Goal not coal

As the big hitters from governments around the world start to arrive at the UN climate talks in Bonn, Paul Allen looks at Germany’s record on climate change and explores what more could be done.

Today as the COP23 process runs its course, environment ministers, foreign ministers and heads of state arrived to take over where their negotiators have left off, offering an opportunity for ratcheting up ambition before the talks conclude.

Germany’s role as the physical host of COP23 (Fiji is the official host, but the talks are taking place in Bonn) gives Angela Merkel’s voice vital influence. For many years Merkel has talked the talk on climate, confirming the need for ambitious action and driving other heads of state do the same. I suspect one of the reasons she ‘gets climate’ is because she has a passion for science, having studied physics at the University of Leipzig before becoming a researcher at Berlin’s Academy of Sciences.

However, businessespoliticiansfaith leadersNGOsenvironment ministers and many others are calling for Merkel to phase out Germany’s coal power, not least for the sake of the climate leadership that she has fought so hard to earn. The technology now exists to replace coal with other technologies – for example synthetic gas from surplus renewables as back up for filling the gaps in the expanding renewable energy system.

But the problem is that actual progress has been slowing. Germany’s Energiewende (or energy transition) has decelerated and Germany looks set to miss its own 2020 emission reduction target whilst carbon emissions seem to be rise again in 2017. To find out more I attended the COP23 Enegiewende side-event, set up to enable participants to question Germany’s key experts on their energy transition.

Paul (left) questions experts from the German government on their renewables policy

I took the opening slot, quizzing their expert panel on why the rate of deployment of renewables has fallen and about the nature of the barriers to rapidly scaling up synthetic gas to replace coal as back-up. I did not hear any convincing reason why it could not be done. The technology is there, but needs support for scaling up to achieve the price falls we have seen in other sectors (e.g. in battery storage, wind and photovoltaics).

The panel also suggested to me that a strong reason for fall in public support for renewables in Germany was the increasing costs of energy, due to the kick-start subsidies being added to the energy price paid by customers. I enquired if the subsidies for oil were also added to the energy price. The answer made it clear that this came from a different place in the public purse. We need all energy subsidies to be made fully transparent so that the public are aware of the real costs. We also need to recognise that the existing combined-cycle gas turbines can be fed by clean synthetic methane, removing the need for coal in providing a secure supply.

Germany is a big influencer at COP23, not least because of its excellent hosting, offering free public transport and bicycles to all delegates. But because of its coal dependence Germany is off-track to meet its vital target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions 40 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020. As Merkel joins the negotiations, data released earlier this year by Climate Analytics makes it crystal clear that the only way for Germany to achieve its own targets would be to stop burning coal.