The German Green Party is flourishing and could form the next government after Chancellor Angela Merkel steps down in four months. The implications of a Green victory for German energy policy would be profound, if not quite revolutionary. “Mission Improbable” might be another way of describing it.
The Greens’ carbon-neutral energy vision is laudable, highly ambitious and likely unworkable: a fast phase-out of coal, later natural gas, and no revival of the German nuclear power industry, which Ms. Merkel sentenced to death after the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan in 2011.
To Russian President Vladimir Putin’s distress, the party also opposes the completion of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which would carry Russian gas across the Baltic Sea into Germany. You can be sure Russian hackers and propagandists will work overtime to undermine the German Greens ahead of the federal election on Sept. 26, but that’s another story.
The Greens see Germany, Europe’s biggest economy and top industrial power, as a renewable power juggernaut. It could certainly achieve that goal. But at what cost? And over what time frame?
Under Ms. Merkel, Germany’s centre-right coalition government has accelerated its planned emission cuts in a bid to regain the environmental initiative in a country where climate change ranks high among voters’ concerns. The government was rattled into action by two factors.
The first was the unrelenting rise of the Greens, led by Annalena Baerbock, 40, who has been a member of the Bundestag (German parliament) since 2013 and has a master’s degree in public international law from the London School of Economics.
She has been called a natural political animal who likes to build consensus and believes the Greens should move closer to the political mainstream to win support. Under her, the Greens have consistently polled north of 20 per cent, and a recent Forsa survey put them at 27 per cent – three points ahead of Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union. The German press is full of stories about the Greens’ possible post-election coalition partners.
The second was a constitutional court case ruling in late April that declared Germany’s emission reduction targets lacking in ambition. The case was launched by young environmental activists who argued that a failure to deal with the climate crisis quickly would jeopardize their freedom by pushing the clean-up burden onto the next generation – not OK, boomer.
The surging Greens and the court ruling pushed the government into action. The biggest change was making a legally binding commitment to reduce emissions by 65 per cent from 1990 levels by 2030. The previous target was 55 per cent. The draft law also brings the deadline to reach net-zero emissions forward by five years, to 2045.
The Greens, if elected, would up the ante. The biggie would be killing off the coal industry by 2030 instead of 2038. That won’t be easy to do in a mere nine years. According to the climate research group Ember, coal generated almost 24 per cent of Germany’s electricity in April (gas, wind, solar and nuclear accounted for the rest).
The Greens also want to raise the carbon tax to €60 ($88) a tonne by 2023, somewhat earlier than the latest commitment; introduce a 130-kilometre-per-hour speed limit on the autobahn to reduce fuel consumption (which would be like telling Americans they can’t own guns); and stop the sale of gasoline and diesel cars by 2030 instead of 2035.
And they have no plans to get back in the nuclear game, even though more than a few European countries, including the Netherlands, France, the U.K., Poland and Romania are considering building new reactors to help them meet their net-zero goals. Nuclear plants generate about 10 per cent of Germany’s electricity, down from a quarter before Fukushima.
The German Greens grew out of the environmental and anti-nuke movement of the 1970s and 1980s. They are more likely to order a non-alcoholic Oktoberfest than a new nuclear program.
Some energy market watchers think Germany could achieve the Greens’ goals even if coal is phased out quickly and the Nord Stream 2 pipeline is stopped in its tracks. But even the believers know it won’t be easy. “They would need a very ambitious rollout of renewables,” said Pieter de Pous, the senior coal policy adviser at E3G, a European climate change think tank.
The costs could be eye-popping. Decarbonizing the power sector doesn’t just mean getting rid of coal burners. The charging demands of millions of battery-powered cars might require a Herculean renewable power effort. Hydrogen of the green variety (made from renewable power) might have to be added to the mix. Smart grids would have to be built to handle the erratic supply of solar and wind power. Breakthroughs would be needed in battery storage technology.
If any country can get there, it’s Germany, a wealthy country with world-class engineering talent. But the incredibly short energy transition time frames likely to be imposed by the Greens, if they form the next government, are daunting. Failure is a distinct possibility, and the whole world will be watching.
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