Solar panels

Environmental policy pioneer

A modern climate and energy policy, renewable energies, green technologies and the phasing out of nuclear power
by Joachim Wille

The protection of the environment and climate is among the global challenges of the 21st century and is accorded a prime status in German politics, media and civil society. Germany is internationally considered one of the forerunners in climate protection and a pioneer in developing renewable energies. In 2011 Germany was the first industrial nation to decide to opt out of nuclear power . And the government assumes an active role in environmental protection, climate-friendly development strategies and energy partnerships at the global level, too. The Secretariat which supports the operation of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change is headquartered in Bonn. Since 1990, Germany has reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by almost 24 percent and thus has already fulfilled its obligations outlined in the Kyoto Protocol, which came into force in 2005, of a 21 percent reduction by 2012. Germany is in one of the top places in the 2011 global Climate Change Performance Index, compiled by independent environmental protection organization “Germanwatch”. For years now, Germany has been following a course which unites climate and environmental protection in terms of sustainable management. The key: to increase energy and resource efficiency and to develop renewable energies and raw materials. This promotes the development of new energy technologies both on the supply side, in power stations and renewable energy plants, and on the demand side, where energy is used.

Nature conservation (“the conservation and protection of the natural foundations of life”) has been enshrined as a state objective in Article 20a of the Basic Law since 1994. Intact natural systems, pure air and clean waterways are preconditions for a high quality of life and of the environment in Germany. Environmental indicators are pointing in a positive direction as regards the prevention of air and water pollution, because many emissions have been considerably reduced in recent years. Greenhouse gas emissions from road traffic have been decreasing since 1999, despite a significant increase in traffic, and are now below the 1990 level. Outfitting motor vehicles with catalytic converters is, along with other measures, partly responsible for a roughly 50 percent reduction in nitrous oxide emissions. Sulfur dioxide emissions from coal and lignite power stations were able to be lowered by 90 percent owing to the mandatory flue gas desulfurization process. In recent years, the daily per capita rate of drinking water consumption has also decreased from 144 liters to 121 liters, the second lowest rate of all industrialized countries.

Phasing out nuclear power

Fossil fuels still make up the backbone of the energy mix both in private households and for traffic and industry. With a share totalling a good third, petroleum is the most important primary energy source, followed by natural gas, coal, nuclear fuel and lignite. The Federal Government plans to gradually phase out nuclear power, which accounts for around nine percent of total generation and replace it with renewable energies. The promotion policy set in motion back in the early 1990s makes the use of renewable energies attractive and economical. The Renewable Energy Sources Act (EEG), a market incentive program to promote the use of renewable energies is regarded as the driving force behind the upswing in climate-friendly energy sources and its fundamentals have been adopted by several countries. The increased use of renewable energies and the efficient use of energy also formed the core of the Federal Government’s 2009 coalition agreement on the topic. In spring 2011 the Federal Government decided on a “change in energy policy”: the accelerated phasing out of nuclear energy. On the back of a re-evaluation of safety following the nuclear disaster in Fukushima in Japan, the eight oldest of the 17 nuclear power stations in operation were immediately shut down. In addition the Bundestag, with a big majority, passed a schedule according ot which the remaining nine reactors would also be decommissioned by 2022. Within the space of 11 years it envisages atomic energy, which in 2011 still supplied around 18 percent of the electricity consumed, being reliably replaced by, among other things, renewable forms of energy, an expanded electricity grid, and new storage capacity for green electricity. By the year 2020, renewable energy sources are intended to account for 35 percent of electricity, and by the year 2050 for 80 percent. In Germany, green electricity was booming even before the “change in energy policy”, its share rising from five percent in 1990 to 20 percent in 2011.

Trailblazing and efficient: Renewable energy

Against the background of the consequences of climate change, which science has described in vivid detail and which include increases in temperature, floods, droughts, accelerated melting of the polar icecaps and species extinction, as well as the constantly increasing global consumption of fossil fuels, renewable, climate-friendly alternatives are becoming increasingly more significant. The availability of wind, water, sun, biomass and geothermal energy is unlimited and they release no emissions which are damaging to the climate. Renewable energies now make up for more than ten percent of all German energy consumption. With almost 14 percent of global wind energy output, Germany places third behind China and the USA. The North Sea Offshore Initiative, in which Germany and eight other EU Member States have joined forces, sees new potential for its use. With regard to photovoltaic technology, which is used to turn the sun’s rays into electricity, Germany, with an installed output of 17,300 megawatts, even placed first ahead of Spain and Japan in 2010. The Desertec initiative, which is largely being funded by German companies, is a major European investment in sustainable energy technology. By 2050 the energy produced by solar power stations in North Africa is intended to cover 15 percent of European electricity requirements.

Innovative and good for exports: Green technologies

The measures in the Integrated Energy and Climate Protection Program not only serve to protect the environment, but also to promote the development of an innovative future industry, which is a real job creator, is highly internationally competitive and increasingly active in foreign markets. In 2010 one solar cell in five and every seventh wind turbine came from Germany. More than 360,000 people work in the renewable energies industry. In addition, there are around one million more jobs in environmental technology, such as water purification, filter technology, recycling and renaturalization. Another job driver are companies, which, in times of rising energy prices, are focusing on energy efficiency technologies (power stations with higher levels of efficiency, combined generation of electricity and heat, energy efficient construction, energetic building renovation, energy-saving cars). According to information from the International Energy Agency (IEA), Germany is already in the top group of countries which demonstrate a substantial economic performance with relatively low energy use.

International climate cooperation: a must

Germany sees itself as a pioneer in environmental and climate protection. With the goal it set itself Germany put itself at the very top worldwide: no other comparable industrial country has a similarly ambitious and concretely formulated program: By 2020 the Federal Government intends lowering greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent compared with the 1990 level. Furthermore the use of renewable energies is to be consistently expanded and energy efficiency increased further. The goal is for renewable energies to become the major source of energy supplies. In an international context, too, Germany played a decisive role in getting environmental and climate protection on the agenda. Thus the German EU and G8 presidencies in 2007 made climate protection objectives and energy policy two of their main goals. The European Council, with its challenging resolutions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and the declaration of the G8 Summit in Heiligendamm, Germany, where heads of state and government pledged “to seriously test” the objective to halve greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, were important steps towards a global answer to climate change.

The Climate Change Conference in Bali in 2007 laid the foundations for the so-called “post-Kyoto process”, which, in addition to the industrial nations increasing their measures, also involves actively including emerging nations in climate protection.

That is decisive, as according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) the worldwide emissions of CO2 will have to be halved by 2050 if global warming is to remain under control this century. The aim is to prevent the average global temperature rising by more than two degrees Celsius. However, the plan to pass a successor agreement to the Kyoto Protocol at the 2009 Climate Summit in Copenhagen failed. The community of nations did declare, though, that limiting global warming to at maximum of two degrees above the pre-industrial level was a goal worth pursuing. The summit failed, however, to agree on concrete, binding goals for the reduction of CO2. The reduction obligations outlined in the Copenhagen Accord are not sufficient to achieve the two degree goal.

As agreed in Copenhagen, more than 100 countries, which together are responsible for over 80 percent of greenhouse gas emissions had notified the Secretariat of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Bonn of their national climate protection objectives. These, however, are not enough to achieve the two degree target. The EU ia a pioneer in this. It has agreed to lower the emission of greenhouse gases such as CO2 by at least 20 percent in comparison with the 1990 level by 2020 – or by 30 percent provided other industrial countries commit themselves to comparable reductions. The share of renewable energies is intended to rise to 20 percent and consumption to fall by 20 percent as a result of improved energy efficiency. The EU Climate and Energy Pact is being implemented in the 27 Member States in accordance with national quotas. Germany will make an above-average contribution to reducing greenhouse gases.

Despite the difficulties agreeing on compromises the Federal Government supports an international climate protection regime and a new world climate order. Hopes for substantial progress on the post-Kyoto Protocol now rest on the next regular climate summit in Mexico.

by Joachim Wille