But nuclear energy remains verboten
That German politicians spoke of ‘blackmail’, ‘neo-imperialism’ and even a ‘declaration of economic war’ when confronted with Germany’s energy dependency on Russia may hardly seem surprising. But those words weren’t uttered recently, nor were they about the Russian president. They were said two years ago and directed at the Americans — for trying to shake Germany over the Nord Stream 2 pipeline.
The war in Ukraine has finally opened Germany’s eyes to the fact that it Putin who is engaging in blackmail. Last week, Gazprom announced that it would cut gas flows to Germany by reducing supply to 40% of the regular amount. In response, Vice Chancellor Robert Habeck said that the country would turn to coal.
It can’t have been easy for Habeck, a Green politician, to make the decision to safeguard German energy supplies by replacing the missing Russian gas with domestic coal. But that is exactly what Habeck plans to do. Gas, which is used to produce both heat and electricity is to be saved (storage is only at 57% capacity at the moment), while more coal will be used temporarily (until 2024) to make electricity.
Habeck looked more than a little dejected when he announced the measures on Sunday. “This is bitter, but the situation just makes it necessary,” he said, adding that it would lead to “slightly higher” emissions. Bear in mind that Habeck is part of a coalition that had planned to increase renewables to 80% of electricity production by 2030 while phasing out nuclear energy by the end of 2022 and coal by 2030.
Still, his pragmatism is admirable. Recognising that Germany would make itself vulnerable to “political blackmail” if it allowed its gas supplies to run low, he found it in himself to abandon the ideological dogma of his party. Germany on the whole is finally waking up to the unpalatable reality that a diverse range of fossil fuels are still needed while we find ways to build up reliable renewables.
The Liberal Party, also part of the governing coalition, has even begun to push a debate around fracking which has been banned in Germany since 2017. Their leader, Christian Lindner, has also argued that North Sea oil and gas should be looked at again as Germany currently only produces 5% of its gas demand itself.
It seems every available domestic energy resource is back on the table. With one exception: Germany’s nuclear industry. The country only has three reactors left but many have argued that switching them off could at least be postponed to help with the crisis. A new survey showed that only 35% of people did not think a return to nuclear energy for electricity production would be helpful.
Yet both Scholz and Habeck remain adamant that Germany’s last reactors must be switched off in six months. It seems the chancellor cannot even bring himself to discuss the issue on an argumentative footing. Instead, his contribution is that the exit had long been decided and the necessary fuel elements could not be procured anyway.
The Bavarian Minister President Markus Söder called this “nonsense”, pointing out that this is an “ideological debate” and amounts to “pure stubbornness at the expense of a lot of people”.
Germany needs to have a full rethink of its energy and security policies now that it is beginning to see the link between the two. Habeck was right to turn to coal as an emergency measure, but the country will need sustainable transition fuels in every sense of the word.
Although he is right in that coal is not a long-term solution, a diversification of the entire energy sector is. The government needs to get off its high horse, admit that mistakes were made in the past and discuss the way forward without ideological blinkers.