Climate Summit

Global coal pledge puts Merkel on the spot – again

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It’s been a hard summit for the “climate chancellor.” Source: Reuters

When a group of more than 20 countries at the world climate summit agreed to stop using coal altogether by 2030, it not only marked a success for the summit but embarrassed host country Germany, which could not join in because of its reliance on coal for electricity. Not just coal, but brown coal, the dirtiest kind.

The UN climate change conference in Bonn has more than once put Germany on the spot for failing to live up to its own ambitious climate targets. Europe’s biggest economy will miss by a wide margin its goal of reducing carbon emissions by 40 percent from 1990 levels by 2020. This disparity between Germany’s rhetoric on climate change and actual performance has emerged as potential coalition partners for a new government heatedly debate energy policy.

The Powering Past Coal Alliance announced Thursday was led by Britain and Canada. Some 20 countries – including France, Italy and Mexico – signed on, as well as the US states of Washington and Oregon and five Canadian provinces.

“The market has moved, the world has moved. Coal is not coming back.”

Catherine McKenna, environment minister, Canada

“To meet the Paris Agreement target of staying below 2 degrees, we need to phase out coal,” Canada’s environment minister, Catherine McKenna, said at a news conference launching the initiative. “There is also an immediate urgency – coal is literally choking and killing our people. The market has moved, the world has moved. Coal is not coming back,” she said. The alliance hopes to have 50 countries signed up by the summit next year.

The initiative came a day after German Chancellor Angela Merkel disappointed the conference by ducking the question of how she intended to reconcile the country’s reliance on coal with its own emissions targets. It was these ambitious targets, after all, that made Germany a role model for climate activists and cast Ms. Merkel as the “climate chancellor.” The new initiative also came after a US government presentation drew jeers for pitching the continued importance of coal.

The fact is that whatever coal lobby-inspired rhetoric comes from the Trump administration, the US has been actively phasing out coal for years, due to a combination of market forces and government regulations on emissions. The US Energy Information Administration reported earlier this week that carbon emissions from coal-fired plants fell a record 15 percent in 2015, as 10 states recorded a 60 percent decrease in the year.

Most coal-fired plants were built before 1990 and will soon be reaching the end of their active life. US utilities have been switching almost exclusively to natural gas in building new power plants, taking advantage of the much cleaner fuel that is also much cheaper with production from hydraulic fracturing. That EIA report said that carbon emissions from natural gas were up 20 percent, a gain of 43 million metric tons – a fraction of the 231 million tons reduction from coal plants.

If Germany wants to play an international role in climate protection, then the new government must set out a concrete plan for phasing out coal.

In Bonn, Christoph Bals, policy director at Germanwatch, was among the environmentalists disappointed by Ms. Merkel’s equivocation. If Germany wants to play an international role in climate protection, then the new government must set out a concrete plan for phasing out coal, he warned.

But the political parties seeking to form a new government in the wake of September’s election are having a lot of trouble agreeing on coal or energy policy in general. Unlike the signatories to the anti-coal alliance, many of whom now generate less than 10 percent of electricity with coal, Germany still gets 40 percent from coal. Berlin faces the challenge of balancing any phase out of coal with the need to ensure adequate power supplies as well as finding a new home for the more than 20,000 workers still linked to brown coal.

In addition, natural gas prices in Europe are considerably higher than in the US, which makes the switch out of coal problematic. Germany’s Federal Network Agency forecasts that gas-fired generation will remain virtually unchanged at about 30 gigawatts by 2030, while brown coal generation will decline to 11.5 gigawatts from 21.1 in 2015 and hard coal to 21.7 from 28.6. In the meantime, nuclear power, which supplied 10.8 gigawatts in 2015, is being phased out entirely in the aftermath of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan.

Some of the slack will be taken up by energy savings, but renewable sources – solar, wind, biomass, hydro – which now supply about 30 percent of electricity generation, will have to make up the difference plus accommodate growth. Moreover, these renewable sources, particularly wind, are located mostly in the north of the country while the greatest industrial use is the south. It would require massive additions to the grid to deliver the power where it is needed.

It is against this backdrop that politicians are debating just what goals the new government can target. The debate now turns on insistence by the Greens environmental party that 20 older coal-fired plants be shut down in the next few years, either by setting a date or capping emissions. Energy policy is becoming one of the biggest obstacles to agreeing on a coalition platform between Ms. Merkel’s conservative alliance CDU/CSU, the pro-business Free Democrats, and the Greens.

It appears in retrospect that the goals set in Germany’s famous Energiewende in 2010 were overly ambitious. Ms. Merkel’s decision in the backlash to the Fukushima nuclear accident to immediately phase out nuclear power as a bridging source exacerbated the problem. But some critics now maintain that shutting down 20 coal plants as demanded by the Greens would be equally mistaken.

Some pro-business groups have argued the government should discard unrealistic national targets on emissions, which go beyond what Germany is actually required to do under the Paris accord. German power plants also already fall under the targets of the European Trading Scheme for carbon emissions. Rather than setting a deadline to shutter plants, conservatives have suggested further incentives to reduce carbon that could rely on pragmatic measures like a uniform carbon tax across all economic sectors.

Germany has arguably reaped little practical benefit from being a global role model on renewable energy and won’t be able to maintain it without continued economic success. Next year’s climate summit will be held in Katowice, Poland. Germany may want to wait some time before it hosts another.

Handelsblatt reporter Silke Kersting is covering the climate summit in Bonn. Darrell Delamaide, a writer and editor for Handelsblatt Global based in Washington, DC, adapted the article to English. To contact the authors: kersting@handelsblatt.com and d.delamaide@extern.handelsblatt.com.

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