There was fervent applause in Harvard Yard last week when the university’s commencement speaker, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, promised to “do my utmost to ensure that Germany, my country, will reach the goal of climate neutrality in 2050.”
If Merkel is really serious about that, her first step would be to reverse the blunder her own government made in March 2011: decreeing the end of nuclear power in Germany by 2022.
The ensuing Energiewende (energy transition), Merkel’s grand plan for a post-nuclear future dominated by wind and solar energy, has achieved relatively little, in terms of reduced carbon emissions, despite costing 160 billion euros over the past five years.
A recent report from the German Federal Court of Auditors says “the enormous effort made and the considerable burden placed on the citizens and on the economy” stand “in sharp contrast to the poor benefit obtained.”
Would the Harvardians have applauded if they’d known that? Not only will Merkel’s country fail to meet its 2020 goal of a 40 percent reduction in emissions, relative to 1990, but total emissions also stayed essentially unchanged for the Energiewende’s first six years — before falling 4 percent in 2018, mainly because warmer weather reduced heating demand. Germans pay the highest prices for electricity in Europe.
The essence of the problem: Formerly, Germany relied on 17 nuclear reactors for about 25 percent of its electricity. Now it gets about 12 percent from seven, having shut down 10 reactors with years of operability still left in them. Because renewables such as wind and solar could not yet feasibly offset the lost nuclear power, Germany had to replace it, in the short run, with new plants that burn — you guessed it — coal.
There is a global lesson here. For all its risks, nuclear remains a crucial source of low-carbon-emission baseload electric power, accounting for 18 percent of the advanced industrial world’s total electricity supply, and 10 percent of the world’s.
A report last month from the International Energy Agency says, “Without nuclear investment, achieving a sustainable energy system will be much harder.” In fact, the report says that meeting the 2016 Paris agreement’s carbon dioxide goals requires “an increase in nuclear power.”
As an affiliate of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, to which the German government belongs, the IEA goes out of its way not to criticize Germany by name, but the implied knock on Merkel’s Energiewende is obvious.
The point is not that Germany was necessarily wrong to pursue clean energy or that the Energiewende is doomed to fail. It’s just that Germany could achieve its carbon goals a lot sooner by keeping nuclear.
Merkel herself used to recognize this. In 2010, fulfilling a promise of her successful 2009 election campaign, she reversed a previous Social Democrat-Green coalition government’s policy and pushed through a law extending the operational lives of Germany’s nuclear power plants by an average of 12 years. “We urgently need to keep the plants up and running for longer,” she said, correctly.
As it happens, this economically and environmentally sound decision was politically unpopular. Though it’s the nation that gave us X-rays and quantum mechanics, and its nuclear plants have a perfect safety record — and it elected a physicist, Merkel — one of Germany’s cultural idiosyncracies is a phobia about nuclear energy.
When a tsunami crashed Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant in 2011, German antinuclear sentiment shot up, Merkel’s political courage evaporated and she flip-flopped.
Suddenly, nuclear energy, which she previously called a “bridge” to the renewable future, had to go, despite the slim chance of a Fukushima-like accident in Germany’s far different geological and technological circumstances.
The most legitimate concern relating to nuclear energy — waste disposal — doesn’t get much easier as a result of the accelerated phaseout. And now there are the risks and costs of decommissioning so many reactors at once.
Undaunted, a German government commission recently announced a goal of eliminating coal power, including the new plants, by 2038. With neither coal nor nuclear to hedge against sunless and windless days, Germany is pursuing natural-gas imports from Russia, which creates geopolitical risk — a.k.a dependence on President Vladimir Putin.
To be sure, France plans to reduce its reliance on nuclear by 2035, but to 50 percent of electric power, not zero. Even Japan — the actual victim of Fukushima — plans to retain a nuclear-energy capability.
Harvard’s honorary degree citation for Merkel calls her anti-nuclear policy “sensible and popular,” which is regrettably accurate about the second adjective, but woefully mistaken about the first.
Rather, as the IEA report implies, Merkel’s Energiewende is a case study in how not to manage economic and environmental trade-offs, a cautionary tale whose lessons the United States should heed.