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Rupert Darwall: Europe’s Energy Crack-Up

Rupert Darwall, National Review

Europeans scold while the U.S. leads.

Drugs, human trafficking, weapons. Violent fundamentalism and Islamic terrorism.” Was this President Trump talking about Africa at his recent White House meeting with congressional leaders? Nope: “The problems Africa face are completely different . . . and are civilizational,” France’s President Emmanuel Macron told a reporter from the Ivory Coast at last year’s G20 summit. European leaders like to lecture the world on how to be virtuous, but when you look at what they do themselves, a different story emerges.

Nowhere is the contrast starker than in climate and energy policy. The European Union has set out to show the world how it can be saved from climate change. No country has been more prominent in this than Germany. At the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, Germany reneged on a deal with President George H. W. Bush by advocating targets and timetables for emissions cuts that they had agreed wouldn’t be in the United Nations climate-change convention. Germany pledged to cut its own greenhouse-gas emissions by 25 to 30 per cent by 2005 and subsequently set a 40 percent target to be reached by 2020.

Thanks to German reunification, the first 20 percent was achieved by closing down the former East Germany’s heavy industry and its most polluting power stations. With emissions on course for only a 30 percent cut by 2020, three months ago Chancellor Angela Merkel was forced to explain that it was always clear that it would not be easy to save another 20 percent “at a time of relatively strong economic development.” The more you grow, the more carbon dioxide you produce. Logically, then, decarbonization policies mean lower growth. The elixir of carbon-free growth turns out to be snake oil after all.

Then two weeks ago, in the protracted talks to form a new governing coalition, Germany’s largest parties dropped the 2020 goal. An internal staff paper for environment-ministry bureaucrats acknowledged that missing the 2020 target would be a “disaster for Germany’s international reputation as a climate leader.” Indeed, 2017 was the year when Germany’s much vaunted Energiewende — a blueprint for America’s energy future if Hillary Clinton had won the 2016 election — demonstrably failed. Despite fearsome energy-saving policies, energy consumption rose (economic growth, immigration, and cold weather were blamed), greenhouse-gas emissions were flat, and retail electricity prices were projected to rise above 30 euro cents (36.6 U.S. cents) for the first time (the average U.S. residential rate is around 13 U.S. cents).

The perverse effects of wind and solar were evidenced by increased volatility in wholesale electricity prices, with a record 146 hours with negative electricity prices — indicating that during these hours, electricity is less than worthless, as there’s insufficient demand to mop up unwanted wind and solar power. The extent to which the German public has been cowed by relentless renewables propaganda can be seen from an opinion survey that showed 75 percent agreeing that the Energiewende was a collective responsibility that everyone should help make succeed. But the same survey found that 68 percent of people were “very dissatisfied” or “somewhat dissatisfied” with the way it had been implemented, only 15 percent were “somewhat satisfied,” and only 1 percent were “very satisfied.”

Europe’s energy policies are worse than stupid. At the end of last year, Sir John Beddington, a former chief scientific adviser to the British government, lifted the lid on the scandal at the heart of the EU’s renewable policies. According to Sir John, since the EU’s first renewables directive in 2008, the growth of bioenergy — much of it sourced from North American woods and forests — has provided around half the expansion of renewable energy. To supply even one third of the additional renewable energy needed to meet Europe’s new 2030 target will require an amount of wood roughly equivalent to the combined harvest in the U.S. and Canada. The fiction currently being peddled is that Europe is only burning wood residues — the bits of trees left over from other uses — but new EU rules agreed to last week by the European Parliament will expand the definition of bioenergy to include trees specifically harvested to be burnt in power stations.

This, Sir John says, will result in higher emissions than from using natural gas or coal. Burning wood releases four times as much carbon dioxide per MWh of electricity as natural gas does, and over 50 percent more than coal. At the same time, cutting down trees reduces carbon sinks. Even so-called sustainable forestry practices incur “carbon debt,” with carbon paybacks running into decades and even centuries. EU policies, Sir John argues, gives a green light to developing countries for vastly greater forest removals, potentially risking “the incredibly valuable tropical forests that are not only valuable sources of biodiversity, but also form vast carbon sinks which are one of our best tools of defense against climate change.”

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