Germany’s Hysteria over Cutting Carbon Emission Misses the Point

, by Trivun Sharma

All the versions of this article: [Deutsch] [English]

Germany's Hysteria over Cutting Carbon Emission Misses the Point

German politicians are the most fervent ones in the European Union when it comes to fighting climate change. Most recently, Berlin lawmakers proposed raising sales tax on meat from 7 percent to 19 percent in a bid to protect the climate and improve animal welfare. But with German politics’ singular focus on policy initiatives aimed at curbing globally negligible domestic CO2 output, Berlin is missing the big picture: meat consumption is not the problem in Germany, but the failure of the Energiewende and the resultant switch to natural gas.

Meat is currently taxed at a reduced rate of 7 percent along with most other food items as it is considered a staple food that is meant to remain affordable even for disadvantaged consumer groups. It is no surprise that critics of the tax hike – supported by both the Social Democrats (SPD) and the Greens – have rejected the idea as anti-social. For them, the move would do little to counter climate change but would end up disproportionally affecting low-income households.

Banning domestic flights?

This is not the first such idea proposed by German lawmakers to counter climate change. In July, the Greens proposed a plan to make domestic flights ‘largely obsolete’ by 2035. Their programme includes substituting domestic flights with better, cheaper and efficient train services, for which the German railway system Deutsche Bahn (DB) is to receive annual investments worth €3 billion. To discourage air travel, the Green parliamentary group in the Bundestag also proposed the gradual introduction of a kerosene tax on domestic flights, the value of which was proposed at 65 cents to a Euro.

However, it is doubtful whether taxing kerosene will be the one-size-fits-all solution as some German politicians hope. Airline traffic is a global industry and bringing about comprehensive change would require policy reform at the level of the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO).

The pitfalls of the Energiewende

All of these policy proposals are symptomatic of the fact that Germany’s efforts at cutting CO2 levels are not only failing to produce the desired results – they’re also entirely off the mark. Germany has been implementing the ambitious Energiewende programme for years with the objective to wean the economy off fossil fuels and increase reliance on renewables.

Berlin had hoped to make the country both energy independent and a leader in the fight against climate change. Yet despite far-reaching efforts to make use of more renewable energy, figures published by the Federal Environment Agency showed that, compared to 2017, carbon emission levels only fell by 4.5 percent in 2018, following a period of stagnation between 2014 and 2017. A draft report released by the government in June also admitted the country was set to miss its 2020 emission target by 8 percent.

The problem is that Germany has not been able to generate enough renewable energy to sustain itself. This is because Berlin has not properly planned for its energy needs during the transition period to full renewable energy, especially since the government decided to shut down all nuclear reactors by 2022. Germany today relies heavily on coal for its energy needs – a reliance with an environmental cost deemed unacceptable amid growing climate concerns, although there are plans to get rid of coal power plants by 2038. The solution to bridging the gap between fossil fuels and low-carbon energy bespeaks Berlin’s climate hypocrisy: natural gas from Russia.

The Nord Stream 2 fallacy

As coal and nuclear power use will eventually decline, the reliance on natural gas will rise. Though natural gas is considered to be a better option than coal, it remains a fossil fuel with problems of its own. The drilling and extraction of natural gas from wells and its transportation in pipelines result in significant methane leakage. An estimated 1 to 9 percent of all-natural gas produced escapes into the atmosphere, which is enough to erode the benefits of replacing coal with natural gas. Further, methane is known for trapping more heat than carbon dioxide. Significant increase of methane in the atmosphere can trigger global temperatures to rise beyond 2 percent, to the dismay of many environmentalists.

No wonder that Nord Stream 2 has been the subject of heavy criticism by several environmentalist groups. NABU, a Berlin-based environmental NGO, has raised alarms over the ecological harm caused by the pipeline to the coastal areas in Germany. In September 2018, environmental group Client Earth had also filed a complaint with a court in Sweden to block the construction of the pipeline through Swedish waters. The NGO claimed that the work of the pipeline involved detonating World War II-era bombs on the seafloor along the project’s 510-kilometre route, causing harm to marine life.

On top of that, the Russian energy giant Gazprom’s own record with carbon emissions is far from exemplary. According to the Carbon Majors Database, Gazprom – the owner of the Nord Stream 2 project and supported by a consortium of European companies, including major German players like Uniper and Wintershall – is among the leading government-owned entities responsible for GHG emissions. Russia for that matter has remained a champion of wasteful oil and gas flaring, more so than any other country.

For Germany, however, the problem with natural gas and Nord Stream 2 doesn’t simply end with environmental concerns. The Nord Stream 2 pipeline has also become a symbol of political tensions within Germany’s EU and non-EU partners. The project will enable Russia to deliver gas directly to Germany, bypassing the existing pipelines running through Ukraine. In other words, Nord Stream 2 concentrates the EU’s gas supply via Russia, while handing Moscow the opportunity to deliver gas to European customers without having to pay transit fees to Ukraine – and opening the EU up for blackmailing from Moscow.

The pipeline has consequently come under severe criticism from the European Commission, the United States and countries like Poland for making Europe more vulnerable to Russian pressure. Yet these concerns seems to matter little to Germany, with Merkel having reiterated her full support for the project and her government even pressuring other EU countries to “block an EU proposal to regulate Nord Stream 2” – a move that almost caused the fracturing of relations with Paris.

The German double standard

Merkel barely avoided an open falling out. However, this doesn’t mean she has learned her lesson. Given the enthusiasm for Nord Stream 2 in the government, one that considers natural gas a compromise on the way to a low carbon economy, little can be expected to change.

It is highly ironic that the same country whose politicians preach the loudest about climate change have shown little teeth in countering a project that will, in fact, cement the use of fossil fuel for years to come. Rather than focusing on socially divisive proposals like meat and kerosene taxes, the larger failings of Energiewende need to be earnestly examined, not only for Germany’s but also the EU’s sake.

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