15 august 2018

‘The Biggest Climate Story No One Is Talking About’

Germany’s coal challenge

By Brad Plumer, Kendra Pierre-Louis and Tryggvi Adalbjornsson, the New York Times, August 15, 2018

Germany, which has long cast itself as a global leader in the fight against climate change, is facing a moment of reckoning.

The country is investing over $500 billion in clean energy but is still struggling to curb its reliance on coal power. As a result, it’s now in danger of missing its ambitious targets for cutting planet-warming emissions.

That’s why some environmentalists are closely watching a task force set up this summer by the German government. The commission is charged with crafting a plan for phasing out coal use and getting the country back on track toward meeting its climate goals.

“It’s the biggest climate story no one is talking about,” said Justin Guay, director of clean energy at the ClimateWorks Foundation.

Getting rid of coal power is a huge challenge. Even as Germany has scaled up wind and solar, it has also been shutting down its low-carbon nuclear plants. Coal — the most carbon-intensive energy source — has been largely left untouched, and now generates 40 percent of the country’s electricity. Much of that is from lignite, a low-grade and particularly dirty form of coal.

Unlike in the United States, where coal is quickly declining for economic reasons, Germany’s lignite plants remain cheap to operate, said Diego Marquina, an analyst at Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

And politicians have been reluctant to confront the influential coal industry, which employs some 32,000 workers and has been the backbone of the country’s industrial base.

So, the government of Chancellor Angela Merkel did what politicians often do when faced with a thorny policy challenge: They kicked the issue to a commission, with representatives from government, industry groups, labor unions and environmental organizations. The task force is supposed to negotiate a date by which coal in Germany should be phased out. It will also propose a plan to aid workers who will be hurt by the transition.

Germany has set a goal of cutting greenhouse gas emissions 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 and another 15 percent by 2030. Many analysts think the country will miss those targets unless most coal plants either shut down or start capturing and burying their emissions by 2030.

In theory, that’s doable. Britain, the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, recently enacted a carbon tax and has replaced almost all of its coal use with renewables and natural gas. (It has also kept its nuclear plants running, something German voters won’t allow.)

But Britain’s transition hasn’t been painless. South Wales, a former mining region, now struggles with high poverty and unemployment. Germany’s task force is trying to avoid that fate for its lignite communities.

Faced with a choice between cutting emissions rapidly or avoiding social disruption, the commission may opt for the latter, some analysts say. “I would be surprised if they agreed to an end date before the 2040s,” said Rebecca Bertram, an energy expert with the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Germany.

The commission’s final report is due in December, when the world’s nations will meet for a fresh round of climate talks in Poland, another European country that relies heavily on coal. What Germany decides could have ripple effects around the world.

“If Germany takes it easy on coal, it will be a lot harder for climate negotiators to go to Poland and say you need to close your plants,” Mr. Marquina said.

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