When climate policy becomes ‘a cover for colonialism’
Recently, Greta Thunberg protested the construction of a wind farm on indigenous land in Norway that would provide electricity to the German city of Munich. Adam Błażowski, chair of RePlanet’s Supervisory Board, explains why she is right, and suggests where the Germans should look for better solutions to their energy needs.
Photo: Climate strike in Sápmi, an area in Northern Europe where the Sami people traditionally lived.
Sitting by the door of the Norwegian Ministry of Energy, Greta Thunberg said that ‘we can’t use the so-called climate transition as a cover for colonialism’. These are strong words, and in my opinion, they are completely justified.
Her protest was aimed at the continued operation of the large Roan onshore wind farm in Fosen, Norway. A court found that this project violates the rights of the local Sami community. The Sami are a people that once led a nomadic lifestyle and are still engaged in reindeer husbandry grazing in the area. For a long time, they have objected to the construction of wind farms on the land they have traditionally used for their animals.
Greta is right in calling this ‘a cover for colonialism’ because the wind farm on Sami land is largely owned by the Bavarian municipal company SWM, based in Munich, the region’s capital. The electricity from this wind farm is supposed to power the third largest city in Germany.
For a long time, the Sami people have objected to the construction of wind farms on the land they have traditionally used for their animals
Once, Munich was the first German city to announce plans to move to 100 per cent renewable energy. Yet, while Bavaria has fairly good conditions for solar energy, it doesn’t have very good conditions for wind energy. The densely populated area of Bavaria faces restrictions that prohibit wind turbines from being installed close to buildings. And so, the renewable energy must come from somewhere else.
Unfortunately, Germany already has a huge problem supplying electricity from the rural north to the industrialised south. After all, the reconstruction of power grids is hugely complicated. The challenges have resulted in energy ‘loop flows’ through Poland and the Czech Republic before returning to Germany from the south. For the people in Germany, this is hugely expensive. For the people in Poland and the Czech Republic, this limits their ability to control their own grids. This is why most of Germany’s neighbours have built so-called phase shifters, powerful transformers which allow unwanted electricity to be ‘pushed back’ when needed.
As there’s little room for more wind power in Bavaria, Munich city officials have come up with an idea to buy shares in wind farms abroad. But only in theory will the green energy produced there power Munich. The distances are so great and the grid constraints are so significant that it is difficult to speak of this being ‘electricity for Munich’.
Had Germany's original goal been to achieve ‘low-carbon energy’, rather than only ‘renewable energy’, the whole fuss in Norway would probably not have happened at all
What are we to make of this? The adjective ‘renewable’ in the original plans for Germany’s energy future is key here. Had the original goal been to achieve ‘low-carbon energy’, the whole fuss in Norway would probably not have happened at all.
Rather, if keeping emissions low was of any interest to the Germans, they would have noticed Munich had been doing pretty well. After all, at a one-hour drive from Munich, the Isar nuclear power plant has been producing low-carbon electricity since the late 1970s. With reasonable upgrades, it could do that for decades into the future.
As a result of Germany’s misguided energy policy, one reactor has already closed in 2011. Soon, on 15 April, the second reactor is destined to be closed prematurely and permanently shut down. It will mark the end of nuclear power in Germany.
Each time a nuclear reactor closes, the loss of low-carbon energy is immense
Each time a nuclear reactor closes, the loss of low-carbon energy is immense. In 2021, just six nuclear reactors in Germany produced more energy than all German PV solar installations combined. Especially now that Europeans need every kilowatt of clean energy they can get, it’s hard to imagine Germany sticking with its nuclear phase-out.
It’s because of the country’s Energiewende (energy transition), which pushed nuclear out in favour of renewables, that Munich officials came up with buying a wind farm abroad. Finding a place on Sami land is what Greta Thunberg mercilessly and rightly labels energy ‘colonialism’.
Things would have been radically different had Germany opted to fight fossil fuels rather than nuclear. Had the Germans really been worried about climate change, they would not have single-mindedly focused on renewable energy, but on low-carbon energy which would include nuclear.
Especially now that Europeans need every kilowatt of clean energy they can get, it’s hard to imagine Germany sticking with its nuclear phase-out
It’s not too late to undo this travesty of energy policy in the name of climate action. SWN, the municipal energy company, could acquire a stake in the nearby Isar nuclear power plant. This plant alone can produce twice as much electricity annually from one reactor as the demand of the whole of Munich.
Such a decision would not be uncommon. Around the world, local municipalities and regional provinces have shares in nuclear power plants. This way, they meet their energy needs without burning natural gas and coal, reducing CO2 emissions significantly. If the plant owner makes a profit, the people living in the area will benefit.
We need renewable energy but we most of all need low-carbon energy. Shutting down a nuclear plant and then pretending to get green electricity from a wind farm, built illegally on indigenous land far away, is a huge mistake.
Adam Błażowski is the chair of RePlanet’s Supervisory Board and a co-founder of FOTA4Climate.