Nordic forests 1, German coal 0

By Richard Black, ECIU Director

Separated at their closest by only the breadth of a Schengen Agreement border, remarkably similar in standard of living and societal desire to appear 'green', you might imagine that Germany and the Nordic countries would very much walk the same walk when it comes to climate change and the Paris Agreement.

Judging by this weekend's news - not so.

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Coal remains a brown scar on Germany's green ambitions. Image: Bert Kaufmann, CCL

To the north, leaders of the five Nordic nations (Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden) - released a Declaration on Friday evening affirming not just rhetorical but real-world support for the Paris Agreement.

They will, they said, increase their own carbon-cutting measures to align with the Agreement's aspiration of holding global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

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Nordic leaders enjoyed a low-carbon Friday in Helsinki. Image: Finland PM's office

The Declaration includes promises to tighten their national carbon-cutting pledges to the UN climate negotiations (their NDCs), step up short-term action, and work collectively to achieve net zero emissions (a target that Sweden has already set in law with a target date of 2045).

In sectoral terms, the Declaration covers transport (shift from cars to other forms, and electrification), forestry (enhancing absorption of carbon dioxide from the air), industry (carbon capture) and much more.

Critics will point out, justifiably, that there are as yet no details - but the direction of travel is clear, as is the desire to align national policies with the Paris Agreement 1.5ºC target. That's an important clarification, because in October the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) spelled out the very real differences in impacts we can expect from 1.5ºC vs 2ºC of global warming.

Green vision, brown reality

South of the Nordics/German border, things looked a good deal browner.

Germany has had a 'coal problem' for years. Having decided to close its nuclear power stations by 2022 due to deep mistrust among a population that had lived through decades of Cold War risk, coal-fired power stations have continued to run and belch carbon dioxide pretty much unabated over the last decade. As a result, Germany's carbon footprint stubbornly refused to shrink - even as it sought and received plaudit after plaudit from environmental campaigners who, one can legitimately argue, allowed the nation's world-leading build-out of renewables to blind them to its continued reliance on the most polluting fossil fuel.

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With coal and cars running, Germany's emissions have stayed stubbornly high. Image: Clean Energy Wire

With the politics of ending coal trapped in intractability due to powerful unions, incumbent companies and provinces, the government decided to set up a multi-stakeholder Commission to recommend a way forward. Its recommendations emerged over the weekend, and the two numbers that jump out are the phase-out date of 2038 and the price-tag of €40bn.

Last October, the IPCC told us that in order to have a decent chance of meeting the 1.5ºC target, global emissions should roughly halve by 2030. Logic suggests that rich, developed nations cut first and fastest - and indeed the text of the 1992 UN climate convention obliges them to. Logic further indicates that chopping out the most polluting fossil fuel first would be the thing for those rich, developed nations to do.

So it takes no great leap of logic to conclude that Germany's coal phase-out date of 2038 is not compatible with the Paris Agreement.

And logic is backed up by analysis, not least that from the independent Berlin-based research institute Climate Analytics. Number-crunchers there calculated that Germany's Paris-compatible coal phase-out date is 2030; and that if Germany did act on this timescale, that would trigger a number of side-benefits in terms of reduced costs from air pollution.

Politics of numbers

In reality, the phase-out agreement is political, not evidence-based. As an example, apologists for Germany's stubbornly high emissions have often argued that because it is phasing out nuclear power, it can't simultaneously lose coal generation capacity.

And yet... it clearly can.

All remaining nuclear stations, with a combined capacity of 9.5 gigawatts (GW), will close by 2022. Under the coal commission's recommendations, it will also close more than one-quarter (12.5GW) of coal-fired generation by that time. That's a total of 22 GW of baseload (or baseload-capable) generating capacity gone in just three years.

And we're expected to believe it will need a further 16 years to phase out the remaining 32.5 GW of coal-fired power stations? A virtual quartering of the annual rate of baseload closure?

Winds across Europe

As the Nordic Council Declaration implies, for a government to claim legitimately that it's committed to the Paris Agreement, it needs to have a strategy in place that will lead to net zero emissions around 2050, and beforehand in the case of rich developed ones.

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Keep digging for another 20 years, says Germany's coal commission. Image: Royston Rascals, CCL

Interestingly, Germany is discussing whether to introduce a new climate change law - and if it does, logic would suggest it includes a Paris-compatible timescale for net zero emissions. For a country keen to claim green credentials, where the Green Party is rising up the political ladder as the traditional parties of both Left and Right lose voters, it would be impossible to envisage any other outcome - would it not?

So how this plays out in Germany - how the imperative for a swift net zero transition collides with the reality of stubborn coal and car industries - will be interesting in itself.

Still more so at a European level.

Late last year the European Commission adopted a goal of getting to 'climate neutrality' - net zero emissions - by 2050. Such a goal will have to be endorsed by governments of European states. The Nordic Council Declaration implies that its EU member states - Denmark, Finland and Sweden - will be pushing for adoption of the Commission plan, or possibly something more stringent.

Will Germany?

And what of the bloc's habitually recalcitrant nations - Poland, and the other members of the Visegrad Group? On coal, they will now be able to hide behind Germany. And of course there's a circularity here - the less pressure there is on the coal industry, the slower will be the transition to a clean energy economy, and the greater resistance to adopting a science-based net zero pathway. And the less stringent the net zero pathway, the greater leeway there'll be for coal.

So Germany's delayed coal phase-out has implications well beyond its borders. Over the coming months we'll see if the Nordic nations' enhanced appetite for carbon-cutting provides a sufficient counterweight for Europe to justifiably claim once again the title in which it revelled back in the mid-2000s, of a 'climate change leader'.