It sounds like an upside-down world, but it just happened in Germany. One of the country's largest electric utilities, RWE, has begun dismantling a small wind farm to make room for the expansion of the neighboring Garzweiler coal mine. The gigantic 48-square-kilometer operation takes its name from the village that once existed there, one of a dozen that the mine has swallowed up in its successive expansions. The decision, which the company itself describes as "paradoxical", is an excellent symbol of the dilemma that plagues Germany. The country is torn between its desire to decarbonize and the need to secure its supply in the midst of an energy crisis.
The war in Ukraine, the cut-off of Russian gas supplies to Germany and skyrocketing energy prices on the international market have forced the country to make painful decisions. Perhaps the most inconceivable was the return to coal. The government of the Social Democrats, Greens and Liberals has approved the restarting of retired power plants that had stopped burning brown coal, the most abundant in the Rhine and Ruhr mining regions in the west, and Saxony, almost on the border with Poland. The result is that, on many days, more than half of the electricity consumed in the country is produced with coal.
In the midst of a climate emergency, it is surprising that a country like Germany, once a model in the energy transition, is emitting so many greenhouse gases. Even more so with the Greens in the government coalition. Environmental organizations and quite a few experts are warning that the environmental targets are in jeopardy and that only a rapid expansion of renewable energies will enable them to be met. The most optimistic predict that the energy crisis will help to accelerate the transition to a green economy.
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the latest data are not encouraging. After emissions plummeted in 2020, coinciding with the pandemic and the fall in industrial production, they rose again in 2021, by 4.5%. The largest increase was in the energy sector. A lot of coal was burned to produce electricity and a shortage of wind made it difficult for wind to contribute to the share of renewables. Germany has reduced its emissions by 38.7% since 1990, according to data from the Ministry of Economics and Climate. So the country is not meeting its targets, which were 40% by 2020.
"In recent years the energy transition has been slowed down or even blocked by the German government. That's why we are so dependent on fossil fuels," says Juliane Dickel, head of energy and nuclear policy at the environmental organization BUND, referring to the 16 years in power of the Christian Democrat Angela Merkel, who sometimes governed with the liberal FDP and sometimes with the Social Democrats. Dickel sees only one solution to the energy predicament: rapidly expanding renewable energies. But, he adds, other measures would help: "There are many possibilities for savings: in mobility, such as imposing a speed limit on freeways, in agriculture, in construction and in industry".
Germany has set itself the target of becoming climate neutral - emitting the greenhouse gases it can absorb - by 2045, five years earlier than the European Union as a whole. Its intermediate targets include a 65% reduction in emissions (compared to 1990 levels) by 2030, and 88% by 2040. The country passed its first climate law in 2019 and had to reform it in 2021 by order of the Constitutional Court. The magistrates ruled that the Executive had violated the rights of the next generations by placing the future responsibility for cutting greenhouse gas emissions on their shoulders, while current efforts are only moderate.
25 months to approve a wind
farmShortly after taking office last December, the coalition government announced its intention to accelerate renewables after years of slow growth and the refusal of some regions, such as Bavaria, to install wind farms. One of the measures is to earmark 2% of the country's land area for wind turbines; bureaucracy has also been reduced and obstacles have been removed by easing nature protection laws. But this is easier said than done. The new regulations have not yet translated into a significant increase in installed capacity, warns the wind energy employers' association, which provides a worrying statistic: it still takes an average of 25 months to approve a project.
"Renewable energies must be rolled out at high speed," says Dominik Möst, an energy economist at the University of Dresden. In his opinion, the energy transition is not in jeopardy. However, we have to be aware that carbon emissions will increase in the short term in Germany. The country had hoped to be able to use cheap Russian gas as a bridge technology to a green economy, but the war in Ukraine has put paid to that calculation. How long this episode of returning to coal burning will last depends, therefore, on the pace at which new solar and, above all, onshore and offshore wind power is built.
The German Greens have been trying to bring forward the phase-out of coal to 2030 and not wait until 2038, the year set by former Chancellor Angela Merkel. But so far they have achieved only partial victories. One of the 16 federal states, North Rhine-Westphalia, the cradle of mining and heavy industry, will stop coal-fired power generation by 2030 at the latest, the government and RWE announced a few days ago. In exchange, two lignite-fired power plants that were due to close this year will continue to operate until 2024. The Minister of Economics and Climate, the Green Robert Habeck, often repeats that the energy crisis must not cause us to lose sight of the future. "It is bitter, but necessary," he said when he announced the reopening of coal-fired power plants.
Germany should commission new renewable capacity three times faster than it has been doing so far, reckons Dirk Messner, president of the German Environmental Agency (UBA). Only then will it be able to reach 2030 with 80% clean energy in the electricity mix, as proposed. "In recent years, efforts to expand renewables in Germany have not been as successful as they should be," he acknowledges in an email. However, he believes that the goals of the new government - the coalition led by Olaf Scholz has not yet been in power for a year - "are ambitious" and he does not think they will be affected by the war. On the contrary: "In the end, the expansion of renewables may even accelerate due to the Russian war of aggression."