Energy Policy

Coalition Debate Slams Into Climate Goals

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Riot police running to keep climate protesters from a coal excavator last week as energy dispute pits environmentalists against industry. Source: Reuters

It’s hard to find a compromise on energy when the country has painted itself into a corner. As they try to form a new coalition government, Germany’s political parties are coming up against the hard fact that they can’t get everything they want in energy policy.

Politicians have ambitious targets for reducing carbon emissions, but they have ruled out nuclear power as an alternative as well as importing electricity. They want to shut coal-fired plants, but renewable sources of energy are far from providing the baseload generation to guarantee growth and prosperity – especially in a country that wants to go all-electric and get rid of combustion motors in vehicles.

For the moment, the potential coalition partners cannot even agree how big the gap is they have to bridge to reach emission targets, let alone how many coal-fired power plants have to be closed to achieve that goal. The differences are so wide that energy policy is turning into the biggest stumbling block to forming a new government.

Moreover, the disparity between what Germany has been preaching in terms of climate protection and what it is actually doing is drawing international attention. It is turning out to be an unfortunate coincidence for Germany that this heated coalition controversy is taking place at the same time as the UN energy summit in Bonn, drawing hundreds of foreign journalists to take a closer look at Germany’s energy record.

“We need a fact-based foundation for dialogue.”

Georg Nusslein, deputy leader, CDU/CSU parliamentary group

Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative alliance CDU/CSU and the pro-business Free Democrats estimate the gap to reach Germany’s 2020 goals on reducing carbon emissions is between 32 million and 66 million tons of carbon dioxide. They recommend cutting that gap in half by reducing coal-fired production by three to five gigawatts by shutting down up to 10 power plants. They feel that is the maximum that can be shut down while still guaranteeing sufficient supply. The rest of the gap would be bridged by energy savings, especially replacing inefficient heating in older buildings.

The Greens environmental party, which the other two need in a coalition, puts the gap much higher – at 90 million to 120 million tons, equivalent to eight to ten gigawatts of production. They are calling for a shutdown of 20 coal-fired plants. They also want all coal plants shut down by 2030. The Greens have already compromised by giving up their insistence on fixed dates to eliminate combustion engines in cars.

The Greens are also open to getting the plants shut down by setting a carbon emissions budget, instead of a fixed date. Once the limit is reached, the plant has to be shut down. That idea was backed by a recent expert opinion commissioned by green-leaning think tank Agora Energiewende, which found that a plant can be deemed sufficiently amortized after 25 years. But conservatives argue the findings have no legal basis, and warn that forcing utilities to shut down power plants poses legal problems.

Preliminary talks between the coalition partners are due to end this week, identifying the points that need to be debated and settled in a platform for the new government. “We need a fact-based foundation for dialogue,” Georg Nusslein, a deputy leader for the CDU/CSU in parliament, told Handelsblatt. Similarly, Armin Laschet, prime minister in a CDU-FDP coalition government in North Rhine-Westphalia, called for “objectivity” and a “professional attitude” in discussing how Germany can juggle getting out of nuclear power, reducing carbon emissions and remaining a successful industrial country.

These could well be viewed as calls on the Greens to compromise further. When the conservative bloc offered to shut down 10 coal plants immediately and then give tax breaks to industry to encourage greater energy efficiency, Greens party leader Simone Peter said that type of compromise was insufficient, insisting instead on shutting down 20 plants by 2020.

This failure to meet its emission goals will not only harm the climate but also Germany’s international role.

The intense coalition debate on energy policy is critical for domestic politics, but it also has repercussions for Germany’s global standing. The world press is taking notice of Germany’s failure to keep to its climate targets.

Foreign Policy, an influential publication on international affairs, went furthest in an opinion piece this week entitled “Germany Is a Coal-Burning, Gas-Guzzling Climate Change Hypocrite.” Writer Paul Hockenos noted that Germany’s carbon emissions have not declined in nearly a decade and actually increased last year and may increase again this year. The magazine cited Agora director Patrick Graichen to the effect that this failure to meet its emission goals will not only harm the climate but also Germany’s international influence.

A front-page story in The Washington Post this week reported how one historic village, Immerath, was being literally obliterated to make way for a new Garzweiler open pit mine for brown coal, the dirtiest coal used in power generation. The Post noted that “despite the country’s green rhetoric, coal mines are rapidly expanding.”

It is probably no coincidence that North Rhine-Westphalia’s Mr. Laschet is the CDU/CSU’s lead negotiator on energy and that the new open-pit coal mine wiping out Immerath is located in his state.

Klaus Stratmann covers energy policy and politics for Handelsblatt in Berlin. Darrell Delamaide is a writer and editor for Handelsblatt Global based in Washington, DC. To contact the authors: stratmann@handelsblatt.com and d.delamaide@extern.handelsblatt.com.

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