Updated: Mar 4, 2022
The war in Ukraine has removed the smokescreen from Germany’s climate policy. It’s time for a rethink.
It appears the much-lauded Energiewende [“energy turnaround”] in Germany has brought a triple crisis. First, after closing perfectly-functioning nuclear power plants, we now have a crippling dependency on fossil fuels. More than half the nation’s natural gas and hard coal comes from Russia. By phasing out zero-carbon nuclear rather than carbon-heavy coal plants, Germany has massively contributed to the looming climate crisis. The latest IPCC report offers more unsettling proof of this.
Then, while heavily-subsidised renewables have expanded, the energy system has become more expensive. It’s no accident that we in Germany pay the highest prices for electricity in all of Europe. Meanwhile, natural gas has been promoted as a cheap “bridging technology.” Yet, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has now driven up natural gas prices dramatically. Throughout colder and lower-income regions of the European continent, people will need to pay more to heat their homes. Higher energy bills hit the poor the hardest.
That brings us to the third crisis. Our preferences in energy policy have become a threat to European security. Germans must evaluate their past mistakes and move towards a resilient climate and energy policy that serves both the country and all of Europe.
"Germans must move towards a resilient climate and energy policy that serves both the country and all of Europe."
How did we get here? The first energy crisis in the 1970s made it clear that European countries needed to become more energy resilient and independent. As a side effect, in retrospect, the rapid expansion of nuclear energy in Europe contributed to the fastest reduction in carbon emissions, against which today’s climate efforts pale.
In Germany, nuclear power was considered a tool to combat climate change as early as 1979, well before the international community took note. Political opponents Helmut Schmidt and Franz-Josef Strauß agreed early on that global warming would be a problem for generations to come and that nuclear energy was one of the solutions.
However, Germany opted for a different path. Its coal became important and the expansion of nuclear energy stalled. Then, around 2000, Germany began to pursue a new energy transition agenda, promoting renewables. The main goal of the so-called Energiewende was to phase out nuclear energy. Limiting global warming was of less importance.
With awareness of climate change increasing, the phase-out of fossil fuels arrived on the agenda – at last. Yet, it was said that “we cannot simultaneously quit nuclear energy and coal-based power generation,” as then minister Sigmar Gabriel shamelessly wrote in a letter to Sweden’s Prime Minister in 2014, asking him to continue investing in opencast mining in Germany. Apparently, even when the world needed zero-carbon energy more than ever, it was non-negotiable for the Germans to phase out nuclear rather than coal.
In recent years, thanks to extensive lobbying, natural gas has gained popularity as a partner to solar and wind. But now we hear that we cannot quit nuclear and natural gas at the same time. This became the policy of the new German coalition of Social Democrats, Greens and Liberals. An agreement was made for the construction of Nord Stream 2, another pipeline that would enable even more Russian gas to enter Germany.
All the while, pundits have warned that it’s foolish to make a modern society’s energy system dependent on two things that are hard to control: the weather, and the availability of a crucial energy source from Russia. Those pundits were largely ignored. Today, it turns out they were right.
Only the war stopped Nord Stream 2.
"It’s becoming clear that we need a realistic decarbonisation plan alongside a resilient and independent energy system."
While inability to stop the Russian invasion of Ukraine reveals the short-sightedness of German politics, the situation also represents an opportunity. It’s becoming clear that we need a realistic decarbonisation plan alongside a resilient and independent energy system.
It’s also clear that, after all, nuclear power has a role to play. Thankfully, halting and even reversing the Atomausstieg [“nuclear power phase-out”] is back on the table in political circles. We have to come to terms with reality: we cannot simultaneously achieve energy security and combat climate change without a significant amount of nuclear energy in our mix, along with wind and solar.
If we are serious about tackling climate change and making energy affordable, we must build on all low-carbon energy sources. Such a system would offer lower costs, higher resilience and greater energy security, while making us far less dependent on imported natural gas.
As technology historian Anna Veronika Wendland has written, “every running European nuclear power plant is a declaration of independence from the Russian despot and his fossilocracy.”
That brings us back to our central question: will we overcome this crisis without rehabilitating coal? Dare we cut off old habits and embark on a social and climate-friendly path that includes all low-carbon energy sources? If we don’t, our neighbours will have to solve these problems without Germany. Countries in other continents would even have to step in. But in that case, Germans should stop trying to impose their failed energy transition concept on other countries.
Amardeo Sarma is a Germany-based co-founder of RePlanet.
(Author photo: Evelin Frerk)