June 1, 2011

THE INTERNATIONAL Energy Agency reported on Monday that global energy-related carbon emissions last year were the highest ever, and that the world is far off track if it wants to keep temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius, after which the results could be very dangerous.

So what does Germany’s government decide to do? Shut down terawatts of low-carbon electric capacity in the middle of Europe. Bowing to misguided political pressure from Germany’s Green Party, Chancellor Angela Merkel endorsed a plan to close all of the country’s nuclear power plants by 2022.

German environmentalists cheered, apparently satisfied that the government will be able to scale up renewable energy sources and scale back electricity demand enough to compensate for the loss of the power plants, which produce a quarter of the nation’s electricity. But the Breakthrough Institute, a think tank, points out that renewables would have to generate an incredible 42.4 percent of the country’s electricity in 2020 to displace nuclear. The government could bring that number down some with very aggressive reductions in energy use. But, even then, all that will merely hold the German power industry to its current carbon footprint. The country has an ambitious goal to reduce emissions, which will require yet more drastic reforms to its electricity sector — and all, apparently, over the course of a single decade.

European financial analysts aren’t convinced, estimating that Germany’s move will result in about 400 million tons of extra carbon emissions by 2020, as the country relies more on fossil fuels. Nor is Donald Tusk, Poland’s prime minister, who ominously announced that Germany has put coal-fired power “back on the agenda” — good for his coal-rich nation directly to Germany’s east but terrible for the environment and public health.

Germany is also likely to import more power from its neighbors, regardless of how well it does in ramping up renewables, since sometimes the wind does not blow and the sun does not shine. Utilities across Europe may end up burning more coal or natural gas. Anne Lauvergeon, chief executive of French nuclear parts manufacturer Areva, predicts that after shunning nuclear, the Germans will end up buying electricity generated in nuclear plants in nations such as France.

Instead of providing a model for greening a post-industrial economy, Germany’s overreaching greens are showing the rest of the world just how difficult it is to contemplate big cuts in carbon emissions without keeping nuclear power on the table. Panicked overreaction isn’t the right response to the partial meltdowns in Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex. Instead, countries aiming to provide their citizens with reliable, low-carbon electricity should ask how to minimize inevitable, if small, risks — making their nuclear facilities safer, more reliable and more efficient.