02 June 2011

Germany's Burned Bridge

[UPDATE: Foreign Policy has a story up titled "Frau Flip Flop" (with the image below).  In the article Paul Hockenos writes that,

"Some observers even say she has cleverly stolen the left-wing opposition's trump card and will win back voters by making Germany a model for clean, energy-efficient states with a thriving trade in solar panels and wind turbines. Finally, a vision! Even if it's not hers.

But it's hard to believe that Merkel can credibly reinvent herself again as the "ecology chancellor" and simply follow the path of least resistance to another term in office. In fact, her dramatic confirmation of Green policies will probably put wind in the sails of the original environmental party, cementing its status as a viable alternative to both the Social Democrats and the Christian Democrats.
What Merkel may well have done is pave the way for the first-ever Green chancellor in 2013, as head of a ruling coalition like the one currently in the southwestern region of Baden-Württemberg."]
In The Climate Fix I lauded Germany's forward-looking energy policies, in which they had decided to use the technologies of today as a resource from which to build a bridge to tomorrow's energy technology (German readers, please see this translated essay as well). Germany's government has now burned that bridge by announcing the phase-out of nuclear power by 2022.

There is a lot of interesting commentary around. See especially the discussions by Werner Krauss at the Klimazwiebel (here and here).  Der Spiegel has a hard-hitting essay by Roland Nelles describing what he calls "Merkelism":
To a certain extent, the decision to phase out nuclear energy is a victory for Merkel's style of leadership -- let's call it Merkelism. The politics of Merkelism are based on two principles. The first is that, if the people want it, it must be right. The second is that whatever is useful to the people must also be useful to the chancellor.

With Merkelism, policies are developed with a long view -- namely with the next national election in mind. After the Fukushima catastrophe, the chancellor had two choices: She could either decide in favor of an expedited phaseout and take on the proponents of nuclear power within her own party. Or she could stubbornly stand behind her government's 2010 decision to extend the operating lives of Germany's nuclear power plants (itself a reversal of an earlier phaseout passed by the government of former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder) -- and take on the majority of the German population.

In the end, Merkel chose the lesser of the two evils. Even if it has irritated her own party, in the chancellor's mind it was the correct thing to do. It was also the only choice Merkel had if she wants to remain chancellor. Anything else would have led to a protracted debate over nuclear power with the opposition that Merkel could only lose. With the phaseout, she has a good chance of keeping the sympathies of a majority of voters, who are likely to conclude that she's not doing such a bad job after all.
The image at the top right of the excerpt above comes from Der Spiegel, and shows the latest public opinion polls which indicate that the Greens are running a strong second. The Greens are thus well placed as a future coalition partner, putting some had numbers behind Nelles' argument.

I have quickly calculated the implications for carbon dioxide emissions of the German decision, based on a projection of the 2020 electricity mix from RWI as reported by the Financial Times.  These estimates are shown in the graph to the left.

Using these numbers and the simplified carbon dioxide intensities from The Climate Fix I calculate the carbon dioxide emissions from Germany electricity generation, assuming constant demand, will increase by 8% from 2011 to 2020. The Breakthrough Institute also runs some numbers.  See Reuters as well.

Given Merkel's penchant for blowing with the political winds and the German public's Wutbürger politics, we should expect German energy policies to continue to be anything but stable.  Germany's energy policies have gone from potentially world-leading to incoherent in the blink of an eye. But perhaps part of the problem here is the tendency for analysts, me included, to see short-term change without fully appreciating the larger context. German democracy may presently be incapable of implementing a sensible energy policy. Regardless of Germany's domestic politics, its efforts to rapidly ramp up renewables -- if they actually stick as policies -- will nonetheless provide a worthwhile laboratory for what is technologically possible, and thus bears close watching.

Looking at the big picture, the question now I suppose is how long must we wait until the next German energy policy U-turn?


  1. "the question now I suppose is how long must we wait until the next German energy policy U-turn?"

    That one's easy - it will be when the rolling blackouts start. Rule number one - environmentalism is great when it only affects other people, not so great when it affects me.

  2. We are only seeing Act I.

    In multi-act political dances conceding your opponents position is frequently useful..it's also occasionally useful as a parenting tool.

    I.E. 6 year old Child threatens to run away if not given X,Y,Z privilege. Parent packs bag for child with enough supplies to survive in the forest for a month. Child then discovers bag is too heavy to carry and abandons idea of running away.

    I wish the German Central Government luck in convincing their citizens in the bucolic northern german countryside that multi-gigawatt overhead transmission lines are an 'improvement' on their quality of life.

  3. Germany is currently the economic engine of Europe. Investing any substantial fraction of their GDP in renewables, and it will have to be substantial to make any difference at all, will drag the EU down with it.

    But it won't be enough, no matter how much they invest.

  4. Seems to me that Merkel, like Julia Gillard in Australia, is sacrificing her party on the altar of short term political expediency.

    Seems also that Germany is following Spain down the green brick road. The result will probably be similar.

  5. I wonder how the voting will go as German manufacturing begins to move its factories abroad?

  6. "German democracy may presently be incapable of implementing a sensible energy policy"

    That's an interesting way of saying it. So the entire Western environmental movement has been non-sensible for forty years? If the German people don't want to take on the risk of nuclear power, then it is sensible that they shut down their nuclear plants. Of course, they just buy nuclear-generated electricity from France now, but better the French take the greatest risk.

    While it has been claimed that the German people were in favor of action against global warming - this obviously shows otherwise. They care about the risk of nuclear power more than they care about the risk of global warming.

  7. Does anyone have a line on shares in Polish coal?

  8. So the entire Western environmental movement has been non-sensible for forty years?

    Yes. What of it?

    To be clear, I consider the “environmental movement” is those who place the environment (whatever that is) at the centre of political life. The true Greens.

    As people who put “the environment” above everything others might consider of higher political interest – higher living standards, more freedom of movement, greater social equity – the true Greens will favour decisions that are “stupid” by those other standards. They will always take an economically unviable option if it accords with their personal values in other respects.

    That distinguishes it from other movements and groups who merely wish to improve some aspects (say clean air, less industrial waste) as a good in its own right, but with no higher philosophical imperative. Such people (the vast majority) will sometimes favour a decision which hurts the environment because the good that springs from it is considered an acceptable compromise.

    The core of the environmental movement might use the language of standard political discourse to oppose Nuclear power, say, but that is only to persuade the middle ground. We all know that they are unreachable by opposing arguments. You could no more persuade the earlier generation of German radicals, for which the fringe was the likes of Ulrike Meinhof, that the economics of Marxism was not sensible.

    I believe that time will place the environmental movement, as it exists today, in the same basket at the ultra-Left of the 60’s and 70’s. A bunch of well-meaning dreamers who were extremely dangerous (the road to Hell being paved with good intentions, and all that).

  9. lets get the facts straight:
    1. Since Fukushima, Germany has shut down seven nuclear plants without the need to import electricity (there have been imports which were only arbitrage). There is no indication that Germany will make use of foreign nuclear power to satisfy its energy needs in the future.
    2. Germany is returning to the status quo ante. Before the current government decided to postpone the nuclear power phase-out, 2020 was the target year to shut down the last nuclear plant (a decision by the socialdemocratic/green-government in the year 2000).
    3. The RWI is not the leading research institute for environmental questions in Germany. It has close ties to the german industry, naturally looking for a way to maximize profits from nuclear plants. So you should be careful in using their data as basis for your calculations. For a more thorough review have a look at the results from PIK (for a good discussion see http://www.wissenslogs.de/wblogs/blog/klimalounge/debatte/2011-03-15/brauchen-wir-atomstrom-fuer-den-klimaschutz).

  10. -8-rantaplan

    Thanks ... a few replies:

    1. "Already in April alone, Germany imported 43 per cent more electricity from France at an additional cost of about €60m ($86.6m), according to French officials."

    2. Yes, (small detail -- 2021), but status quo ante policy doesn't necessarily mean a good policy ;-)

    3. PIK does some excellent work, but the link you provide to a blog post by Stefan Ramstorf on speculated global costs of stabilization policy to 2100 has nothing to do with the information from RWI presented here.

    The only way that German CO2 emissions would not go up under a nuclear phase out is if renewables approach 50% of electricity supply by 2020. I can't imagine too many people think that is possible.


  11. Adding to Germany's 'renewable' power will be difficult (read 'impossible) unless they build many new transmission lines through the countryside from north to south. Those lines are currently being fought tooth and nail across Germany. So if, as it appears, the Greens gain power soon, they will have to choose whether to support grass roots protests against disruptive power lines, as they typically have in the past, or shove them down the throats of communities across the country in the name of anti-nuke/global warming. Good luck cutting that baby in half. The greens have had the luxury of being all things to all people while out of power. Coming to power will force grown-up decisions on them, and make enemies they've never had. Welcome to responsibility.

  12. rantanplan said... 9

    Since Fukushima, Germany has shut down seven nuclear plants without the need to import electricity

    In the US, every spring a substantial portion of the nuclear plants shut down for refueling without the need to import electricity.

    The test isn't whether or not a country can manage spring without importing electricity. The test is whether a country can manage July and January.