Nuclear Pollution

Gaslighting: Germany’s Rocky Transition to a Greener Future

Most people in Germany would like to send fossil fuels off with a quiet goodbye, a political and economic auf Wiedersehen. The country’s voters have consistently demonstrated strong support for green energy, with 83 percent of Germans having described the transition to renewable sources of power as “important.” Germany has big plans for the future—Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s new government has promised to double its use of renewables by 2035. This increase would transform German energy production, as renewables currently comprise just over 40 percent of its energy portfolio. Even the ruling coalition’s wing of pro-business liberals seems to agree that non-renewables are on the way out.

Renewable energy technology, however, is not yet developed enough to implement on a nationwide scale. To make up for this fact, the government plans to use natural gas as a transitional source of energy as it increases renewable use over time. The details of this transition are somewhat murky. Germany’s reliance on gas, a key part of its current strategy, will likely slow sustainable development. Closer examination reveals the possibility of short-term economic and environmental consequences and long-term political ones. The country has chosen to sacrifice other, better transitional sources, such as nuclear power, for fossil fuel. Additionally, the government’s plan could overall EU unity and force Germany into an uneasy relationship with Moscow. The Energiewende (“energy transition”) is Europe’s most ambitious development plan—and its riskiest. A greener Germany is a gasless Germany, but, paradoxically, the country’s government seems less willing to commit to the latter than the former.

In 2021, natural gas accounted for 15% of German energy production. The use of liquid natural gas (LNG), while less prominent than coal, is sure to increase as more polluting forms of power generation are phased out. Chancellor Scholz has promised “independence from coal, oil, and natural gas” while also pushing for the construction of more gas-powered facilities. The timeline for the shutdown of these new LNG facilities is unclear. While Germany’s parliament, the Bundestag, debates, the plants will continue to burn gas. A powered transition by continuing CO2 emissions can hardly be considered green.

There are few options for low-emissions, pre-renewable energy alternatives in Germany. Nuclear power plants do not emit carbon dioxide, but Germany is staunchly anti-nuclear (owing to a long history of environmentalists) and plans to shutter its nuclear plants by the end of the year. The country has also pushed the European Union to label natural gas as a green investment, despite opposition from France and other nuclear-supporting countries. Some experts have estimated that the nuclear shutdown will actually cause the country’s emissions to increase as natural gas fills the nuclear energy vacuum.

The German public’s appetite for nuclear power is inconsistent at best. Polls give the anti-nuclear position a slight edge, although there is evidence that pro-nuclear support is growing. The government, though, is not likely to change its strategy this late in the game, because doing so would reverse ten years’ worth of decisions and elicit harsh criticism from environmentalists. The Greens, a progressive, anti-nuclear party that makes up a quarter of the Scholz coalition, control the federal economic and environmental ministries; A few pro-nuclear actions are likely to originate from these offices. Germany is therefore stuck on a pro-gas path for the near future. The benefits of this strategy remain to be seen. The consequences, on the other hand, are very real.

Pandemic-fluctuations in the global gas market have led to LNG price hikes, particularly in Europe. The price per megawatt-hour for natural gas has increased almost 500% over the last 12 months. For German consumers, expensive power is nothing new; the previous government under Angela Merkel faced criticism for price jumps at the Energiewende‘s inception. This year, the government nearly halved the gas tax in order to grant consumers some relief from surging prices, but such a move can only be temporary, as the gas tax makes up a critical part of the renewable transition as a disincentive to fossil fuel use . Any tax increase will naturally precipitate a price increase.

Also troubling is the potential for a rise in demand for natural gas. Germany ranks seventh in the world in terms of total energy consumption, so the German economy will need a lot of gas. The decommissioning of nuclear reactors, likely to indirectly increase emissions, will also increase prices because more households will begin to draw from a limited supply of LNG. Stiff global competition for gas exports, though, means that the country is unlikely to receive the supply-chain deliverance it so desperately craves. The government is reportedly preparing for shortages and blackouts by the end of the year, but with renewable output slumping, Germany must look ahead to a darker future—both figuratively and literally.

If Germany is to avoid shortages, it must buy the gas it cannot produce locally. Imports make up approximately 94% of German gas consumption, and 35% of those imports originate in the Russian Federation. Even before the Ukraine conflict, these imports raised questions about the security of European gas networks. The construction of Nord Stream 2, a pipeline that would run from Russia to the German port of Greifswald, has become a key point of contention and a gray area in Germany’s energy plan. In 2018, America imposed sanctions on the pipeline to curb Russian influence in Europe. Two years later, it relented, but only briefly– Nord Stream 2 is currently languishing in the depths of the German bureaucracy following Western sanctions designed to punish Moscow for the invasion of Ukraine.

The war in Ukraine has only added to the pressure on Germany to do away with its plans to connect Greifswald with Russia. Chancellor Scholz deflected when pressed on Nord Stream by dismissing the pipeline as a “private-sector project.” The German government will not continue construction for the near future, but it is reluctant to cancel the project entirely. Nord Stream 2 would be a boon to Russia and a blow to Ukraine regardless of the recent Russian invasion. Russian gas that flows through the pipeline will bypass Ukraine, putting Germany at odds with a country with which it has pledged solidarity. Even if the situation de-escalates, it is doubtful that Nord Stream will remain an attractive option for the West.

The natural gas for the Energiewende has to come from somewhere, though, and Russia has been an important source of LNG. Germany’s affinity for natural gas has put the country into an awkward geopolitical position, because shipments from the United States are economically expensive, and shipments from Russia are potentially politically fatal. The Ukraine crisis has revealed divisions between Germany and its allies; though Chancellor Scholz has said that the West is “acting in complete unity,” Germany’s actions seem to hint at the opposite.
Liquid natural gas has made the EU vulnerable in a time of political and humanitarian crisis. Energiewende is a word that implies movement and progress, but the results of the plan—shortages, price hikes, and increases—will be regressive. The country’s fear of nuclear energy has led to disagreements within the EU, and its unwillingness to let go of Nord Stream 2 will only alienate the United States and Ukraine. Germany’s transition, posited by the government as the future of climate action, is based on faulty planning and divisive politics. Germany needs friends if it is to meet its climate goals by 2035. It seems determined, however, to fail alone.

Image by Marcin Jozwiak is licensed under the Unsplash License.

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