Climate change reports are seldom sanguine. Carbon dioxide, the principal culprit, is at record levels, about twice the preindustrial value and a third higher than even 1950. Without abatement it could rise to a thousand parts per million in a self-reinforcing loop spiraling into an irredeemable ecological disaster. The UN IPCC report warns of a 12-year window for action.
Contrasting President Trump’s boast of US energy independence based on coal and other fossil fuels in his SOTU address on Tuesday, two Democrats, Senator Ed Markey and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, have introduced a 10-page Green New Deal resolution to achieve carbon neutrality within ten years. While this target may not be technically feasible, it is an admirable start to the discussion. At the same time, the Germans are attacking the problem forcefully as demonstrated by their new coal commission report issued last week.
In November 2016, the German Federal Government adopted its Climate Action Plan 2050. It outlined CO2 reduction targets in energy, industry, buildings, transport and agriculture. Energy is the most polluting; its emissions total the sum of all the others except industry and energiewende (energy change) was a key aspect of the plan.
So even as our atavistic president is promoting coal, Germany, the EU economic powerhouse, announced it is planning to phase out all coal-fired power stations by 2038. As outlined in the November 2016 plan, a commission comprising delegates from industry, trade unions, civil society including environmental NGOs and policy makers was appointed in 2018 to examine the issue and prescribe an equitable solution. After eight months of negotiations and discussions, concluding with a final 21-hour marathon session, it has produced a dense 336-page document. Only one member out of 28 cast an opposing vote, and Greenpeace added a dissenting option as it wants the process to begin immediately.
Such an objective was a special challenge because of Germany’s long industrial history coupled with coal mining. The plan shuts down the last coal-burning power station by 2038 as the final step in the pathway outlined — an ambitious alternative is to exit by 2035 if conditions permit. Total capacity of coal-using stations in Germany is about 45 gigawatts, and the report sets out a four-year initial goal of 12.5 gigawatts to be switched-off i.e. about two dozen of the larger 500+ megawatt units by 2022. Progressively, eight years later (by 2030) another 24 gigawatts will have been phased out leaving just 9 gigawatts to be eliminated by 2035 if possible but definitely by 2038 at the latest.
It is a demanding plan for coal has been deeply embedded with German industry. To ease the pain for tens of thousands of workers and their families, the plan allocates federal funding to deal with its broad ramifications i.e. job loss and displacement. An adjustment fund will be used for those aged 58 and over to compensate pension deficits. Funds are also directed towards retraining for younger workers and for education programs designed to broaden skills.
It includes 40 billion euros to develop alternative industry in coal mining states plus money not directly project-related. In addition further investments in infrastructure and a special funding program for transport adding up to 1.5 billion euros per year are allocated in the federal budget until 2021.
The change-over will raise electricity prices, so a 2 billion euro per year compensation program for users, both private individuals and industrial, will continue until 2030. This is designed to relieve the burden on families, and to maintain industrial competitiveness.
Germany is not alone. The EU has issued an analysis of accelerated coal phase-out by 2030. The Netherlands has its own energiesprong (energy leap) focused on energy transition and energy neutral buildings, meaning that the buildings generate enough energy through solar panels or other means to pay for the energy deficit from their construction and use. It can now clad entire apartment blocks in insulation and solar panels, and is reputed to be so efficient that some buildings are producing more renewable energy than consumed. This expertise is also being utilized in the UK.
Given the forests, the Norwegians have tried something different. They have built the world’s tallest wooden skyscraper, the Mjøs Tower, 85 meters high in Brumunddal. Its wood sourced from forests within a 50 km radius uses one-sixth the energy of steel and of course much less, if at all, emission of greenhouse gases.
By the end of Germany’s enormous sector-wide endeavor, it expects to reduce CO2 emissions to roughly half through 2030 and 80-95 percent by 2050. The comprehensive and complete nature of the program
could serve as a blueprint here in the US. Thus the obvious question: If Germany with a far larger proportion of its workforce associated with coal can do it, why can’t the US?