A tectonic shift: Reporting on the business upheaval triggered by the energy transition
For many years, it seemed to me the German business community and their associated lobby groups were dragging their heels in the shift to a renewable energy future, delaying or even blocking progress every step of the way. Policymakers had to push grudging companies toward this future, while business leaders noisily complained the energy transition was leading the country down a blind alley.
But now, the tables appear to have turned. By and large, it is companies that suddenly lead the way, while reluctant policymakers have to play catch-up. Countless new emission-cutting business ideas and innovations are popping up – both in young companies and industry behemoths – but are restrained by outdated regulation. An ever larger part of the business community is now concerned that Germany is falling behind in the global race to a low-carbon future.
The transition itself – and my perception of the shift – was subtle and gradual, but a few key moments stand out. Obviously, the tone of the debate had started to shift noticeably after the Paris agreement, when it finally dawned on many companies that Germany’s energy transition was not an isolated phenomenon, but had morphed into a global trend. Secondly, the landmark “Climate Paths” study by the powerful and in my view rather hesitant – to put it mildly! – Federation of German Industries (BDI) stated in early 2018 that the energy transition is good for the German economy. I vividly remember a seasoned and visibly stunned colleague whispering to me during the presentation: “Wow – Do I get this right? The industry now wants the energy transition!?”
A few months later, I wrote a deep-dive analysis for Clean Energy Wire with the headline “German industry embraces Energiewende transformation challenge.” At the time, I was seriously concerned about going out on a limb with this title – was this not going too far?
Thankfully, the events unfolding in the months to follow substantiated my interpretation. Industry now appears largely united in its vocal call for a price on CO2 emissions; VW announced its ambition to turn from dieselgate pariah to zero-carbon pioneer; chemical giant BASF plans to lead the way towards a low-carbon future, Thyssenkrupp sketched its path to hydrogen-based steel production, Lufthansa will start sourcing renewable fuel, and so on.
Obviously, many of those companies still have to put serious money where their mouth is. But it’s a start, and we see increasing evidence that a rapidly increasing number of company commitments to decarbonise now go well beyond greenwashing.
The idea has now firmly taken root in much of the business community that decarbonisation is an irreversible phenomenon – and that you can make good money when you take the lead. Visiting start-ups like Lumenaza, Thermondo and ubitricity for our ongoing series of portraits was also a revealing experience in this regard - their overall dynamism, optimism, ambition and confidence is infectious.
My impression is that both environmental journalism and business journalism still need to adapt to these new realities, and I can’t wait to discuss these issues at the Global Energy Transition Journalism conference #GETJO19.
Next week, I’ll be heading to the world’s largest industry fair in Hanover. I can’t wait to see how the fight against climate change is reflected there. Let's see whether there is even more evidence of a tectonic shift.