The German government is carrying out a rapid expansion of renewable energies like wind, solar and biogas, yet the process is taking a toll on nature conservation. The issue is causing a rift in the environmental movement, pitting “green energy” supporters against ecologists.
Martin Kaiser, a forest expert with Greenpeace, gets up on a thick stump and points in a circle. “Mighty, old beech trees used to stand all over here,” he says. Now the branches of the felled giants lie in large piles on the ground. Here and there, lone bare-branch survivors project into the sky.
Kaiser says this is “a climate-policy disaster” and estimates that this clear-cutting alone will release more than 1,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Forests are important for lowering levels of greenhouse gases, as large quantities of carbon dioxide are trapped in wood — especially the wood of ancient beech trees like these. Less than two years ago, UNESCO added the “Ancient Beech Forests of Germany” to its list of World Natural Heritage Sites.
It wasn’t any private forest magnate who cleared these woods out. Rather, it was Hessen-Forst, a forestry company owned by the western German state of Hesse. For some years now, wood has enjoyed a reputation for being an excellent source of energy — one that is eco-friendly and presumably climate neutral. At the moment, more than half of the lumber felled in Germany makes into way into biomass power plants or wood-pellet heating systems. The result has been an increase in prices for wood and the related profit expectations. The prospect of making a quick buck, Kaiser says, “has led to a downright brutalization of the forestry business.”
The Costs of Going Green
One would assume that ecology and the Energiewende, Germany’s plans to phase out nuclear energy and increase its reliance on renewable sources, were natural allies. But in reality, the two goals have been coming into greater and greater conflict. “With the use of wood, especially,” Kaiser says, “the limits of sustainability have already been exceeded several times.” To understand what this really means, one needs to know Kaiser’s background: For several years, he has been the head of the climate division at Greenpeace Germany’s headquarters in Hamburg.
Things have changed in Germany since Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government launched its energy transition policy in June 2011, prompted by the Fukushima nuclear power plant catastrophe in Japan. The decision to hastily shut down all German nuclear power plants by 2022 has shifted the political fronts. Old coalitions have been shattered and replaced by new ones. In an ironic twist, members of the environmentalist Green Party have suddenly mutated into advocates of an unprecedented industrialization of large areas of land, while Merkel’s conservative Christian Democrats have been advocating for more measures to protect nature.
Merkel’s energy policies have driven a deep wedge into the environmental movement. While it celebrates the success of renewable energies as one of its greatest victories, it is profoundly unsettled by the effects of the energy transition, which can be seen everywhere across the country.
Indeed, this is not just about cleared forests. Grasslands and fields are being transformed into oceans of energy-producing corn that stretch beyond the horizon. Farmers are using digestate, a by-product of biogas production, to fertilize their fields as soon as they thaw from the winter. And entire tracts of land are being put to industrial use — converted into enormous solar power plants, wind farms or highways of power lines, which will soon stretch from northern to southern Germany.