Freitag, 28. Februar 2014

Energiewende not to blame for rise in lignite use in Germany

Earlier this year figures came out that Germany was using more lignite. There was a lot of false reporting on this, blaming Germany´s nuclear phase out for rising emissions etc.. So my colleagues over at the excellent Energydesk of Greenpeace UK asked me to write a rebuttal. Which you can read here

Below is a longer version of the piece, in which I reflect a little bit more on perceptions of the UK in Germany and vice versa. After all, they are the two countries I have lived in longest in my life. 

So, let´s be honest: Not just the Sun and (the German equivalent) BILD find it difficult to move beyond simplistic stereotypes when it comes to perceptions of Germany in the UK, and vice versa. In Germany, the ignorance is illustrated simply: Even the most educated Germans refer to the UK as “England” and think that you are being pedantic when you point out that that is plain wrong (ok, they may have that in common with some Etonians …).

The inability to see nuances afflicts Left as well as Right. When I was studying politics at Edinburgh in the 1990s, Germany was idolized by many of the Left as the ideal opposite of Marquand´s “Unprincipled Society” description of the UK, for example. Like with all stereotypes, there was some truth in that: Germany´s state, to this day, remains stronger in many ways than the UK´s. And that has real impacts. Housing conditions (insulation, anyone?) are very different in the two countries, for example, reflecting much higher standards in Germany.

The Right, meanwhile, never tires of telling the tale of how overregulated Germany is. As anyone who has suffered through the Kafkaesque absurdities of German bureaucracy will know, there is also some truth in that. But that perception overlooks many areas – not least labour regulation – where Germany has quietly experienced a neoliberal revolution of its own (just witness the fact that Germany will not introduce a nationwide minimum wage until 2015 – even New Labour managed that!).

Given these projections rather than perceptions, it is not surprising that the perception of the German energy transition often lacks nuance in the UK. Every time I visit the UK, I get asked “whether I still think the nuclear phase out is a good idea as emissions are rising as a result”. And every time I have to point out that there is no connection, and that saying that there is, well, a simplistic lie.

And so, this week, here we go again. In what it is indeed bad and appalling news, Germany´s use of lignite reached a 20 year high in 2013. The Financial Times reported these figures, wrongly stating that Ms Merkel's decision to phase out nuclear power has left a gap that only fossil fuels could fill quickly.”

That response misses not just the but indeed many points:
  • renewables continue to rise and play an ever more important role (I am looking forward to the UK reaching 11,8% of primary energy or 25% of electricity consumption from renewables) 
  • Coal use as a whole also is not rising and there is more energy generated per ton of coal – so emissions of the power sector as a whole may, if we are lucky, even be declining (sadly, we do not have official numbers yet).
  • As no nuclear capacity was decommissioned in 2013, the nuclear phase out clearly has nothing to do with the increased use of lignite (and by the way, no nuclear capacity was decommissioned in 2012 either, nor is any planned to be taken off the grid in 2014).
  • Germany has exported more electricity in 2013, so to claim that there was an energy “gap” that needed filling by fossil fuels is simply a fantasy.
All of this does not make the rise of lignite any less bad. But to blame the Energiewende or the nuclear phase out for this rise is plain wrong. The real reasons are to be found in

  • the failure of the European Emissions Trading System (ETS) and the resulting ridiculously low price of carbon.
  • in classic economics - as lignite is being burnt in old, “written off” plants that can, as a result, make huge profits easily. And in – equally “classic”-  
  • market failure - as externalities are not reflected in energy prices (which means that the huge health costs of lignite, for example, are born by society and the tax payer, not the energy producers).
At a political level, the rise of lignite (and indeed Germany´s continued reliance on coal overall), is due to the fact that in Germany - much like the UK - a small number of huge energy firms control too much of the energy market. And hold excessive power over politicians. It´s that power dynamics across Europe, that has resulted in an ETS that fails to make lignite - the most carbon intensive of all energy sources – uneconomic, as any policy instrument trying to limit carbon emissions surely should. It is because too many German politicians are in cahoots with the coal industry, that makes them shy away from the action needed to fix that market failure or take additional regulatory measures (such as a coal phase out law).

So Germany´s Energiewende is neither Nirvana nor to blame for everything that goes wrong. It´s a contested policy arena. And yes, in Germany, too, public interest often loses out in the face of vested interested.  

But that means that we are in this together. Rather than say “look, the Energiewende is failing”, it would be great if you in the UK responded to the rise of lignite use by stepping up efforts to fix the ETS and/or thinking through with us how we can advance European-wide ways to speed up the uptake of renewables (a no brainer, given how fast installation costs are coming down). A rational response to Germany´s rising lignite use is to demand - in the UK as well as Germany – an end to the excessive power of a few all too powerful energy giants.

Next time I visit the UK, I hope we can talk in a nuanced way about our common need to make our energy policies answer to people and planet, and not be overly influenced by vested interests. Are you interested?