 11.7 percent of power generation was nuclear last year. Much of that missing nuclear electricity is now provided by renewables. But on days when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine, fossil fuels must still pick up the slack. And coal is currently cheaper in Germany than gas.
German policymakers do deserve criticism when it comes to energy used to move traffic. This car-mad nation has too long coddled its leading industry, by being uncharacteristically lax in enforcing emissions standards. The motivation is obvious: Companies that make cars or car parts are huge employers. And they are already in crisis because of their disastrous bets in recent decades on diesel fuel. Diesel emits fewer greenhouse gases than does gasoline. But Diesel pumps out nitrogen oxides, which also harm human beings. Since VW was discovered to have cheated on emission tests, a cloud hangs over the whole sector.
Overall, however, it is far too early to declare Germany’s Energiewende a failure. Germany has fallen short of its emission targets in part because those targets were so ambitious to begin with. The setbacks prove that progress necessarily comes in fits and starts in a complex country and economy. A massive transformation of the energy and transportation sectors requires patience, compromise and planning. And that is what Germans take pride in.
But it might also be time for Germany to relinquish its claim to green leadership. After decades of hard work that proved the energy sector can be greener, if not green, the country has provided an indispensable model for other countries to follow. If the rest of the world made only half Germany’s effort, the future for our planet would look less bleak. So Germany, don’t give up. And also: Thank you.
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Correction: An earlier version of this article said that “for a few hours on January 1, 100 percent of the electricity used in Germany came from green sources, a milestone.” This was an error because it implied that at this time no coal- or gas-fired power plants were running, although they were.