Good-bye to Coal

April 30, 2015 | 00:00
Good-bye to Coal
Good-bye to Coal
Germany is Finally Pulling the Plug on the Coal Industry

Even as Germany’s Energiewende has raced forward since its inception in the early 1990s, the coal industry in Germany has remained a sacred cow. Above all, it has been Social Democrat politicos from the states of Brandenburg and North Rhine-Westphalia who have defended the coal industries there even as, in word, they say they’re on the Energiewende bandwagon and all for climate protection. But now those days of two-faced contradiction appear to be over.

Germany’s minister for economic planning and energy, the Social Democrat Sigmar Gabriel, has crossed the Rubicon, declaring that coal works older than 20-years will, as of 2017, pay a surcharge of 20 euros a ton on CO2 emissions above seven tons per GW of capacity. Germany’s ambitious goal is to cut down its emissions by 22 million tons over the next five years. This can’t be done with coal-fired plants running around the clock, as they do now.

Indeed, Germany has taken a lot of flak for its devotion to coal – at the same time that it preaches low-carbon creed and boasts about the accomplishments of the Energiewende. It’s been the Energiewende’s Achilles’ heel, an easy target for critics to say 'Look, Germany has to rely now on dirty coal because it has turned off its nuclear plants and renewables can’t fill the void.' And in 2012 and 2013, in the years following the Fukushima disaster in Japan, Germany did burn more coal and emissions stopped declining. Of course, Germany didn’t have to export as much of its (coal-fired) power surplus as it did, but that’s history now.

Anyway in 2014 emissions did begin decreasing again.

Not surprisingly, it has been Germany’s most intransigent utility giant, RWE that has lead the charge against the new measures (which climate-minded experts have been advocating for years.) 'The so-called climate contribution for conventional power stations affects our very existence,' Chief Executive Officer Peter Terium said last week. 'This contribution would mean immediate closure for the majority of our lignite mines and lignite-fired power stations.'

There been hefty words exchanged between the unions and lobbies of the coal industry, on the one hand, and the government, on the other. Over the 25-26 April weekend, more than 15,000 people loyal to the coal industry demonstrated in central Berlin. They claim that the government’s new measures will cost as many as 100,000 jobs. (Other independent experts estimate that only a few thousand jobs will be lost, many of which will be compensated by new jobs in the renewables sector.)

Smelling blood, some CDU and CSU politicians have rushed in to pick up those discontents who might abandon the SPD in light of its new-found backbone on the issue. But these old-school coal loyalists are a small minority – even in the CDU/CSU these days. All of Germany’s parties represented in the Bundestag are committed to the Energiewende and lowering emissions.

In fact, some of the more mainstream Christian democrats came to the government’s defense. 'The 2020 target to reduce CO2 emissions by 40 percent must be respected,' said Andreas Jung, Commissioner for Climate Protection of the CDU/CSU parliamentary group. 'There’s going to be a surcharge on brown coal. Doing nothing is not an option.'

Germany’s coal lobby is not giving up without a fight. It’s willingness to fight has kept it in the game for as long as it has, which is much too long. But now it’s over. The end of coal in Germany is now finally in sight.

Image by Jensbn
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