While some countries like the United Kingdom quit brown coal some time ago, Germany is still struggling. A new commission is meant to sketch out structural changes but the Bundesrepublik is no longer a pioneer of climate protection, political scientist Arne Jungjohann told EURACTIV Germany.
Two weeks ago the so-called ‘coal commission’ of the German government finally started work. What are the biggest challenges for the 31-strong expert group?
In practical terms, time pressure will probably be the biggest problem. By October, concrete proposals should already be on the table, which will be a mammoth task. Unfortunately, the German government has wasted time in setting up the commission because of disagreements over its composition and objectives.
What do you think of the composition of the commission itself?
It is quite heterogeneous with the main actors in the sectors concerned are represented. A tremendous amount of expertise comes together there. What I see critically is that half the board consists of politicians from coal states, namely Mr Platzeck from Brandenburg and Mr Tillich from Saxony. That gives the whole thing a bias.
Will the coal commission provide useful results?
That is to be desired, but still completely open. The idea that representatives from the coal industry and the brown coal mining districts set themselves an exit date that will be compatible with the climate goals, to say the least, is very optimistic.
To do that would be the task of policymakers. The German government, however, chickens out and is not making a clear statement. It should commit to climate protection and set an exit date. In that case, the commission could primarily deal with structural change, for example by answering how the transition in the energy sector can be made socially acceptable. What the commission cannot do is relieve the government of its responsibility to set political guidelines.
How soon can we leave brown coal then?
Technically speaking, one can say: In the next 15 years. But the coal industry lobby is well organised and argues against it. From the point of view of environmental protection, however, we absolutely must reduce our greenhouse gas as quickly as possible. And that is most effective in the electricity sector, especially with the immediate shutdown of the oldest and dirtiest coal-fired power plants.
At the heart of German climate policy is the Renewable Energy Sources Act (EEG), which promotes green electricity production. Last year, the EEG was reformed – how sustainable is the new law?
Beyond a few exceptions, there are no longer any fixed surcharges for the operation of renewable energy plants in the new system. Instead, the cheapest providers should prevail in an auction. Officially, the cheap technologies should become more competitive. The idea is good. In reality, however, the unilaterally large company will come to pass, because small providers will not be able to keep up. It was initially tried to introduce special rules for citizen energy. But the result was that big vendors simply founded seemingly civilian companies to take advantage of it.
The EEG is a model of success for citizen energy and has driven the democratization of our energy supply. In Germany, cooperatives, farmers, schools or ordinary citizens run almost half of all wind farms and solar plants. This is unique in the world. In the new EEG, citizen energy will probably be forced out. This harms the competition and is also a big problem for climate protection. Because we are under enormous time pressure. We cannot only leave the market to the big players who want to keep their old power plants running for as long as possible.
The United Kingdom, the Netherlands, France and Italy are already shutting down coal production. How come the former climate forerunner, Germany, is lagging behind?
One must not forget: Germany is a traditional “Kohleland”. We have large quantities of brown coal, which is superficially located and can easily be mined. In addition, the prices for climate certificates on the CO2 exchange are at rock bottom. As a result, you can still produce unbearably cheap electricity in the coal mines in the Rhineland and the Lusatia.
All in all, Germany produces too much electricity, especially when the sun is shining and the wind is blowing. As a result, we export electricity abroad at low prices. The electricity companies in our neighbouring countries do not like this, because it also cuts their prices.
Germany was once a driving force for environmental protection in the EU. Is that still true?
No, we have not played the role of a pioneer in this field for a long time, that is something we have to say very clearly. For a decade, our emissions have hardly declined, while other countries have been much bolder. We have become a brakeman internationally. In the meantime, we are lagging miles behind our own climate targets: By 2020, we wanted to have actually reduced 40% of our greenhouse gases compared to 1990 levels. Instead, we only save 32%.
That is a climate policy failure of CDU/CSU and SPD. The CDU and the CSU have been governing continuously for thirteen years, and that is what counts. Although German Chancellor Angela Merkel has always stood up for climate protection internationally, for example in the round of the G7 or G20; you have to give her credit for this. Domestically, however, the coal and the auto companies too often dictate the climate policy of the federal government.
Above all, exiting coal means finding ways for sustainable structural change. Germany will have to invest a lot of money in research, training and infrastructure. Not all member states of the EU, however, have the necessary money for it. How can structural change away from coal at EU level succeed?
The EU must give more support to the coal regions. In some cases, the structural funds can be used for this, but neither is it enough or does it work well so far. Many regions do not call for all the resources at their disposal.
Then there is French President Emmanuel Macron’s proposal for a Europe-wide carbon tax. But there is no reaction from the German government to this push. I think that is a mistake because it could be an effective way of accompanying the EU’s carbon leakage.
Treating structural change in the EU as a priority would be a chance not always to run after the problems, as in the case of the financial crisis or in refugee policy. It offers the EU the opportunity to build a European joint project – a green Europe – that will shape the future and create prosperity.