As politicians prepare to gather for climate talks in Doha next week, Paul Hockenos reviews a German MP's new book that contends there are major economic advantages to pursuing a coherent clean energy policy.
In Germany, environmental awareness doesn't have to mean hardship
Global Cooling: Strategies
for Climate Protection
Hans-Josef Fell is a Green Party MP from deepest Bavaria, a region known in Germany for its trenchant conservatism. Maybe that's why Fell is accustomed to putting a hard spin on the issues he holds dear, like renewable energies and climate protection.
In Global Cooling, Fell refutes the tired line that saving the planet's climate requires sacrifice, vast riches, and endless red tape. Saving the planet is what it's all about, but rather than framing the mission in terms of costs, he argues that there's lots to gain with proactive policies that overhaul our economies along clean energy lines. In a nutshell, there's serious money to be made (and saved) in the greening of our societies, as well as other perks such as energy security, reduced energy imports, job creation, poverty reduction, the generation of substantial tax revenue - and then, of course, there's quotidian environmental protection, too.
Fell knows what he's talking about, as he's worked on these issues for Germany's ecological party for decades and has written some of the nation's signature clean energy legislation when his party governed in the early 2000s. In fact, Fell bases much of his analysis of the success of Germany's Energiewende, or energy transition, which has indeed racked up impressive achievements. Many of them stem from Germany's seminal Renewable Energy Law, which, among other things, made clean energy production worthwhile for homeowners, farmers and small businessmen.
The numbers clearly illustrate just how worthwhile it's been: Germany's share of renewably generated electricity, for example, shot up from just six per cent in 1998 to 26 per cent in mid-2012. The boom in renewables created a new, growing industry that has a US$16.9 billion (Dh62bn) annual turnover and employs 382,000 people, many of them in depressed, rural eastern Germany. Investment in renewable energy plants reached an all-time high of $31.2 billion in 2011. On the sunniest summer days, Germany covers half of its weekend electricity needs through photovoltaic power generation.
Since the production of wind and solar power is largely free of costs, one day Germany will have rock-bottom energy prices compared to economies still addicted to fossil fuels and nuclear energy. With "peak oil" (the maximum volume of worldwide petroleum extraction) already behind us, and fossil fuel costs thus only climbing as their supply dwindles, this day of comparative advantage may come sooner rather than later.
The key to the German green power programme is not government subsidies or central planning but rather a small surcharge tacked onto consumers' energy bills. The feed-in tariff model, requiring power companies to buy renewably generated power from small-time producers, has since been replicated in 60 countries across the world.
For Fell, this model is the key to combating climate change. "Climate protection policy," he argues, "must be organised in such a way that it has positive effects on economic, environmental and social development of countries". Germany's clean energy laws, he claims, have helped Germany weather the recent economic crises so well. The renewables boom, he argues, benefited not just the steel and other major industry but actors along the value chain: craftsmen, planning offices, financial firms, mutual funds, farmers and engineering and construction companies, among others.
In addition to renewable energy production, modern-day climate policy must also embrace local, organic agriculture and zero-carbon mobility. The former cuts down on carbon emissions, as well as boasting a "cooling effect" by absorbing carbon from the air and ploughing it into the ground. Typical of Fell, he also points out that a locally produced, low-meat diet is healthier than our usual fare. Again win-win, though not exactly a shattering revelation.
As for a world motored by electric cars, one needs some imagination. Zero-carbon transport, Fell argues, is the only route to reorganising the transportation sector in a climate-friendly way. Yet even in Germany, home to BMW, Volkswagen and Daimler Benz, there are only just over 5,000 e-cars on the road today. Germany's aim is one million by 2020, a goal that is probably out of reach in the best of circumstances.
Although the e-transport technology is still being perfected, the real reason e-transport in Germany is lagging is because those very carmakers want to continue to sell their heavy, internal combustion-propelled models for as long as they can. Thus they're happy to put off the day they have to switch production to flyweight, plastic two-seaters run on a suitcase-sized battery. The overhaul of energy sectors (Germany is just one example) creates winners and losers - and the losers, like the car makers, will put up a fight. It is not coincidence that Fell's book comes out on the eve of the Doha climate talks. Global Cooling is a how-to manual for combating climate change. Fell presents a workable recipe for climate protection, as well as a stark admonition to policymakers to steer away from "pseudo-solutions" that will either aggravate the problem or divert resources from it.
Among the gravest of the pseudo-solutions is carbon capture and storage (CCS). The idea is to capture carbon from coal-fired power plants and store it - forever - in abandoned underground mines. This is a pilot technology that the coal industry once touted - until the European Union took it seriously and recommended mandatory targets. Then the coal industry ran in the other direction. In addition to it being undeveloped and enormously expensive, Fell, as do most experts and environmental groups, sees it as a red herring to divert policymakers from practical solutions. The captured gases would never dissipate, thus if at any time over the next millennia they escaped as a result of an earthquake or other geological movement, the CO2 would be released again into the atmosphere.
And then there are the nuclear technologies, fission and fusion. Germans are overwhelmingly anti-nuke and have been since the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. Fell, like his countrymen, rejects nuclear as a zero-carbon solution. It's not zero carbon in the first place, he notes, when you figure in the vast quantities of fossil energy expended to mine for uranium and the production of nuclear fuel elements. Moreover, there are the usual objections: issues of nuclear waste disposal, terrorist threats, health risks, uranium scarcity, and the link to atomic weapons proliferation; for example, Iran.
Also unacceptable are non-sustainably produced biofuels, hydrogen technologies, natural-gas cars, and geo-engineering (tinkering with the ecosystem to deplete carbon monoxide in the atmosphere).
Why does one need these expensive, futuristic technologies anyway, asks Fell, when renewables production, reforestation, energy efficiency measures, sustainable bioenergy, and biological agriculture are already there for us - and affordable? Just how "affordable" they are to economies less muscular then Germany's is another question. But once the ball gets rolling, as it is in Germany, the benefits are hard to dispute.
The petroleum giants are the big losers in a world run on clean power, Fell argues, and they will have to work hard to maintain their positions. The complicated pseudo-solutions come from their corners with plenty of PR bravado and other incentives to convince observers. But the solutions are simpler, argues Fell, and if you have any doubt about it, just look at Germany.
Paul Hockenos is the author of Joschka Fischer and the Making of the Berlin Republic: An Alternative History of Postwar Germany.