Interview
22 Sep 2021, 15:08
Benjamin Wehrmann

German conservatives have laid groundwork for making country climate neutral by 2045 - MP

"Together for a modern Germany" - election promise by CDU chancellor candidate Armin Laschet. Photo: CLEW / Wettengel
"Together for a modern Germany" - election promise by CDU chancellor candidate Armin Laschet. Photo: CLEW / Wettengel

The conservative CDU has been heading Germany's government since 2005 - and used its time in power to lay the groundwork for making the country the first climate-neutral industrialised nation before the middle of the century, says MP Carsten Müller. The honorary chairman of energy efficiency initiative DENEFF told Clean Energy Wire in this interview he is confident that his party will manage to steer the country through big upcoming changes, such as the transformation of the car industry, or putting a higher price on carbon emissions, without relying on prohibitive rules and excessively burdening citizens. Müller told Clean Energy Wire that his party has always been transparent about energy transition costs - and that he would accept storing carbon dioxide in his neighbourhood if there's a sound concept behind it.

Carsten Müller runs for the CDU in Braunschweig, Lower Saxony, and is honorary chairman of energy efficiency initiative DENEFF. Photo: Tobias Koch

Clean Energy Wire: Climate change has undoubtedly become a defining issue of Germany’s 2021 general election. Worsening climate forecasts by the UN, a landmark ruling by Germany’s constitutional court condemning the government’s climate policy and especially the deadly floods that devastated large parts of western Germany and other countries in July have firmly pushed global warming into the centre of public attention. What can and what should a new government do to address this surge in public concerns that the outgoing one failed to achieve? And what would your party contribute?

Carsten Müller: First, this is not just about addressing public concerns, but about addressing the threat of global warming, which is real and severe. The floods in July have shown that in the most brutal and shocking way. The answer to global warming has already been there for years: We must reduce our greenhouse gas emissions to zero. The sooner the better. My party wants to achieve this in the most ambitious way: We want Germany to be the world’s first industrial nation that is carbon neutral. In recent years, the CDU-led German government has already taken important measures to accomplish that goal. We have decided to end the use of coal-powered energy by 2038 at the latest and have strongly promoted renewable energies, which in 2020 already contributed more than half of net electricity generation in our country.

But we have to do more. As one of 29 members of my parliamentary group in the German Bundestag, I call for more ambitious measures to achieve climate neutrality. We have manifested this with our position paper “Green Zero." We have to encourage an even stronger transformation of our energy system and reduce bureaucracy, which is one of the main obstacles to renewables expansion. This is why my party wants to cut red tape and facilitate licensing procedures. We will also have to intensify our efforts to promote energy efficiency to decrease the pressure on renewable energy capacities needed in the transport and buildings sectors.

The CO2 price introduced at the beginning of the year has been welcome by almost all parties and also enjoys pubic backing – but environmental groups say that it is still far too low and has to rise quickly to become truly effective. Moreover, the Bundestag’s President, Wolfgang Schäuble, has recently advocated telling voters "the truth" about what effective climate protection will cost the country and citizens individually. Do you think the parties have so far been honest about the expectable cuts to consumption levels and lifestyle?

Putting a price on CO2 is an important issue for me. One thing is quite clear, however: The current price of 25 euros per metric ton of CO2 is too low to have a sufficient effect in the short term. To ensure that national CO2 emissions trading can have a real impact in the medium term, we have decided on a continuous increase in the CO2 price and want to move as quickly as possible to European emissions trading for mobility and heat. I believe that my party has been very honest with the costs that the transformation entails for both consumers and companies. Already ten years ago, our current CDU economy minister Peter Altmaier stressed that the energy transition does not come for free.

In the long term, though, effective climate policy will prevent much higher costs. The floods in western Germany showed us that, too. The government has approved a reconstruction fund of 30 billion euros and the damage itself, according to insurers, amounts to seven billion euros. If we don’t act now and accept cost increases in the short term, taxpayers will have to face a much heavier burden in the future.

You are an advocate of a market-driven approach to climate action and are critical of the German Renewable Energy Act’s (EEG) approach to fund energy transition investments with state support  Do you think the German coal exit that grants state compensation to operators and allows operation until 2038 makes sense given that market forces all indicate that ETS allowance prices will make coal power economically unviable much earlier? And does the coal exit law need to be revisited?

Germany is the first industrial nation to exit both nuclear and coal-fired power. The basis for our law to end coal-fired power generation was the deliberations of a commission of representatives from society, non-governmental organisations, business and politics. After thoughtful consultations, the commission recommended an end to coal-fired power generation in Germany by 2038 at the latest. In 2026, 2029 and 2032, we will examine whether the decommissioning dates for power plants after 2030 can be brought forward three years in each case, thus achieving an exit in 2035. In view of the major challenge of reconciling the concerns of affected companies and employees with the goal of a rapid reduction in coal-fired power generation, I believe that the tender mechanism chosen is the right one.

I believe that my party has been very honest with the costs that the transformation entails for both consumers and companies.

Carsten Müller

More renewable power capacity is the cornerstone of any new government’s energy and climate policy, but expansion has been far too slow in recent years to match ambitions regarding the available clean energy supply in 2030. Given your experiences with wind power in your home state Lower Saxony, the state with the largest number of wind turbines in the whole country, what do you think needs to happen to boost expansion levels for wind and solar power across Germany? And how should it be funded?

As I already mentioned, last year we reached a very important goal with more than half of our electricity being produced from renewable sources. But it is true that we must do more. First of all, we need more efficient administrative processesand reduce bureaucracy to concentrate competencies. We should set a maximum processing time for permits for new renewable energy installations. In the case of onshore wind turbines, the duration of the whole administrative authorisation procedure should ideally be three months, but not longer than half a year. My party will also advocate at the EU level for an acceleration of planning procedures and work in the framework of the Aarhus Convention to facilitate fast planning procedures.

Secondly, we must continue to drive forward turbine repowering and exploit all potential there, as well as densify existing wind farms where possible. We will also have to establish priority areas for photovoltaics and wind energy. Besides, weof course need skilled workers - without skilled workers, there can be no energy transition. That's why we need to provide companies with targeted support in recruiting trainees and retraining and integrating the previously unemployed. Thirdly, grid expansion has to be accelerated. To this end, we must create a legal framework that enables proactive grid expansion in the distribution network.

Finally, acceptance by local communities is key. By establishing a mechanism that gives communities the ability to participate financially in renewable energy projects, we’ve implemented an important measure to increase acceptance among the local population. When it comes to funding, we have a variety of options. Carbon pricing revenue could be used to finance renewable energies. We could also generate sources for funding by removing subsidies for fossil fuels. But most importantly, in the last two decades, costs for producing wind and solar energy have decreased significantly. Already today, many renewable energy projects are profitable without any subsidies at all. In the near future, this trend will intensify.

Your home constituency is close to the home of Germany’s biggest carmaker, Volkswagen, and the car industry plays a huge role in the local economy. How confident are you that the German car industry can achieve a turnaround to electric mobility and retain its current level of innovation and profitability, and what is the mood in your home region? Could clear technological regulation, for example a ban on combustion engines, help companies to have planning security for investments that ensure the German car industry remains an international top brand?

I am absolutely confident that the German car industry will manage to transform its portfolio in a way that it will remain a global leader. German carmakers are still the most innovative in the market and have presented numerous well-received electric cars of unrivalled quality in recent years. After initial scepticism, they have completely understood the role electric mobility will play in the transformation of the mobility sector. Concerning a potential ban on combustion engines, I don’t believe that this would be a wise strategy. We should remain open to different technologies and should not risk path dependencies. Renewable and synthetic fuels, fuels made of waste as well as hydrogen-based cars have big potentials we should not disregard by focusing on electric cars only.

Lower Saxony is known for its large agricultural sector, where livestock and other farming activities play a huge role in local identities and economies. Do you think agriculture could soon become a new “battle ground” in the public debate around climate change and what would you say has to change in the sector to better adapt it to the environmental challenges?

Our farmers are a central part of our culture and history, especially in Lower Saxony. A strong and sustainable agricultural sector is indispensable. Farmers shape our cultural landscape and are the foundation of a strong food economy. Digitalisation and new molecular-biological technologies can make agriculture more environmentally friendly and competitive, keep harvests stable with less use of pesticides and, which is especially important, can reduce water consumption. That is why we want to enable the responsible use of new technologies based on clear rules and will continue to promote the digitalisation of the agricultural sector, ensuring that farms of all sizes can benefit from it.

Negative emissions achieved through carbon capture and storage (CCS) are still a taboo in German politics, as voters in the past have clearly rejected storage projects in their regions. But industrial companies like Salzgitter near your home constituency bet on technologies that allow them to store away CO2 emissions they cannot yet avoid in their production, and calls for reopening CCS as a possibility are growing louder. What is your position and what would you say if a storage facility would be planned near your own hometown?

I am a proponent of efficient market-based instruments and I am convinced of the power of innovation and our engineering skills. An open approach to technology offers the chance to examine potentials, conduct tests under real conditions, evaluate innovations and, if possible, exploit them. My party is committed to securing and promoting opportunities for CCS. This requires intact carbon cycles (CCU) and thus the technologies for solid-state storage, CCUS, as well as the development of a CO2 infrastructure. We want to discuss this together with our European partners. As a resident of the region with the three [temporary] nuclear repositories in Germany, I am aware of the public debate and the challenges the search for repositories entails. If the site of a CCS storage facility were to be located in my home region in a procedure regulated by the rule of law and according to scientific criteria, I would address that decision objectively.

You are honorary chairman of the German energy efficiency initiative DENEFF, and the buildings sector has played a major role in your work on the German energy transition. After more than ten years at the helm of DENEFF, how high are your hopes that there will be an effective modernisation wave in the German buildings stock any time soon?

The issue of energy efficiency in buildings is fundamentally important for the success of the energy transition, as buildings account for about 14 percent of Germany’s total emissions. Over the past 30 years, emissions have been reduced by 43 percent, from 210 million tons of CO2 to 120 million tons of CO2 in 2020. However, we have not achieved the 2020 target of a further reduction of emissions. We have therefore launched additional measures that will put us back on the road to success here and build the foundations for a renovation wave.

Firstly, we have introduced a tax incentive for energy-efficient building refurbishment. This will give owners of houses and apartments greater support in refurbishing their buildings. Then there is the new federal subsidy for efficient buildings, with which we are efficiently bundling and expanding the existing programmes and promoting a wide range of measures, for example to optimise heating systems. I believe that this will put us back on track and will stimulate significant emission reductions in the sector.

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