Going green… using coal

Patrick writes*

German society and its political narrative have changed with humans relation to the environment. Politicians are using the “green” narrative to gain votes. Good can – and has – come of this; due to increasing social pressure, since the late 90’s early 2000’s there has been a huge rise in renewable energy generation in Germany, increasing from around 3-5% of total energy production in 1998 to about 38% in 2018. It is the one of the countries at the forefront of energy sustainability. On the other hand, however, the political aspect of this genuine societal movement towards more sustainable living can warp the materialization of solutions to our pollution in such a way that they may end up doing more harm than good.

Nuclear energy in Germany is a good example of this. Following the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that caused the reactor breakdown in Fukushima, there was heightened fear around nuclear energy globally. Just two weeks later, Germany’s green political party, ‘Die Grünen’, had a sudden spike in their amount of supporters. For the first time, the party had won seats in the state parliament. With this political success in 2011, they accelerated the process of decommissioning Germany’s running nuclear reactors. They started this process themselves in the late 90’s, when the Nuclear Exit Law passed, at a time when the fear of nuclear extinction was still very much felt and reducing the perceived nuclear risk was central to their agenda. They still keep a similar agenda, and continue their fight against nuclear power even though there are much bigger environmental threats looming. Therefore, along with Merkel’s announcement of the ‘Energiewende’ (Energy transition plan) in 2011 hailing in a new era for renewables, also came the news that all 17 nuclear reactors in Germany will be closed by 2022. As people that care about climate change we might ask ourselves; is all this environmentalism really beneficial?

Even though the renewable share of energy production is rising year over year, a simultaneous switch from nuclear energy over to fossil fuels is happening. Due to the inherent variability and unpredictability of renewable energy sources (intermittency), a grid powered solely by renewables cannot follow the daily ups and downs of energy demand within the day, and a certain share of the electricity still needs to come from sources that have the capacity to dispatch electricity on demand. In order to meet the market hourly demand they would usually get this electricity from a mix of sources; nuclear, fossil fuel and natural gas. Out of all energy sources, renewables have the lowest emissions per unit of energy produced (9-46 g CO2e/kWhe), followed by nuclear (16-66 g CO2e/kWhe) and finally by fossil fuels (443 -1050 g CO2e/kWhe). In all it’s haste to pass a deal that would please their voters, the government overlooked how they would power the country in the absence of nuclear power.

Germany has now increased the share of energy it generates from coal to around 40% of the total energy output (2016 numbers). Even though they have 38% of their energy coming from renewables, they had to nearly double their reliance on locally sourced lignite (brown coal), the fuel source with the highest emission per unit of energy, so much that throughout 2013 to 2015 emission levels rose by 1.8 % while the EU’s lowered by 1.3%. This trend will continue as more and more of the nuclear generators are decommissioned until 2022, since there are no other alternatives other than coal to replace nuclear in Germany. This whole plan of going green by reducing nuclear power seems to be backfiring in a spectacular way.

So why in hell are they doing it? To please their voter base. The Green party’s ideological attack on ‘toxic’ nuclear power has undermined its potential contribution to a low-emission energy transition. 

* Please help my Environmental Economics students by commenting on unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, better data sources, or maybe just saying something nice :).

Author: David Zetland

I'm a political-economist from California who now lives in Amsterdam.

2 thoughts on “Going green… using coal”

  1. It’s really interesting how the risk of a nuclear disaster is compared to that of climate change in the minds of German voters and politicians. I was living in Berlin at the time of Fukushima and I remember stickers everywhere with the yellow and red anti-nuclear logo, protests with tractors and flags coming into the city. What was on the minds of the citizens was this idea that anywhere in Germany at any time, a nuclear reactor could blow up and their world would fall apart as their surroundings became permanently ‘toxic’, as Patrick said. That word, ‘toxic’, with promises of radiation-induced tumors and weird misshaped animals like out of a Chernobyl horror movie, is what makes the risk so ‘real’. I should note that books and movies depicting a nuclear apocalypse in Germany have probably added to the realness of the threat, most notably ‘Die Wolke’ which I had to read for school. My hypothesis is that that’s the difference between perceiving the nuclear and climate change threat: being able to see what’s coming. Images of Chernobyl and Fukushima, along with disaster fiction have visualized the threat because it is rapid and precedented. Climate change is slow, and less gripping, hence I don’t think any movies beyond mad max have really attempted to show grim like might look like.
    tldr: we fear less what we don’t see.

    1. Thank you for these insights, Alex! The nuclear threat is, as you have yourself experienced, much more tangible and real to people than CC, because there is some historical precedents and there are pictures, stories, movies, news articles etc about it, “proving” it is real. I wonder how much this “common knowledge” would affect people if they were given a choice; climate change without nuclear, or nuclear power without CC. That would be interesting to know, especially their reasoning on why they would go for either answer. I think it might demonstrate just how much of a role ideology and identity politics play into climate change policy and action.

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