Germany used to be a green-energy giant. But the country has fallen behind on its ecological commitments in recent years. That may be about to change yet again.
Lars Katzmarek, a coal technician for energy company LEAG, fears losing his livelihood if Germany shutters its coal plants too quickly. Unlike neighbors who have left Cottbus, a city in the former East Germany, for jobs in Munich or Hamburg, he wants to stay in his hometown.
So Katzmarek traveled to Berlin in January with several hundred other coal workers from the region to protest a government plan to phase out reliance on fossil fuels.
The demonstrators showed up across the street from a federal building, blew whistles, and beat containers with sticks. Inside, the government-appointed Commission on Growth, Structural Change, and Employment was in session.
The commission, made up of industry representatives, politicians, and environmentalists, agreed the following day on a 2038 deadline to phase out coal.
That’s still too fast for Katzmarek, who says his region’s economy is at stake. "The loss of jobs will be a catastrophe," says the 26 year old. Yet environmentalists had lobbied for a much shorter time frame.
In other words, neither side is happy with the compromise. And it reflects a wider dilemma in the country. Germany used to pride itself on its global reputation as an environmental leader. Chancellor Angela Merkel was even dubbed the climate chancellor early in her first term in office.
That was 13 years ago. But Germany has failed to live up to the label since then. In February, a government report warned that Germany is falling far short of its goal to cut greenhouse-gas emissions by 40 percent through 2020.
Facing pressure to avoid massive job cuts, politicians for years have dragged their feet on reducing fossil-fuel energy. The combined influence of big industry, a car-loving population, and a surprisingly heavy reliance on plastic packaging have contributed to Germany’s environmental shortcomings.
Now, government officials, environmentalists, and even consumers are trying to use these obstacles to their advantage. They hope to win back their national image as a green energy giant.
It’s a "painful transition," says Benjamin Görlach, senior fellow at the Ecologic Institute in Berlin. "But it’s also a really big opportunity if we can tackle it in a positive spirit." He points to January’s compromise reached by the Berlin commission as an example.
"If conditions are set in the right way – for the region, for the workers, but also for the country as a whole – it’s a great opportunity that we shouldn’t miss," he says.
Some changes are already underway to ease the country’s transition away from fossil fuels, which still account for half of all energy in Germany. Last year marked a turning point. For the first time ever, renewables supplied an additional 40 percent of energy – overtaking coal in annual electricity production.
This data may not seem so newsworthy at first. But "this is a big achievement" for the country, says Christoph Heinrich, chief conservation officer with WWF Germany.
About 12 percent of the country’s energy is still generated by nuclear power, although it is slated to unplug all nuclear power by 2022, according to the World Nuclear Association.The transition to non-carbon-based, non-nuclear renewable energy supplies, dubbed the Energiewende, or energy transition, ramped up shortly after the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan.
German consumers still pay among the highest energy prices in Europe. This is due in part to a surcharge under a renewable energy act that’s meant to offset the cost of switching to renewables.
And so Germany finds itself looking more black and white than green. "The white is the incredible career that renewables have made," says Heinrich. "If you travel through Germany, you will see wind energy everywhere." And, Heinrich says, photovoltaic power panels are becoming more and more common on the roofs of homes in German cities and towns; this is still an unusual sight in other European countries.
And the black? "We still have too much carbon-dioxide emissions from coal, and this is one of the most predominant political debates," Heinrich adds. Referring to coal technician Katzmarek’s concerns, Heinrich acknowledges the challenge of phasing out coal without economically harming the regions that will bear the biggest brunt.