Germany Is a Coal-Burning, Gas-Guzzling Climate Change Hypocrite
Angela Merkel hasn’t come close to earning her reputation for leadership on climate change.
The latest round of the United Nations Climate Change Conference, which runs from Nov. 6 to 17, is loaded with symbolism. The conference is being chaired by island nation of Fiji, which is severely affected by rising seas and desertification caused by climate change. The location of the meeting in Bonn, Germany, meanwhile, was intended to underscore the cooperation between those responsible for global warming and those in the path of its destruction. Of all the cities of the industrial world, Bonn was selected not just because it is the seat of the U.N. Climate Change Secretariat, but also because it is in Germany, the industrial giant that has an international reputation as a pioneer and righteous leader in climate protection.
Just this summer, German Chancellor Angela Merkel read U.S. President Donald Trump the riot act for pulling out of the Paris climate accord, chiding the United States for ignoring and perpetuating climate change. For years, Germany’s Energiewende, or renewable energy transition, was held up as a best practice for other nations to follow. After all, in just 15 years Europe’s biggest economy turned a third of its electricity generation green by subsidizing investments in solar energy and wind power. In doing so, it added 300,000 jobs to the economy. Even while it was in the process of phasing out nuclear power, Germany managed the transition while its factories hummed along, the economy posting record growth and trade surpluses. In the late aughts, Merkel was dubbed “the climate chancellor” for her engagement on behalf of the climate.
Yet Germany’s image as selfless defender of the climate, which was once largely deserved, is now a transparent fiction. Germany has fallen badly behind on its pledges to sink its own greenhouse gas pollutants. In fact, Germany’s carbon emissions haven’t declined for nearly a decade and the German Environment Agency calculated that Germany emitted 906 million tons of CO2 in 2016 — the highest in Europe — compared to 902 million in 2015. And 2017’s interim numbers suggest emissions are going to tick up again this year.
Germany is now in serious danger of hitting neither its 2020 nor its 2030 emissions targets, the very benchmarks that it browbeat other nations into adopting at previous climate conferences. Leading German think tanks agree that Germany can’t, at its current rate, slash emissions enough in the next two years to reduce its carbon output by 40 percent (compared to its 1990 levels) or 55 percent by 2030. The Berlin-based think tank Agora Energiewende calculates that Germany has thus far brought its emissions down by only about 30 percent since 1990, much of the reduction coming after unification, when eastern Germany’s industrial economy collapsed. “Only 30 percent instead of 40 percent less CO2 is not a little off the mark, but rather this would constitute a blatant failure,” said Patrick Graichen, director of Agora Energiewende, referring to the 2020 target. “Failure to reach the 2020 climate change goals impacts not only the climate, but also Germany’s international role, which all governments since [the 1982 to 1998 chancellor] Helmut Kohl have worked toward for years.”
If Germany falls short in 2020, experts say, then the much more ambitious 2030 reductions will almost surely be out of reach, to say nothing of Berlin’s stated goal of cutting emissions by 95 percent by 2050.
Germany’s hypocrisy is ultimately a failure of its political leadership. Merkel’s recent term in office, explained R. Andreas Kraemer of the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies in Potsdam, was a triumph, he said, for the fossil fuel lobby. Most egregiously, he said, Germany slapped a tax on self-generated solar power that is used in private homes and offices. “The rate of installation of wind and solar power was slowed by government fiat and in violation of market forces,” Kraemer said.
But the biggest problems are ones that German politicians have allowed to linger for years, if not decades: Germany’s prodigious coal production for coal-fired power plants, on the one hand, and its sheltered automobile industry on the other.
Germany is Europe’s largest producer and burner of coal, which accounted for 40.3 percent of net power production in 2017: 15.5 percent from hard coal and 24.8 percent from lignite, also known as brown coal, among the dirtiest of fossil fuels, which Germany mines more of than any other country in the world. Germany’s electricity sector itself is responsible for more than a third of the country’s CO2 emissions. Even more damning: Germany is still digging new open-cast mine pits — as well as subsidizing the industry as a whole, although it has promised to phase out coal in the indefinite future (hard coal use will end in 2018). Among Europe’s power plants, Germany’s brown coal stations constitute six out of 10 of the worst polluters. The lignite power plants, which run 24/7 year-in, year-out, produce so much power that German utilities sell the surplus abroad.
The reason behind Germany’s commitment to coal is not primarily, as the coal lobby claims, to shoulder the burden left by the nuclear reactors coming offline, or to provide backup for the renewables at times when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow. Experts say that all of the country’s coal plants could be shut down by 2030 — and German industry wouldn’t feel the pinch. But rather it’s all about the lignite-mining jobs (about 20,000 in total) in the economically hard-hit regions of western Rhineland and eastern Lusatia, which are Social Democratic Party of Germany strongholds, and the powerful clout of the mining and energy lobbies, not least Germany’s third-biggest union: IG Bergbau, Chemie, Energie.
This is why only one political party — the Greens — addressed Germany’s coal industry and climate change in the recent election campaign. It said that the 20 dirtiest coal plants could be shuttered at once. None of the other parties even had climate protection among their top 10 priorities. The Social Democratic candidate Martin Schulz barely mentioned it on the campaign trail. There are voices in the Social Democratic Party, the Left, and the liberal Free Democratic Party that are for calling off the 2020 target of a 40 percent CO2 reduction in order to protect the coal industry.
Meanwhile, other countries are doing what Germany won’t. Seven European Union countries already burn not a nugget of coal, while France, Great Britain, and Finland plan to end coal generation in 10 to 15 years.
The second bugbear is Germany’s transportation sector, which is largely but not exclusively dominated by its storied automobile industry. German car companies long received special treatment by the federal government, ranging from tax benefits and premiums for the disposal of old cars to millions in direct payments for research and development. This is one reason why the transport sector’s carbon footprint has grown continuously since 1990. The culprits are foremost cars and trucks that run on oil-based fuels.
German automakers and parts suppliers are the economy’s largest industrial sector, underwriting over 800,000 jobs in Germany. With an annual turnover of $464 billion — around 20 percent of total German industry revenue — most Germans probably condone some degree of government protection for the industry. But recently this patience has been sorely tested, as it’s become clear that the auto industry isn’t just neglecting the environment, but also its own consumers: two years ago, German automakers were caught red-handed by U.S. authorities cheating on carbon emissions tests, a scandal dubbed “Dieselgate.” Then, this year, German media busted the biggest automakers for operating a cartel since the 1990s; Audi, BMW, Daimler, Volkswagen, and Porsche colluded to limit the development of technology, including emissions control, in order to stifle competition. A U.S. lawsuit accuses them of fixing prices “premised on superior German engineering, while secretly stunting incentives to innovate.”
But Germany’s automakers remain undeterred. Just this week, in fact on the third day of the Bonn conference, information was leaked that scandal-riven Volkswagen as well as Germany’s outgoing foreign minister had lobbied hard for and won last-minute changes to soften the EU’s new CO2 emission standards for conventional cars. The current bill, inspired by Californian climate policy, foresees the European automobile industry cutting the CO2 emissions of its vehicles by 30 percent by 2030. Before the German intervention, violators of the limits would have faced stiff financial sanctions. Austria, Belgium, Ireland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal, Slovenia, and Sweden also wrote to the European Commission, urging it to take a tougher line on the automotive sector. But their pleas were ignored.
Germany’s shameful record over the last four years is largely attributable to the governing grand coalition: the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats pay plenty of lip service to environmental issues, but when push comes to shove they always battle for the interests of the coal and car industries. The presence of the Greens in a possible four-party coalition — the most likely next government, which is presently under negotiation — could reverse Germany’s backsliding. But the going is already tough: In the early stages of coalition talks, the Christian Democrats and liberal Free Democrats forced the Greens to back down from their demand to shut down all of Germany’s coal plants and phase out combustion-engine transportation by 2030. This ensures that Germany won’t be anywhere near the front of the class in combating climate change anytime soon – and that the country’s lingering reputation for environmental leadership will become increasingly tenuous.
Correction, Nov. 14, 2017: Coal accounted for 40.3 percent of German net power production in 2017: 15.5 percent from hard coal and 24.8 percent from lignite, also known as brown coal. An earlier version of this article provided incorrect numbers for German gross power production in 2016.