Jochen Flasbarth, President of Umwelt Bundes Amt (UBA – Germany’s central federal authority on environmental matters), was in New York last week, where he discussed, among other things, Germany’s efforts to create a national electric supply that relies completely on renewable energy.
Germany’s goal is to reduce its overall greenhouse gas emissions by 80-90% by the year 2050. One of the keys to achieving this is to restructure the electric supply of the country. The energy sector is responsible for about 80% of all emissions in Germany, and electricity generation is responsible for 40% of the carbon dioxide emissions there. The UBA maintains “Given highly efficient use of electricity use and energy conversion, as well as an energy supply system that is completely based on renewable energies, GHG emissions from electricity production can be reduced to virtually zero.” The UBA report on this from 2010 is available in English.
In the Q&A that took place at a luncheon co-sponsored by the Heinrich Böll Foundation and the World Policy Institute, Flasbarth explained that implementing the recommendations of the 2010 study was on track largely due to the wide-spread political support this move has across the German political spectrum. He noted, for example, that there are many more jobs in Germany related to renewable energy than there are in automobile manufacturing. In addition, a 100% renewable electricity supply enhances national energy security. Jobs and national security are often viewed as being in opposition to environmental protection, but in reality, they are not.
Another question is whether Germany can go nuclear-free, as its government has decided to do, while still being part of a European energy grid. After all, next door lies France, which is hugely dependent on fission for its electricity. The standard accusation is that Germany is merely “greenwashing” the issue, importing nuclear-generated electricity from its neighbors while simply not using fission within its own boundaries. Flasbarth noted that Germany is a net electricity exporter, and so, it is difficult to make that charge stick.
I pointed out that America has 104 civilian nuclear power plants, most of which are approaching the end of their designed life-span. Replacement is an option, but I wondered how the US could do what Germany is doing and asked him where he would start. As a well-mannered guest, he refused to be drawn into criticizing US policy, but he noted that the biggest difference between the US and Germany in this matter is political. Although both are federal systems, the German central government has a great deal more power to get its own way compared to Washington and its relationship to the states. A second political difference is the way Germany’s Green Party had greater access to electoral power and parliamentary influence than its American counterparts. While not coming right out and saying it, the difficulties in America retiring its nuclear generators in favor of renewable energy sources stem from political structures rather than technical issues