Merkel’s squeaky-clean cli­mate rep­u­ta­tion lies in tat­ters as Bonn talks heat up

A plan to cut Ger­many’s CO2 emis­sions goes astray as re­liance on ‘brown coal’ con­tin­ues

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - NEWS REVIEW - Derek Scally

In Ber­lin

The scraggy brown waste­land that stretches to the hori­zon in Ger­many’s Lusa­tia re­gion looks like the end of the world. And, for many of the 25,000 del­e­gates at the 23rd cli­mate con­fer­ence del­e­gates meet­ing in Bonn, it is.

The de­prived re­gion south­east of Ber­lin has, in the words of the Gersh­win song, plenty of noth­ing: high un­em­ploy­ment, low growth, struc­tural de­cline. But this corner of the for­mer East Ger­many, on the bor­der with Poland, has huge un­der­ground de­posits of Braunkohle – lig­nite.

It is one of the dirt­i­est fu­els known to mankind yet, from a me­tal look­out tower, you can watch mas­sive ma­chines move like me­chan­i­cal bee­tles across the land­scape, dig­ging up the lig­nite as they go. The fuel ex­tracted from the open- cast mines is trans­ferred to the nearby plant where it is trans­formed into power. The rest dis­ap­pears into the at­mos­phere from cool­ing tow­ers: lots of car­bon diox­ide.

Not since uni­fi­ca­tion in 1990 has Ger­many ex­tracted so much lig­nite as today and yet Ger­man chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel en­joys an in­ter­na­tional rep­u­ta­tion as the Kli­makan­z­lerin – the cli­mate chan­cel­lor. She earned that rep­u­ta­tion with hard work, po­lit­i­cal clout and ne­go­ti­at­ing skill dat­ing back to the first cli­mate talks in 1995.

Un­der her stew­ard­ship as Ger­man en­vi­ron­ment min­is­ter, agree­ment was reached on what would be­come the Ky­oto Pro­to­col. In the years since, Merkel has made cli­mate pro­tec­tion a pil­lar of her pol­i­tics. But in her 12 years in power, that pil­lar has de­vel­oped se­ri­ous struc­tural flaws.

By 2020, Ger­man has promised to re­duce CO2 emis­sions by 40 per cent rel­a­tive to 1990 lev­els. Un­less some­thing dras­tic hap­pens, Ger­many will man­age a re­duc­tion of just 32 per cent – much of which is down to historical ac­ci­dent: the shut­ter­ing of the filthy fac­to­ries and power plants of the van­ished East Ger­many.

One of the big­gest prob­lems is the en­vi­ron­men­tal dis­as­ter that is lig­nite: this “brown coal”, formed from nat­u­rally com­pressed peat, pro­duces more car­bon diox­ide per tonne burned than oil, gas or reg­u­lar coal. But the in­dus­try con­tin­ues to thrive be­cause it cre­ates cheap fuel. Some 42 per cent of Ger­man en­ergy pro­duc­tion in 2016 came from coal: 18 per cent from hard coal and 24 per cent from lig­nite.

The in­dus­try pro­duces a third of Germa- ny’s car­bon diox­ide emis­sions yet ev­ery at­tempt to shut down – or at least limit – the coal in­dus­try has fallen vic­tim to lob­by­ing and po­lit­i­cal prag­ma­tism.

When Ber­lin at­tempted to in­tro­duce a sur­charge on coal-burn­ing plants in 2015, en­ergy com­pa­nies, unions, work­ers and politi­cians from min­ing re­gions came to­gether with pick­ets and threats.

The sur­charge plan isn’t quite dead – it is the sub­ject of heated de­bate in talks for a new coali­tion in Ber­lin – but it’s not quite alive ei­ther.

The Green Party, hop­ing to re­turn to power, wants to take Ger­many’s 20 dirt­i­est en­ergy plants off the grid. Block­ing them is the pro-busi­ness Free Demo­cratic Party (FDP). Its ar­gu­ment: en­ergy se­cu­rity and the en­ergy trans­for­ma­tion or En­ergiewende. The En­ergiewende dates to Ja­pan’s Fukushima nu­clear plant ac­ci­dent in 2011, af­ter which Merkel per­formed one of the most dar­ing pirou­ettes of her ca­reer.

Years af­ter she can­celled plans by Ger­hard Schröder’s So­cial Demo­crat- Green gov­ern­ment to wind down nu­clear power, Merkel per­formed a sec­ond U- turn. Post- Fukushima, nu­clear power was out again, and all plants had to go off the grid within 10 years. Since then a hugh rush is un­der way to fill the nu­clear en­ergy gap.

In 2006 Ger­many took al­most a third of its en­ergy from nu­clear sources but, a decade on, re­new­able en­ergy has filled the gap, sup­ply­ing 32 per cent of the to­tal. But nu­clear still con­trib­utes 13 per cent of the en­ergy mix – and the al­ter­na­tives cho­sen to re­place this re­main­ing slice will be cru­cial in the com­ing years.

En­ergy se­cu­rity – en­sur­ing Ger­many pro­duces enough en­ergy to keep ma­chines pro­duc­ing in fac­to­ries – is a na­tional pri­or­ity for the next Merkel ad­min­is­tra­tion. Cli­mate pro­tec­tion is down the list.


And so the lig­nite con­tin­ues to come out of the ground. But brown coal isn’t the only prob­lem. The on­go­ing Diesel­gate scan­dal is an­other ex­am­ple of what hap­pens when Ger­man in­dus­trial and eco­nomic in­ter­ests col­lide with en­vi­ron­men­tal con­cerns.

Since com­ing to of­fice, Merkel has in­ter­vened at least three times in Brus­sels to wa­ter down emis­sions tar­gets .

This week in Brus­sels Ger­many was scor­ing con­ces­sions in Euro­pean Com­mis­sion car­bon diox­ide emis­sions tar­gets. Know­ing the chan­cel­lor has their back, Ger­man car com­pa­nies have de­frauded mil­lions of cus­tomers world­wide by us­ing soft­ware to ma­nip­u­late emis­sions.

Gov­ern­ment ef­forts have failed to re­duce ma­nure lev­els – in fields and in live­stock stalls – be­cause that would mean tak­ing on Ger­many’s pow­er­ful farm­ing lobby.

Slowly, how­ever, Ger­mans are be­gin­ning to see the gap be­tween words and re­al­ity. Ear­lier this week, en­vi­ron­men­tal cam­paign­ers stormed a lig­nite pro­duc­tion plant in t he western state of North Rhine-Westphalia, where cli­mate con­fer­ence del­e­gates are meet­ing. In NRW, home to the Ruhr in­dus­trial sprawl, one in five Ger­mans and mil­lions of com­muters, lig­nite plants con­trib­ute a third of all CO2 emis­sions.

“No other coun­try in the world uses as much lig­nite as we use in Ger­many,” says Uwe Leprich, head of the cli­mate pro­tec­tion and en­ergy depart­ment at Ger­many’s fed­eral en­vi­ron­ment agency (UBA).

The years ahead will see a del­i­cate bal­anc­ing act in Ger­many, but the pri­or­i­ties are clear. For­mer fed­eral en­ergy min­is­ter Sig­mar Gabriel said it is un­likely the last lig­nite plants will go off­line be­fore the 2040s.

On the other hand, if coali­tion talks in Ber­lin fail to agree a timetable to close coal-burn­ing plants – fol­low­ing the ex­am­ple of Italy, France, Bri­tain and Fin­land – the cli­mate chan­cel­lor can hand back her badge for good. As she heads into her fourth, and likely fi­nal term, Merkel’s rep­u­ta­tion in Ger­many as a green leader is al­ready in tat­ters.

This re­port was sup­ported by the Si­mon Cum­bers Fund The So­lar Women of Nicaragua

Ac­tivists look on dur­ing a protest at the Ham­bach lig­nite mine near Els­dorf, western Ger­many ear­lier this week. PHO­TO­GRAPH: SASCHA SCHUERMANN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

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