10 Oct 2017, 00:00
Benjamin Wehrmann

CDU & Greens' energy politicians clash over Germany's coal exit speed

One week before the start of exploratory talks on forming a government coalition, aspiring German government alliance partners CDU and the Green Party agree that the country will have to phase out coal-fired power production. Yet, two of the parties’ energy representatives argued over its speed and shape at an event in Berlin. The Greens’ Julia Verlinden says a coal exit is inevitable to reach Germany’s 2020 climate targets, whereas her CDU counterpart, Thomas Bareiß, wonders whether these emissions reduction targets can be met at all.

The CDU and the Green Party are at odds over the future of coal in Germany, energy politicians' remarks made at a conference organised by the Tagesspiegel newspaper in Berlin have shown. [Also see the factsheet When will Germany finally ditch coal?]

Thomas Bareiß, energy policy representative of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative CDU party, said a German coal exit would have to happen “one way or another”, but added that its exact timing and structure still had to be debated. Germany’s looming phase-out of nuclear power production, which is slated for completion by 2022, puts too much strain on the country’s energy system, as it cannot cope with a simultaneous exit from coal, its most important fossil power source, Bareiß said.

The nuclear phase-out is part of Germany’s Energiewende, the process of steering the world’s fourth largest economy towards a low-carbon energy system. It will continue under Germany’s new government, irrespective of eventual coalition combinations, but the steps and pace necessary to reduce the country’s CO2 footprint vary greatly among political camps. Emissions from coal-fired power plants make up about one third of Germany's total greenhouse gases.

Bareiß argued that even an immediate closure of Germany’s oldest coal plants - a prominent Green Party demand - was a “very ambitious” goal, and it also presented a potential risk to the security of the country’s power supply, because renewable power sources could not instantly replace hard coal and lignite plants. Nevertheless, Bareiß said he was “confident” that a coalition agreement with the Green Party and the market liberal FDP could be concluded.

The Green Party’s Julia Verlinden said she was less certain whether a so-called ‘Jamaica’ coalition, dubbed this way because of the parties’ black, yellow, and green colours mirror the Caribbean country’s flag, can be forged. “I’m not sure that we’ll make it, as very difficult talks lie ahead”, Verlinden insisted, referring to the negotiations that are scheduled to start on 18 October.

Verlinden said the speed and shape of a coal exit should not be subject to fundamental debate if Germany was to honour its own 2020 climate protection targets, as well as its commitment to the Paris Climate Agreement. “A coal exit has to come quickly”, Verlinden said, pointing at Germany’s risk to miss its emissions reduction goal and the recent increase in CO2 output.  Sven Brauers/Sven Teschke

In her view, an eventual ‘Jamaica’ coalition agreement must include a clear roadmap for a coal exit, as well as concrete measures for further emission reduction in all sectors. Such an agreement must also remove the limits to the expansion of renewable energy sources to ensure the security of Germany’s power supply. In its election manifesto, the Green Party calls for a complete phase-out of coal-fired power production by 2030.

Leading Green Party politicians recently signalled they were confident a pro-climate coalition with the FDP and the conservative CDU/CSU alliance was possible if progress is made on climate protection. The three-camp coalition is currently seen as Germany’s only viable coalition option after the vote on 24 September, as the Social Democrats (SPD), the conservatives’ former coalition partner, announced that it will join the opposition. However, they made clear that a number of potential climate and energy policy stumbling blocks could still obstruct or even prevent the formation of a Jamaica government.

Weather decisive for reaching 2020 goals?

The Green's Verlinden said that the CDU’s current climate policy was not leading Germany anywhere near to achieving its 2020 targets, stressing that the country’s emissions had actually been rising lately. The CDU’s Bareiß countered that party leader Angela Merkel had “always taken climate seriously”, and that Germany needed to continue its efforts to remain at the vanguard of international climate protection.

However, Bareiß conceded that the 2020 goals might indeed not be achieved, as merely two years remained for initiating the necessary policy measures. “The weather alone can be an obstacle here”, Bareiß noted, adding that particularly cold winters or little sun and wind would have an immediate effect on the country’s emissions and the share of renewable power production in the immediate future.

Energy economist Claudia Kemfert, who was also present at the Tagesspiegel conference, seconded Verlinden by saying that there was “no other option” for the country to reach its 2020 emissions reduction targets but to shut down its dirtiest coal plants.

However, according to Kemfert, an eventual ‘Jamaica’ coalition would offer a chance for a “fresh start” of climate protection efforts in Germany. The economist said that the parties’ different areas of expertise, such as the Greens’ focus on the environment or the FDP’s insistence on market-based instruments, were compatible and could produce innovative solutions for emissions reduction.

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