Energy politics

Keeping cool

Jörg-Rainer Zimmermann, 16 Feb 16
The ambitious goals of the Paris Agreement must now be followed up with actions. Renewables should play a key role in the process, as other ways of fighting climate change could prove dangerous.

Berlin: Sigmar Gabriel, who one day hopes to be chancellor, has once again been lambasted on a satirical TV show, this time for advocating the export of German coal power technology – shortly before the start of the 21st world climate summit. The message is clear enough: harmful emissions must be slashed at home, but there is nothing wrong with pumping CO2 into the atmosphere abroad if German companies stand to make a profit. Unsurprisingly, his stance made headlines and was derided on ZDF’s “Heute” show.

Paris: the world has spoken. On 12 December 2015, a climate change agreement was approved in the French capital by the international community after decades of wrangling. 196 delegations – 195 nations plus the European Union –succeeded in thrashing out a 32-page text containing binding targets to limit global warming to 2 C (ideally even 1.5 C) by the end of the century, after countless previous conferences had ended in failure. The new outcome, hailed as “historic”, is a clear signal heralding the demise of fossil fuels.

The nations of the world are now faced with an immense task: reversing the dizzying rise in carbon emissions brought about by the industrial age. Humanity must find a way to radically alter the course of the Earth’s climate – this time, in the opposite direction. The Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) announced in the run-up to the conference would still allow warming of 3 to 4 C. Angela Merkel summed up the situation in no uncertain terms at the start of the conference: “Today, heads of government from some 150 countries have the chance to look beyond all the controversies and differing interests, and to send a very clear joint message – a message that will determine the future of our planet...  We will be required, no more and no less, to undertake a far‑reaching decarbonisation of our economies in the course of the 21st century.” In other words, the economies of the world need a major overhaul. The stakes could not be any higher.

Paris unquestionably raised the level of awareness of the problem, say researchers such as Deputy Director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research Ottmar Edenhofer. “The document even states that the INDCs are nowhere near ambitious enough. It is refreshing to see so much clarity of thought in an internationally significant text like this.” Climate change deniers have been clearly marginalised by the agreement.

However, Edenhofer also makes it plain that the increased multilateral cooperation and reinforced climate commitments needed could turn out to be in short supply. “I am sceptical. The national targets are vaguely worded, and they suffer from two weaknesses. For one thing, they are not conditional. If one country fails to cooperate, how will the others react?” What is more, there is no comparability between national targets, while the conditions under which funding is to be allocated to poorer countries to help them fight climate change are unclear. This needs to be tackled as a matter of urgency from 2018, warned Edenhofer in the follow-up to the Paris conference during a podium discussion hosted by the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin.

A clear signal

Another criticism voiced by experts is the fact that the “decarbonisation” called for by Merkel at the G7 summit in Elmau is not explicitly mentioned in the agreement. Instead, the text simply says that CO2 emissions from fossil fuels must cease before the second half of this century. The document also refers to “greenhouse gas emissions neutrality”, a concept which relies on CO2 being absorbed by forests and oceans – even though this is associated with problems such as ocean acidification.

Meanwhile, renewables are mentioned only in passing: the preamble acknowledges the “need to promote universal access to sustainable energy in developing countries, in particular in Africa”. The logic is clear: if new power plants are to be built, then they should be clean ones. Consistent application of this principle could give the renewables sector a major boost, both in Germany and worldwide.  Uwe Leprich, deputy head of the Institute for Future Energy Systems (IZES) in Saarbrücken, is aware of the opportunities: “The lignite phase-out must be accelerated from as early as next year. The decommissioning of the first eight German coal plants, which are to function as a reserve, was essentially just a first step.” The signal from Paris is unmistakable: the German government’s target of reducing CO2 emissions by 20 percent in relation to 1990 levels by 2020 must be taken very seriously. However, this can only be done by stepping up the lignite phase-out. “If we can do away with lignite once and for all, this would open up new possibilities for the expansion of renewables. At least the expansion targets would be raised again,” says Leprich.

Wolfhart Dürrschmidt, a former ministerial counsellor in Germany’s environment ministry and co-author of the country’s Renewables Act (EEG) is also among those calling for greater expansion of renewables. “It is a logical and sensible moment for the world to move towards renewables, efficiency measures and energy conservation. The eyes of the world are on Germany. If the Energiewende is successful, this will have a hugely positive impact on transitions elsewhere.” However, according to Leprich, success is dependent on a crucial alteration to the current Renewables Act.

Criticism of the planned amendments to the Renewables Act (see page 14) has been mounting in the renewables sector for a long time, with ever broader segments of the economy adding their voices. A joint statement by the German Wind Energy Association (BWE) and IG Metall, for instance, recently claimed that the success enjoyed by wind energy should not be stifled by excessively strict capacity limits. Regional governments also have a duty in this regard, according to the North Rhine-Westphalia Renewables Association (LEE NRW). The targets adopted by the state’s regional government include generating a third of its electricity from renewables by 2025. To meet this target, the state needs to build around 20 percent of the total onshore wind capacity advertised for tender in Germany, explains LEE managing director Jan Dobertin. “When you consider that expansion has remained well below ten percent in recent years, and North Rhine-Westphalia is competing for a limited quota against other federal states which are equally intent on expanding wind power and have excellent potential to do so, it becomes clear that meeting the state targets with a Renewables Act like this is completely unrealistic,” says Dobertin.

However, the latest amendments to the Renewables Act – in which both the economics ministry and the chancellery are involved – have taken things in the opposite direction. The coalition spokespersons for energy policy are evasive when it comes to post-Paris strategy, ambitious carbon reduction targets or increased expansion of renewables. Even environment minister Barbara Hendricks, a social democrat like Sigmar Gabriel, has been forced to change her stance. In late November, she indicated that a coal phase-out by 2035 or 2040 was a possibility, a view similar to the one expounded by the Left Party. The Greens in the Bundestag called for a vote on the matter, but were defeated by the CDU/PSD coalition majority. Recently, Hendricks merely said that: “It is perfectly clear that we must stop relying on fossil fuels for energy by the middle of this century.” In other words, the government is giving the German lignite industry an additional 10 to 15 years to adapt its business models – a move which is likely to suit its plans, given that many of the country’s mining sites will be exhausted by that time in any event.

Nevertheless, the economic interests of German big business are not limited to the domestic market, as highlighted by Gabriel’s unintended appearance on the “Heute” show. Well over 1000 new coal-fired power plants are currently in the planning stages in Africa, South-east Asia and India – prime markets for German coal power technology. Exports are heavily subsidised by the German government in the form of loans provided through the KfW development bank. EUR 3 billion have been awarded for coal projects over the last decade – in spite of the fact that everyone involved is well aware that new gas-fired power plants generally cause only half as many harmful emissions, while wind turbines cause none at all. “If these power plants are built by 2030, the INDCs will be essentially worthless. The door which just opened will be closed again, at least as far as the 1.5-degree target is concerned,” says Edenhofer.

Uncertain future

In this light, it will be interesting to see what is in Hendricks’ forthcoming climate protection plan for 2050, which is to include intermediate targets for 2030 and 2040, and is scheduled for approval by the cabinet before the 2016 summer break. Even though the environment minister has a record of being impulsive when it comes to climate protection, ultimately she has little chance of asserting herself over Gabriel – especially as he is likely to be feeling somewhat bruised in his political aspirations after his re-election as SPD chairman in December with only a discouraging 74 percent of votes. Accordingly, he is likely to dial up the pressure in order to have positive results to show, not least with regard to the Renewables Act and the coal issue. “The really big step is the coal phase-out. And that is presumably easier to achieve without the SPD in government,” says Leprich. This ties in with the observation that the Green Party have been acting as potential coalition partners for some time – albeit with questionable strategies. For instance, last November a number of prominent Greens spoke out in favour of curbing the pace of the transition to renewables, although the idea ultimately fell through.

However, if efforts to accelerate the coal phase-out are unsuccessful, we could soon be living in a time when nuclear power, carbon capture and storage (CCS) and geoengineering all play an increasingly important role in the struggle to keep the Earth’s temperature within tolerable limits. Experts warn against these approaches, which remain essentially untested technologies – or, in the case of nuclear, a high-risk technology which is considered likely to evade our full control well into the future. Nevertheless, China is currently planning to fight its massive air pollution problem with 80 new nuclear power plants. France too – along with many other countries – intends to continue to expand its nuclear capacity.

In any case, the Paris agreement has yet to come into force. The document will be signed by heads of state on 22 April in New York. In order to become legally binding, it must be transposed into national law by 55 countries which represent at least 55 percent of global emissions. The signature of Democrat US president Barack Obama is considered a sure thing.

Climate negotiations will continue in the Moroccan capital Marrakesh, where COP 22 will be held from 7 to 18 November. During that time, the outcome of another political career is likely to be decided, in Washington: the election of the new US president is scheduled for 8 November. Ted Cruz and Donald Trump are currently the Republican frontrunners. Will one of them make it into the White House, just as Sigmar Gabriel hopes to take the chancellery? Like most of their fellow Republicans, Cruz and Trump both claim not to believe in anthropogenic climate change. Before the climate summit in Paris, the Republicans announced that they would withdraw from any climate commitments entered into by Obama.

So does the fate of our climate hang on the career of a handful of politicians? If so, the historic result achieved in Paris could turn out to be a hollow achievement.

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