A lot of common ground despite criticism
Germany likes to sell itself as a leader in environmental protection, but not everyone is convinced. In particular, the Anglo world remains devoted to nuclear power and criticizes Germany for not lowering emissions faster. Yet, Anglo carbon counters have almost everything in common with the German proponents of renewables except their stance on nuclear, so why the invective?
Mark Lynas, author of several books on climate change, has done his homework about the German nuclear phaseout – and he does not seem happy. In an article published yesterday, he criticizes "enthusiastic greens" for claiming that Germany gets "half its electricity from solar power"; the figure is below five percent, with "half" possibly referring to peak solar production as a share of demand or, perhaps, to installed PV capacity as a share of peak demand (it is unclear, for Lynas does not cite any particular offenders).
Lynas himself gets all of his statistics right but draws skeptical conclusions, such as "unfortunately Germany's ‘renewables revolution’ is at best making no difference to the country's carbon emissions, and at worst pushing them marginally upwards," which leads him to comment that the tens or hundreds of billions of euros spent on "expensive solar PV and wind installations" do no good for the climate.
The charges are nothing new from the UK, where the focus is clearly on counting carbon emissions. Thus, apples and oranges are compared – insulation is a cheaper way of lowering carbon emissions than photovoltaics. Lynas seems to understand that difference at the end of his article, where he states, "The Energiewende, it is probably fair to say, is not really about the climate at all," though that statement overstretches the matter. More accurately, the Energiewende is not only about carbon emissions.
But a bigger problem is the short view that Lynas takes. The economic crisis dramatically changed German energy consumption in 2008 and 2009, and in 2011 we had the sudden shutdown of around 40 percent of the country's nuclear capacity. It is safe to say that trends are hard to identify over the past four or five years for these reasons, but the trend over the past 20 years is clear: carbon intensity is drastically down, as is coal consumption – and nuclear waste production, which almost no one counts.
Going forward, we must recognize that it will take time for Germany to restructure its power supply – and that the two parties that were the biggest opponents of this change up to 2011 are now in power. The "German greens" that Lynas complains about actually agree with him completely about coal power and are not any happier about potential trends than he is. Having said that, it is unclear that all of the coal plants currently planned will be built, and increasingly they will run at a lower capacity over the year.
When the sudden nuclear phaseout took place in 2011, I referred to it as incompetent, and Lynas seems to agree. Indeed, German proponents of renewables and UK environmentalists like Lynas – I’ll refer to the latter collectively and not disparagingly as "carbon counters" – have almost everything in common except for their stance on nuclear. One marvels therefore at the condescending disrespect with which the Germans are criticized. The country that had the most ambitious target for carbon reductions in the Kyoto protocol (21 percent) and overshot its target by the widest margin (six percentage points) is not praised for at least being a positive example, but rather "Germany is squandering its opportunity to meet its climate targets more quickly, easily and reliably because of an irrational [!] public aversion to nuclear power."
Shouldn't we be reserving this kind of invective for countries like the United States (which never ratified the Kyoto Protocol) and Canada (which did, but backed out instead of meeting the targets)? Instead, we read praise of the US for lowering its emissions without any specific legislation in place – even though the US is actually finding ways to get more carbon out of the ground (shale oil and gas), whereas Germany is finding alternatives (renewables) so we can leave more in.
Lynas specifically has it in for the German Greens' alleged "singular obsession" with nuclear, but claims that the German public is irrational and generally stupid are common in the Anglo world among carbon-counting nuclear supporters. How all of this German stupidity lines up with the country's current economic prowess and its global reputation for leadership not only in engineering, but also in everything from research to the arts is anyone's guess.
The carbon counters seem to generally agree that Germans have, to quote one commenter on Lynas' site, a "dread fear of nuclear" – not a sober assessment after decades of, for instance, failing to find a nuclear repository, but something without basis. Another comment made by the person whose blog is entitled Carbon Counter, Robert Wilson, adds that the boom in solar is the result of "outdated green prejudices." In fact, there is no consensus within the German solar sector, much less among proponents of renewables, that current PV installation levels are sustainable – the demands range from Solarpraxis’ 200 GW target (which would require Germany to increase from around 7.5 to 10 gigawatts of new capacity each year) to Photon’s 5.7 gigawatts. And of course, Renewables International's guest author Bertrand Chabot repeatedly points out here that wind power and solar power complement each other and therefore need to be ramped up at roughly equal speeds, implicitly arguing what Wilson states in his comment: that solar is specifically going too fast in Germany in relation to wind power.
Again, there is more common ground here than differences – and certainly nothing to warrant charges of irrationality and "denial." There is no denying, as Wilson correctly puts it, that "Fukushima did not change the safety equation in Germany at all," but merely some people's perception of it. "Denial" is itself probably a term best reserved for doubters of anthropocentric climate change, however; and once again, Lynas, Wilson and other carbon counters are in the same camp as the "German greens" when it comes to climate change deniers in the other camp.
Wilson's claim that "Germany does not have earthquakes" is not true, however; moreover, the Fessenheim plant (admittedly in France, a few hundred meters from the German border – and around 25 kilometers from where I am sitting right now) was not built to withstand potential earthquakes in the Rhine graben.
Wilson ends his blog post yesterday (undiplomatically entitled "Germany's nuclear folly") with an easy question:
“Maybe I am wrong and nuclear power is worse than coal. Yet, what do the supporters of Germany’s nuclear phase out know that I do not know, and why they do not tell me what that is?”
The answers have been online in German for years – and online in English for at least several months. I am the author of one such answer myself. In a nutshell, nuclear is worse than coal in one specific respect. As Wilson points out, the generation that consumes coal power is the one that suffers from its detrimental health effects (with climate change affecting mainly generations to come), whereas future generations, who did not consume today's nuclear power, will have to continue to watch over our waste more or less indefinitely in human terms.
Even if we believe that the risks of nuclear plant operation and waste management are manageable, it’s therefore still unethical. Germans are unsure whether they are better engineers than the Japanese, so a question mark hangs heavily over currently running nuclear plants in German minds. But it's more skeptical caution than irrationality; the question German ask is: "is nuclear worth the risk, or is there another way?" They are currently trying one way out, and time will tell what is worth.
And because neither the Germans nor anyone else knows what to do with nuclear waste, which is currently just left standing out in the open while everyone focuses on the much-hyped potential risk of a terrorist attack on a nuclear plant, Germans would like to reduce the amount of nuclear waste they produce. You may not agree, but it doesn't make them crazy and stupid. (Craig Morris)