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25 July 2022

How Putin’s aggression has nurtured Germany’s climate ambitions

A year ago Germany suffered terrible floods and the new government pledged climate action. It has not wavered.

By Sophia Schmidt

When devastating floods hit western Germany last summer, killing people and destroying homes, climate change rose to the top of the political agenda. In the federal elections that autumn the Green Party took 15 per cent of the vote, its best result. Since then the Russian invasion of Ukraine, rising energy prices and the threat that Russia may permanently halt gas exports to Germany have, as in other European countries, made energy security urgent as well. Nonetheless, Germany seems determined to stick to its climate goals, even if emissions will rise in the short-term as coal mines increase production to fill gaps in gas supply.

Almost the last act of Angela Merkel’s government in the summer of 2021 was to amend the country’s Climate Change Act to bring forward the legally binding deadline for achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by five years to 2045; to change the target to reduce emissions by 55 per cent compared with 1990 levels by 2030 to 65 per cent; and to introduce a new goal of 88 per cent reduction by 2040. The amendment was written after Germany’s highest court ruled that the government’s climate policies were insufficient. 

When Olaf Scholz took over as chancellor in December, leading a coalition of the Social Democrats, the Greens and the Free Democrats, the government pledged to make 2022 a year of energy reform. Plans to decarbonise the economy were split largely into “Easter” and “Summer” packages, and included a broad range of measures to increase renewable energy and make buildings more energy efficient. Increasing onshore wind has become a big priority. The government aims to double capacity to 115 gigawatts by 2030 and has set aside 2 per cent of the country’s surface area for turbines.

The invasion of Ukraine has compromised short-term plans to reduce emissions. Gas is flowing again through the Nord Stream 1 pipeline from Russia to Germany after it closed for works earlier this month, but Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, continues to try to use the threat of an end to gas deliveries as leverage. Germany will temporarily increase coal production and keep 8.2 gigawatts of coal plants on stand-by to keep the lights on and allow people to heat their homes this winter. Across Europe, additional coal use is expected to release an additional 30m tonnes of carbon dioxide, about 1.3 per cent of annual emissions, according to the energy think tank Ember.

[See also: Is nuclear energy a sustainable solution to climate change?]

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Germany, along with other European countries and the US, is scrabbling to diversify its gas supplies. In December 2021 about a third of Germany’s gas was imported from Russia. In May 2022 the government signed an energy partnership to receive deliveries of liquid natural gas (LNG) from Qatar, a country whose human rights record, as commentators have pointed out, is no better than Russia’s. Germany will have to build terminals for LNG shipments, and NGOs including Environmental Action Germany worry that this new infrastructure will continue Germany’s gas addiction. “By 2026 the LNG deliveries are supposed to come from a new gas field in Qatar,” the NGO said. “This is where the feared fossil trap snaps shut: new gas fields are developed, which means new greenhouse gas emissions and new long-term fossil dependencies on a dubious regime.”

Overall, though, environmentalists remain positive. “For one or two years we will have increased carbon dioxide emissions, but the German government has promised it will make up for it in later years by an increased use of renewable energies,” said Jörg Haas, head of the international politics division at the Heinrich Böll Foundation, a think tank with close ties to the German Green Party.

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The law, passed on 8 July, that keeps coal plants on stand-by also maintains a target of renewable energy making up 80 per cent of power consumption by 2030 and the government has reiterated its commitment to ending coal power production by 2030. Scholz likewise was clear at an international climate conference in Berlin this month that Germany must not become newly dependent on fossil fuels.

Haas argues that Russian threats have made Germans more supportive than ever of the move away from fossil fuels. They understand that the energy transition “no longer concerns polar bears but is a national security issue”, he says.

Sophia Schmidt is a Danson Foundation intern at the New Statesman.

[See also: Russia is bluffing about its success in the war – but so is Ukraine]

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