Nuclear or coal? – The German Greens have chosen coal

Spiegel Online is reporting (translation here) that Germany is planning to back away from its 2020 climate target of 40% emissions reduction, because of a continued reliance on coal to run the German economy as a result of the nuclear phase-out known as the ‘Energiewende’.

In fairness, Spiegel has long been pretty sceptical on the Energiewende – but for good reason. It really is pretty much impossible for Germany to exit the two main sources of baseload electricity generation, coal and nuclear, at the same time. Faced with a choice, so-called ‘green’ Germany appears to be prepared to sacrifice its climate targets on the altar of its anti-nuclear ideology. I had expected a couple more years to pass before this became glaringly obvious to everyone except the most blinkered anti-nuke campaigners, but it seems to be happening earlier than I’d thought.

Take for example this widely-leaked letter from Germany’s energy minister Sigmar Gabriel to the Swedish prime minister, pleading with him not to withdraw investments from Vattenfall’s open-cast coal mines at Welzow-Sud II and Nochten II. Here’s a pretty photo of the latter:


The letter (which I’m assuming is genuine – now confirmed, see note at the end) really does include some tasty morsels, especially the very explicit acknowledgement that when faced with the choice between coal and nuclear, Germany is choosing coal. Here’s my favourite passage:

As you know, Germany has decided to phase out nuclear energy by 2022. We believe that this is a necessary step, and this decision is backed by the vast majority of the German population.

Phasing out nuclear energy is a real challenge even for a highly industrialised, energy-intensive country like Germany. But we believe we will be able to master this challenge.

However, we also strongly believe that we cannot simultaneously quit nuclear energy and coal-based power generation.

(Emphasis added, to make the blindingly obvious even clearer.)

The German Greens, who are anti-nuclear to the core of their political marrow, would like not to have to acknowledge this outright contradiction between their concern for climate change and their opposition to nuclear. Cue the recent strong words from the Green Party accusing the federal government of “trickery” and demanding a date for a coal phase-out.

The German Greens must know that the latter is impossible if Germany is to retain a strong manufacturing sector and a functioning electricity grid. It is simply not possible for intermittent solar and wind, which can generate close to zero electricity for days at a time even when average production is rising, to run a modern high-energy economy alone. So the coal must stay, and the climate targets must go.

This is what happens when ideology hits reality. And ironically the German federal government is being criticised by the Greens for implementing the very same impossible policies that the Greens have always demanded since they first joined the SPD coalition back in 2000 – a complete phase-out of nuclear power and its replacement by ‘renewable’ sources (including, by the way, highly environmentally destructive biomass burning on a very large scale).

I recently did a debate on BBC radio (full audio here) with Hans-Josef Fell, energy spokesman for the German Greens, who takes credit for having written the feed-in tariff laws (known as the EEG) that have driven the Energiewende. I repeatedly demanded to know why, if the Greens were so concerned about climate change, they did not ask for a coal phase-out before that of nuclear. Fell was incensed and kept returning to Chernobyl as justification (“Look to the people who have lost their homelands” [from nuclear accidents]) – I did not feel that the actual climate issue held much interest for him.

Unfortunately, the Green anti-nuclear ideology has become so pervasive in Germany (I have countless frightening anecdotes about this from friends who have dared raise the subject in polite conversation in Germany) that there is little prospect of a policy reversal. So although Sigmar Gabriel is for now denying that Germany is about to scrap its unilateral climate targets (it will still be bound by EU targets of course) my guess is that this is a kite-flying exercise, and that the 40% cut by 2020 will indeed be dropped. This really seems unavoidable given that meeting the target now requires a close to arithmetically impossible cut in annual emissions, as Janne Korhohen pointed out to me on Twitter:

So when climate policy-makers gather in Lima this year, and in Paris next, all eyes will be on the climate laggards who are still addicted to fossil fuels even when the US and China have announced firm plans for serious climate targets. That list of climate laggards will now include Germany, thanks to none other than the German Green Party.

The Greens are being hung by their own petard, and they don’t like it. Neither will the climate.



I have received an email from Johanna Alskog, a reporter at the Swedish news site Altinget. She tells me that the letter is indeed considered genuine by the prime minister’s office. She obtained it from the PM’s office under freedom of information – actually by mistake as she was looking for something else!

Johanna Alskog has written about this here (Swedish).

© Mark Lynas
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