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Coal Resurgence Darkens Germany’s Green Image

Josie Le Blond, Financial Times

Germany looks set to miss its 40% CO2 reduction target by 2020. 

Germany has long led the way in global green energy innovation. But ahead of UN climate talks this December, some say the country’s new reliance on coal means it has lost the moral high ground on emissions.

Europe’s leading economy still flaunts its virtuous climate track-record abroad. It was on show during recent state visits by Angela Merkel, the chancellor, to Brazil and India, two of the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitters.

Yet back at home, observers warn Germany’s powerful coal lobby is frittering away the nation’s reputation as a green Wunderkind.

“The coal problem must be solved if Germany wants to be celebrated once again as a leading voice on climate change,” says Claudia Kemfert, head of the energy, transportation and environment department at the German institute for economic research.

Germany’s dilemma dates back to its pledge to shift from nuclear power to other forms of renewable energy following Japan’s Fukushima disaster. The nuclear phase-out has resulted in the country falling back on one of the most polluting forms of fuel, coal. This goes against the grain of Germany’s Energiewende, part of the intention of which is to cut the use of fossil fuels.

Panicked by the disaster in Japan, German politicians began shutting down the country’s oldest nuclear plants in 2011, with a view to going completely uranium-free by 2022. The plan is for renewables eventually to take centre stage in Germany’s energy mix. However, coal, in particular carbon-intensive lignite, has been filling the gap.

Germany generated 44 per cent of its electricity from coal last year, more than any other EU member state. That compares with 26 per cent from renewables and 16 per cent from its eight remaining nuclear plants. This coal renaissance is undermining the government’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and casting doubt on Germany’s green credentials. In 2013, German emissions rose by 1.2 per cent, defying a decade-long downward trend.

“In Germany we’re living with a paradox resulting from the energy transition,” says Ms Kemfert. On the one hand, the country is investing in renewable energy helping to bring emissions down, while on the other the increased use of coal acts to force them up.

Germany now looks set to miss its voluntary target of a 40 per cent reduction in emissions on 1990 levels by 2020. Ministers point out Germany has already met its binding Kyoto target of a 20 per cent reduction. However, that achievement predates the decision to abandon nuclear.

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