Interview
24 Aug 2021, 13:01
Kerstine Appunn

People in rural areas feel the CO2 price already, now we have to help them adapt - Saathoff (SPD)

Picture shows a dike in East Frisia with windmills in the background.
"We should remind the southern German states to also make their contribution to the energy transition and expand wind energy nationwide before we start thinking about carbon capture and injection," says MP Johann Saathoff, SPD. Photo: AdobeStock.

The Social Democrats - emerging from a legislative period with a “great deal of dissent” in energy policy with its conservative coalition partner - are hoping to find new partners and new ways to drive forward the expansion of renewable energies in Germany, Johann Saathoff, MP for the SPD and energy expert in the parliamentary group tells CLEW. If in power after the September election, his SPD will work towards a more inclusive energy transition, be it when new wind parks or powerlines are built or when alternative means for heating and transport are needed to avoid rising CO2 costs. If an earlier coal phase-out could be put into law, he would be the last to oppose it, Saathoff says, as long as no coal worker is left behind. Since it is MPs who have the final say on German energy and climate legislation, CLEW has started an interview series with parliamentarians from all major parties to get their view on the most important energy transition issues in this campaign.

Johann Saathoff hails from the rural shores of East Frisia in north western Germany where, as mayor to the municipality of Krummhörn, he has been involved in the energy transition, for example the establishment of wind parks, long before the faster expansion of renewables and ways to include citizens in the process made it on to the national agenda. Since 2013 Saathoff has been the SPD directly elected candidate from the area to the federal parliament (Bundestag) where he is a member of the Committee on Economic Affairs and Energy. This has put him in the thick of parliament’s negotiations when reforming the Renewable Energy Act (EEG) that is to ensure more renewable installations throughout Germany. At the same time he’s keeping an ear open for the concerns of those living in the countryside, their worries about e-cars, and rising CO2 costs for heating and driving.

CLEW has taken a good look at the party programmes of the main competing parties in September’s general election. We wanted to know from their MPs what they consider to be the most important climate and energy issues that need to be tackled by the next government and how they plan to flesh out the ideas presented in the election programmes.

Johann Saathoff, SPD. Photo: Saathoff.

Clean Energy Wire: The IPCC report has just stressed the urgency of climate action. Germany's Climate Action Law was only recently tightened.  Are even greater efforts necessary – and possible?

Johann Saathoff: Yes, I believe they are necessary. In our programme for the future, we Social Democrats have made a major commitment to the goal of climate neutrality in 2045, and for this we need the corresponding measures. I am rather doubtful that we will achieve the goals with the current set of instruments. It is clear that we need an increased expansion of renewable energies, prioritising wind energy as a driving force. And we need a clear promotion of hydrogen infrastructure and lots of other measures. In many areas, we are on the right track. In the field of electricity we have made clear progress, but in the field of transport progress is still limited – that has to be said clearly. In my constituency there is a VW plant that is currently being converted to electric car production. I hope this will happen quickly, and I also see that demand for electric cars is increasing. But I am very concerned about the heating sector, where we have simply achieved far too little and the renovation rate should be much, much higher. Low hanging fruits have not been identified and used. There are still far too few solar installations on roofs in cities.

The SPD was involved in everything that happened or didn't happen in the last government.  What does your party want to do better or differently in a next government?

It is certainly no secret that we have not always been on friendly terms with the CDU-CSU throughout our grand coalition. We have had a great deal of dissent in energy transition policy over the past four years. While the CDU-CSU wanted us to define large distances for wind turbines, there was clear resistance from the SPD side. It was only later that we agreed the distance of wind turbines from settlements should be no more than 1000 metres. I want to make it clear at this point: the Social Democrats were the progressive part of this government, and with us in charge, much more would have been possible. The fact that the target of 65 percent renewables share in electricity consumption by 2030 could only be standardised in the EEG in the second attempt, although we had already agreed on it in the coalition agreement, speaks volumes. We are dealing with clear opponents of the energy transition. My hope for the next legislative period is that we will work together with people who take the energy transition seriously and will shape its implementation with us.

"It is very important that citizens feel they or their communities are participating in the economic success [of the energy transition]."

Johann Saathoff

How exactly do you want to involve citizens in the expansion of wind power and the electricity grid?

When building new wind parks, it is important that people have a say. This is my experience as mayor of a municipality that has a lot of wind energy. Input from citizens must be taken seriously, even if this sometimes results in a wind turbine not being built or a compromise being found. On the other hand, it is very important that citizens feel they or their communities are participating in the economic success. That's why I'm glad we eventually managed to standardise the 0.2 cents per kilowatt-hour contribution from local wind parks to the communities, because that's a lot of money for the council.

What does this mean for the citizen wind parks – do they continue to guarantee acceptance?

I am a big fan of getting municipalities onboard because then all citizens are involved – from welfare recipients to millionaires. But beyond that I realise there must also be people who are allowed to invest freely. But I would do it in the following order: first involve the municipality and then the citizens directly. When it comes to the expansion of electricity grids, the most important thing is citizen dialogue and participation. Often these dialogues are offered, but then only contain announcements, so citizens do not have the impression that they are really involved. This has to be done more seriously.

Are you confident about the renewables and power grid expansion happening fast enough, or do you fear an energy infrastructure gap or even a supply shortfall?

The infrastructure gap describes above all the lack of storage options for renewable electricity. That is why, in my view, it is very important that we also invest in storage. As far as electricity grids are concerned, we have unbelievable efficiency losses. In principle, we still operate our electricity grids in the same way we did 30 years ago, but there are an incredible number of technical achievements that could be used to channel more electricity through existing grids. I am not saying we don't need new electricity grids. We certainly need all the planned connections and maybe some more beyond that. But I also want to make the case that we should operate our grids more efficiently than we have been doing so far. The German transmission grid is used at an average of 27 percent, which is simply too little in these times. The grid infrastructure must also adapt to volatile renewables. This can be done with high-temperature cables, temperature monitoring and phase shifters, and many other technical options.

Showing a grid of energy and climate in German parties' election programmes.
Climate & energy in German parties' election programmes

The downside to the German electricity system is the continued large role of coal-fired power plants – would the SPD in government adjust the coal phase-out date of 2038 or will market forces push out coal?

[laughs] We are not really the party that says "the market will sort it all out". I am proud that we have succeeded in standardising the coal phase-out. We have a phase-out date of 2038 and want to see if it's possible to exit as early as 2035. I am relatively sure that, driven by the CO2 market, it will be over much earlier, but I would not advocate it. If there could be a regulatory basis that brings the end forward to 2033, 2032 or even 2030, which also depends on the coalition partner, then I would certainly be the last one to say, no, we won't regulate that because it will develop in a market-driven way anyway.

What would a market-driven earlier coal phase-out mean for a just transition in the industry and for workers?

That's what we had the Coal Commission for, to set the dates and the subsidies for the regions and workers. However, if the exit date changes for whatever reason, we will not abandon the workers. Our hope is to organise this structural change in a way that does not leave anyone behind.

When should Germany ban the sale of cars with combustion engines?

We as the SPD have not set a date for this. So far, the incentive for the automotive industry to move further into electromobility is the fleet consumption targets. This is a good instrument for convincing the car industry. And I am currently seeing an enormous increase in demand for electromobility – this may be due to the purchase premium, but not only – so I believe people's concerns about insufficient range and charging options have faded into the background. For me, that is a good sign.

Does the SPD stand for a transport transformation in which cars with combustion engines are replaced one-to-one by electric cars?

No, we are also focusing on local public transport models and on the sharing economy, as far as this is possible and as far as the labour policy framework conditions are acceptable. This has to do above all with digitalisation. The automotive industry is not only faced with the challenge of changing the drive system, but also with the huge challenge of digitalisation. In other words, autonomous driving. If autonomous driving is possible in a legally secure and safe manner, there will of course be completely new perspectives for local public transport models in rural areas.

The use of electric mobility in rural areas is often presented as a problem – can you understand why?

No, not at all, the opposite is the case. Electromobility is a great opportunity, especially for rural areas. Of course, people need to overcome many worries ­– will I always have enough electricity? I have had a lot of conversations about this, and especially about the range. But very few people drive more than 100km a day, and long journeys to Munich are even rarer. This also applies to the question of the wallbox, which many consider necessary. I charge my electric car at a 230-volt socket. One hour of charging gives me a range of 10 km. Actually, the normal socket should be sufficient for almost every electric car owner. Awareness of this is currently growing.

The admittedly cheap end-product that we have [in the German food system] is produced at the expense of animals, people and the environment. Reversing this trend is incredibly difficult.

Johann Saathoff

Climate neutrality will require less meat consumption, different farming techniques and a lot of land provision for renaturation and moorland rewetting – how do you initiate the necessary change, and how do you get consumers and farmers to support climate protection?

I sat on the Bundestag's Agriculture Committee for seven years, and it has to be said that structures have been built up in Germany for decades that are only concerned with the cheap end-product. And this admittedly cheap end-product that we have is produced at the expense of animals, people and the environment. Reversing this trend is incredibly difficult. And it was particularly difficult with such a coalition partner, which is closely linked to the food-producing industry, especially in the Agriculture Committee. In order to reverse the trend, we first need appropriate impulses from the highest government levels. For four years now, I have experienced nothing but a complete lack of ideas. For the SPD, the principle is that we only want to pay public money for public services in agriculture, and in the case of direct payments we have now achieved a certain redistribution and refrained from paying support only according to land size. But in the end, these are very small steps that had to be taken against the resistance of the agricultural lobby.

I don't want to impose any regulations on the consumption of meat. But I would like to say that during my time as an agricultural politician I have already started to eat meat more consciously. Less and of higher quality.

In this context, how do you assess the results of the Commission on the Future of Agriculture? Is it a first step that the environment and agriculture sides have agreed on a compromise, or is it just a piece of paper?

In the end, it is "by your deeds you will be judged". I haven't seen many people in the political space in the agricultural sector who are willing to put the whole thing on its feet and build it up sensibly, but I am happy about anyone who takes the initiative to do so.

Besides emission reductions in all the sectors already mentioned, the IPCC has also made it clear that negative emissions, such as CO2 removal, are also important for slowing down warming. At the moment CCS is effectively banned in Germany – does that need to change?

I'm not entirely sure whether CCS might eventually need to play a role in reaching the goal of climate neutrality in 2045. But at the moment I don't see any room for it at all. And that's just as well. I am a bit irritated that CCS is suddenly finding prominent supporters again. I can still remember the last CCS debate and the fact that there was actually a broad consensus among the population that we don't want to use it in Germany. I don’t see a fundamental change in this opinion. I think that before we think about something like CCS, we should first do our homework. First of all, we should remind the southern German states to also make their contribution to the energy transition and expand wind energy nationwide before we start thinking about carbon capture and injection.

"Certainly, energy will become more expensive. But it is even more expensive to do nothing. And I think we can tell people that."

Johann Saathoff

Bundestag President Schäuble has said that voters deserve the truth when it comes to the costs of climate protection, and the same certainly applies to the many changes in everyday life that a transformation to climate neutrality will bring. How do you communicate that to your voters?

Of course, in conversations with citizens I sense that there are fears. Fears also regarding the question of "will everything be more expensive now". Every change triggers fears, and it is the far-right AfD who plays on these fears of the citizens. In the end, climate protection costs money. Certainly, energy will become more expensive. But it is even more expensive to do nothing. And I think we can tell people that. Moreover, climate protection is an opportunity and has always been in the view of the Social Democrats. I have also said this in many speeches in the Bundestag, including to the AfD – if you don't want to expand renewables out of climate protection considerations, then do it for tough industrial policy reasons. After all, climate protection and the expansion of renewable energies is also quite clearly about creating valuable jobs.

Since the beginning of the year there has been a CO2 price for fossil fuels in the transport and buildings sectors, which is an additional burden for tenants and commuters that is gradually being perceived as such – are you worried about public protests comparable to the yellow vests?

Yes, the CO2 price is now being noticed. And I also believe that we would have been threatened by yellow vests if other people's price ideas had been implemented – I heard suggestions such as 180 euros per tonne of CO2. We Social Democrats have always said that we don't want to lose people on our way through the energy transition and that we want to give them opportunities to adjust to it. Now, with a CO2 price of 25 euros, people are noticing it at the petrol pump and when they heat their homes. Electromobility is gaining momentum, so people can now think about how to ensure their mobility in a different way over the next few years when the price will rise. And when I hear that the price must have a steering effect, then I can say that here in rural areas, where the workplace is 50 km away and people live in houses that are 100 years old and difficult to renovate, these 25 euros already have a steering effect. But people must be able to react to this regulation – that is, to have alternatives, and we must ensure that this is possible in the next legislative period.

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