By Anselm Waldermann
Climate Change Paradox:
Germany’s renewable energy companies are a tremendous success story. Roughly 15 percent of the country’s electricity comes from solar, wind or biomass facilities, almost 250,000 jobs have been created and the net worth of the business is €35 billion per year.
But there’s a catch: The climate hasn’t in fact profited from these developments. As astonishing as it may sound, the new wind turbines and solar cells haven’t prohibited the emission of even a single gram of CO2.
Under current EU law, German wind turbines aren’t helping to reduce CO2 emissions. They simply allow Eastern European countries to pollute more.
Even more surprising, the European Union’s own climate change policies, touted as the most progressive in the world, are to blame. The EU-wide emissions trading system determines the total amount of CO2 that can be emitted by power companies and industries. And this amount doesn’t change — no matter how many wind turbines are erected.
Experts have known about this situation for some time, but it still isn’t widely known to the public. Even Germany’s government officials mention it only under their breath. No one wants to discuss the political ramifications.
It’s a sensitive subject: Germany is recognized worldwide as a leader in all things related to renewable energy. The environmental energy sector doesn’t want this image to be tarnished. Under no circumstances does Berlin want the Renewable Energy Law (EEG) — which mandates the prices at which energy companies have to buy green power — to fall into disrepute.
At the same time, big energy companies have an interest in maintaining the status quo. As a result, no one is pushing for change. Everyone involved is remaining silent.
Not an Instrument against Climate Change
In truth, however, even the Green Party has recognized the problem, as evidenced by an e-mail exchange last year between party energy experts and obtained by SPIEGEL ONLINE. One wrote the following message to a colleague: “Dear Daniel, sorry, but the EEG won’t do anything for the climate anyway.” Ever since the introduction of the emissions trading system, the Renewable Energy Law had become “an instrument of structural change, but not an instrument to combat climate change.”
That means: wind turbines and solar energy plants are revolutionizing Germany’s mix of power sources, creating jobs and making the country more independent from imports. But they aren’t helping in the fight against climate change.
In the worst case scenario, sustainable energy plants might even have a detrimental effect on the climate. As more wind turbines go online, coal plants will be able to reduce their output. This in itself is desirable — but the problem is that the total number of available CO2 emission certificates remains the same. In other words, there will suddenly be more certificates per kilowatt of coal energy. That means the price per ton of CO2 emitted will fall.
That is exactly what happened in recent trading. A certificate to emit a ton of CO2 cost almost nothing. As a result, there was very little incentive for big energy companies to invest in climate friendly technologies.
On the contrary. Germany was able to sell unused certificates across Europe — to coal companies in countries like Poland or Slovakia, for example. Thanks to Germany’s wind turbines, these companies were then able to emit more greenhouse gases than originally planned. Given the often lower efficiency of Eastern European power plants, this is anything but environmentally beneficial.
This phenomenon is especially apparent whenever the sustainable energy industry grows more quickly than anticipated — as in recent years when growth in the renewable energy branch quickly rendered the EU Commission’s CO2 plans obsolete.
Building Renovations Are Better than Windmills
Experts from the Green Party are taking the problem very seriously: “We are in a veritable crisis situation, and that means we must reconsider and alter things we once took for granted,” writes one contributor, adding that it’s important to re-examine “whether we have set the right priorities.”
Another expert begins his e-mail with a general clarification: “Dear People, I’m not fundamentally against the EEG. I only emphasize this because Manfred has repeatedly and erroneously described me as an opponent of the EEG.” But here comes the big “but”: “When reduction of CO2 emissions is more cheaply achieved through insulating a building than using a wind turbine, that is where we should concentrate our support.” When it comes to climate change, everything else is secondary to reducing CO2 emissions.
Read more details here.