Germany: Real green or just popular green?

Yuyun Chen

Angela Merkel’s recent announcement to phase out Germany’s dependence on nuclear energy within 11 years (Germany to close nuclear plants - Financial Times, Tuesday May 31, 2011) appears to have taken the world by surprise, except perhaps its domestic politicians. Every German political party cannot wait to jump on the renewable energy bandwagon, vying for the political capital that the rising waves of the popular anti-nuclear movement would bring. With media and political fanfare, Germany is on its way to rid herself completely of nuclear power by 2022.

Chancellor Angela Merkel hopes that Germany’s transformation of energy policies will set a precedent for other industrialised nations to follow.[1] Sigmal Gabriel, chairman of Social Democratic Party (SDP) claims that it was his party who introduced the nuclear-free energy policy ten years ago; therefore, this decision to abandon atomic power is a huge victory for the SDP.[2] The Left contends that a deadline of 2014 is technologically feasible and The Green Party wants to close all possible loopholes before the “green seal” can be conferred to this ambitious project.[3]

While the public welcomes the decision, industrial lobbyists are actively seeking exemptions from power price spikes, which can be as much as 85 per cent from now, according to the forecasts of a government advisory committee.[4]  Most likely they will get their way as they are the engine driving Europe’s industrial powerhouse forward. Ordinary consumers will no doubt be left with shouldering the cost of rising energy bills. Electricity prices in Germany are already among the highest in Europe and twice as much as in France.[5]

Germany will need a solid renewable energy plan to fill the gap. As a country with little sunshine, solar power is not a viable option. Besides, winder power is intermittent and therefore unreliable. In addition, in the clamour for political approval one debate that has received little or no mention is Germany’s increasing dependency on its neighbouring energy exporters, France and the Czech Republic. In the immediate aftermath of the Fukushima disaster Germany’s seven oldest reactors were taken off the grid, and Germany has since become a net importer of electricity, with power purchased from France and the Czech Republic having doubled.[6] France, bent on pursuing a long standing policy of energy security, derives over 75 per cent of its electricity from nuclear power.[7] The Czech Republic is mainly reliant on coal power plants and nuclear power accounts for about one quarter[8].This issue raises some serious questions such as, ‘Can Germany produce enough green energy to fill the nuclear gap, without becoming a heavy importer and will the strategy reduce the supply of affordable energy, and inadvertently increase Europe’s carbon footprint?’ It’s hard to answer these questions at the outset, but at the very least, German citizens should expect their leaders to deliver a consistent and well-measured energy strategy, which is in line with the commitment to reduce Germany’s greenhouse gas emissions. 

Without a well thought out exit plan, German politicians once again have fallen victim to public anger and fear of nuclear energy. The nuclear moratorium that Merkel rushed to adopt in March – reversing her decision to extend the lives of Germany’s 17 nuclear plants by an average of 14 years last September[9] – was a knee-jerk reaction to the public outcry in the wake of Japan’s Fukushima disaster. It made Merkel look more like a politician with a chameleon-like demeanour than of the physicist she would like to be portrayed as. However, this about-face policy change sends a very troubling message: why do politicians in Germany – a reputed representative of democratic power – succumb so easily to political populism? In the face of rampant public emotions, politicians scrambling for votes, instead of exercising the leadership required of them by pursuing a somber and rational approach to tough policy questions, simply give in to pressure from their constituents. Protests and counterarguments from German energy producers are simply ignored. Unable to turn the political winds, those energy companies may comply with the mandates in Germany, but then start to build more nuclear reactors in other countries. RWE and E.ON, two of the four big energy producers in Germany, are building two brand new nuclear plants in Britain.[10]

It might be a no-brainer for political parties to ride on populist waves to gain or reclaim votes, especially before an election. However, responsible politicians need to weigh-up political gain over pragmatic deliverables. The real stewardship is about always keeping the big picture in mind and steering the public towards an optimal solution, not about following the rampant herd overtaken by an outburst of furor. More often than not, politicians take the well-trodden path of political populism, at the expense of the public and future generations.

Considering that Germany is a front-runner in the field of renewable energy, it certainly has the potential to transform its hasty “popular” green energy policies into deliberate real green ones. A candid debate on alternative energy production involving all sides is a good starting point.

[1] Juergen Bertz, “Germany will abandon nuclear power,” The Associated Press, cited from thestreet.com, 30 May 2011.
[2] “Atomausstieg: Skepsis gegenueber Zehnjahresplan,” spiegel online Video, 30 May 2011.
[3] “Gruene und Linke schelten Merkels Ausstiegsplan,” Spiegel online Politik, 30 May 2011.
[4] Nicholas Comfort, “Merkel’s atomic overhaul may aid industry at consumers’ expense,” Bloomberg, 31 May 2011.
[5] See endnote 4.
[6] “After nuclear shutdown: Germany taps into France on nuclear power,” economicnewspaper.com, 31 May 2011
[7] “Nuclear power in France,” World Nuclear Association, world-nuclear.org, updated April 2011.
[8] See endnote 6.
[9] “No one listens to Juergen Grossmann,” the Economist, May 28 to June 3, 2011.
[10] See endnote 9.