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Is the German Energy Transition Everything it’s Cracked Up to Be?

This is Part 2 of David Ravensbergen's series on the Germany Energy Transition. Read Part 1, In the Land of Wind and Solar and Part 3, Building a Popular Front Against Climate Change.

In the bleak realm of climate politics, Germany's progress on renewable electricity has been hailed as proof that another world may still be possible. In countries like Canada, addressing the energy crisis at the heart of climate change is something to be talked about now but accomplished later, once the economy has been adequately strengthened.

But economic growth is never sufficient: the goalposts are always moving, and there will always be more sacrifices to be made to ensure that the GDP continues to rise. As long as there’s bitumen in the ground, Canadians will be told that investment in clean energy will have to wait.

Things seem to work a bit differently in Germany, at least when it comes to electricity. Of course, Germany is just as committed as Canada to the sacred mission of securing economic growth. But this heavily industrialized exporter of high-quality manufactured goods has managed to maintain the world’s fourth-largest economy while undergoing a major transformation away from nuclear and fossil fuels. In this second installment in DeSmog Canada’s series on the German energy transition, we’ll take a closer look at the promise and the reality of the German response to climate change along with energy researcher Tadzio Müller.

Unlike Canada, Germany doesn’t suffer from the resource curse of large fossil fuel deposits. But when it comes to implementing renewable energy like solar, Germany doesn’t have any particular advantages either. The grey northern European Bundesrepublik is hardly known for its balmy blue skies, but that hasn’t stopped it from installing one-third of total global photovoltaic capacity.

Rather than wait for large corporations to deem solar energy profitable enough to be worthy of investment, Germany took a different route: subsidizing solar panels on the roofs of homes and small businesses, alongside communally-owned renewable energy infrastructure like solar and wind parks. [view:in_this_series=block_1]

Müller explains that this transfer of power was accomplished in part thanks to the Renewable Energy Act (Erneuerbare-Energien-Gesetz, EEG) of 2000, which mandated a system of feed-in tariffs for renewable electricity. The law essentially guaranteed that producers of electricity from renewable sources could sell their power to the grid at a fixed price for 20 years. In effect, the German government used feed-in tariffs to make clean energy infrastructure profitable for a segment of the population. By wooing these small-scale green capitalists, Germany incentivized the scaling up of renewable energy while securing ongoing electoral support for the continued implementation of the energy transition.

As a result, renewable energy has moved from the fringes to the mainstream of German economic life. “Renewable energy isn’t seen as something crazy in Germany. It’s an established branch of industry,” says Müller.

While the social acceptance of renewable energy means that there is enough political will to continue the transition away from nuclear and fossil fuels, the economic mainstreaming of the Energiewende comes along with familiar problems. For those not enjoying the government-guaranteed profits from feed-in tariffs, the move to renewables has meant a rapid jump in electricity costs for German households, hitting low-wage earners, retirees and people on welfare particularly hard. 

But what impact has the energy transition had on Germany’s greenhouse gas emissions? By the end of 2012, Germany had achieved a 25.5% reduction in GHG emissions relative to 1990 levels, actually surpassing its Kyoto Protocol-mandated target of a 21% reduction.

To Canadians still stinging from the Conservatives' embarrassing move to formally withdraw Canada from Kyoto, those numbers are cause for envy. But as Müller cautions, if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

“Most of Germany’s fairly impressive post-1990 emissions reductions have to do with the deindustrialization of East Germany,” says Müller. The formerly separate Federal Republic of Germany (West) and the German Democratic Republic (East) were officially reunited in 1990. During the initial process of reunification, East German industry was still operational, producing both manufactured goods and significant levels of greenhouse gas emissions. In other words, the baseline German emissions levels from 1990, the benchmark for the Kyoto Protocol, combine the total emissions of both West and East Germany.

As the reunification process unfolded, East German factories were privatized and eventually closed down, causing emissions levels across the newly reunified Germany to drop significantly. As a result, comparisons between emissions levels from 1990 and the present give the impression of a major reduction.

Two things are missing from this measurement of emissions. First, the dismantling of East German industry was not a government climate strategy. It was part of a process of shock therapy, as the formerly socialist economy was rapidly adjusted to the imperatives of capitalist production. For the residents of the former East, the result has been persistent long-term unemployment and lower income levels. Twenty-four years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, socio-economic divisions between the formerly separate nations remain stark.

The second point to consider is that deindustrialization only looks like a reduction in emissions if you measure from the point of view of production. As multinational corporations have shifted their factories away from the West to China and other parts of the developing world, emissions levels in wealthy nations like Germany have appeared to drop. But does it make sense to measure emissions at the point of production, when so many of the goods produced in places like China are exported to the West and consumed there? In fact, roughly one quarter of China’s much-maligned CO2 emissions can be attributed to the production of goods for export to Europe and North America.

According to Müller, the majority of emissions reductions in all western countries can be attributed to deindustrialization. But when measured from the point of view of consumption using the concept of embedded emissions, those reductions shrink dramatically. Shutting down factories and offshoring production isn’t a viable response to climate change.

Seen from this perspective, the German example looks somewhat less promising. On the one hand, the German energy transition shows that an advanced industrialized nation can make significant strides in moving away from fossil fuels. On the other, accounting for emissions at the international level shows that what appears to be progress in one country is cancelled out by the fact that climate change remains a resolutely global problem.

As always, the question remains: what is to be done? In the final segment of this series, Tadzio Müller offers some insight on how to resolve the contradictory lessons of the Energiewende, and what the Canadian environmental movement can learn from the German experience.  

Image Credit: Flickr via Cea

David Ravensbergen’s writing has appeared in Discorder, The Tyee, the Montreal Review of Books and the Montreal Mirror. Originally from…

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