Germany closes its nuclear power plants and hence keeps it coal fire plants running. This decision is a disaster for climate change mitigation as it ensures that the German carbon dioxide emissions are kept on their already far too high level. It is hard to understand why the green movement still applauds the German nuclear phase out.
Again, world leaders gather to discuss climate change. This time it is in Doha, Qatar, where Swedish secretary for the environment Lena Ek, her German counterpart Peter Altmaier, and many more gather under UN patronage trying to agree on solutions that shall ensure that the global temperature rise stays below 2 degrees Celsius. Unfortunately, their efforts seem doomed right from the outset. Partly because the World Bank's recently released report warns that the temperature increase might be a full 4 degrees already during this century. And partly because it will be difficult to convince countries of the need to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions while Germany, in sixth place in the global emissions league, follows up on the decision to close its nuclear power plants by 2022.
The German so-called “Energiewende” is widely applauded by environmentalists. But is it really a good decision for the climate? Is it really ethical to phase out nuclear power instead of coal? Just consider that every produced kilowatt hour (kWh) of electricity causes approximately 20 times more carbon dioxide in Germany than in Sweden. Therefore the answer to both questions should be a clear “No!”, regardless of what you think about nuclear energies to be or not to be in the long term.
The fact that Germany still prefers to close its nuclear power plants has of course several reasons. Firstly, what was - in the wake of Fukushima – at stake was Chancellor Angela Merkel’s political survival and, secondly, the decision preserves the significant and subsidized coal mining industry. And all the while Germany can point to a gigantic investment in solar and wind energy. It is thus a win-win-win situation for the German government. But what about the climate? A national investment in solar and wind energy on the scale of several tenths of a percent of Germany's GDP every year and for several years to come is in many ways admirable. For it may well be worthwhile to examine what the so-called alternative sources of energy are capable of on a really large scale. And it is interesting to see if and how Germany's electricity generation and electricity networks can handle the planned rapid and large-scale conversion.
But it's also about making choices, tough choices sometimes but still choices. And unfortunately Merkel and Germany prioritize wrong. The same initiative but with the goal to close the majority of coal-fired plants, which today along with gas and oil power plants account for about 60 percent of Germany's electricity should, by contrast, not only yield applause but standing ovations. That way a large industrialized country like Germany could have shown that it takes climate change seriously. Instead, nuclear power plants that generate electricity with low carbon dioxide emissions are closed and Peter Altmaier advertises, without facing any major protests, the opening of new coal fired plants. That these actions are glorified by the great majority in the environmental movement is difficult to comprehend. From a global perspective, which must be applied in environmental issues, the responsibility to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions is de facto handed over to other countries. Other countries located in, e.g., Africa and Asia which have a much harder time to reduce their own emissions, and are often actually in need to increase them in order to raise living standards and improve health care, education, etc.
Some easily verifiable figures on carbon emissions seem in place here. According to the International Energy Agency the carbon dioxide emission per kWh electricity amounts to 22 g for Sweden and 468 g for Germany (2008-2010). Sweden produces its electricity to roughly one half from hydro power and the other half from nuclear power. Germany uses 60 percent fossil fuels. The corresponding figure for France, which has 75 percent nuclear power, is 77 g, for Poland with nearly only coal power it is as high as 798 g, and for Denmark, with the highest proportion of wind power, it amounts to 385 grams carbon dioxide per kWh of electricity. The fact that Denmark lies so high is of not the fault of wind power but due to the fact that the base load is produced from fossil rather than nuclear fuels.
Given these numbers and the growing threat posed by climate change the environmental movement should reconsider their stance on nuclear power. At least the priorities should be re-evaluated instead of the blind euphoric cheering in favor of Germany's pro-fossil decision.
Welcome steps in the right direction are taking place in the UK where prominent writers like George Monbiot, Mark Lynas, and many others, now argue for nuclear power and where The Independent recently could report that the “heads of organisations representing more than 1,000 nuclear and renewables companies” have written to David Cameron calling on establishing a legally binding decarbonization target for electricity generation.
Unfortunately, the climate in Germany is very different (pun intended). The already enforced closure of nearly half of all German nuclear power plants have led to an increased use of fossil fuels, thus increasing Germany's carbon emissions. In a report by the green Heinrich Böll Stiftung, however, writer Craig Morris actually claims that Germany has the right to increase its emissions claiming that it surely will meet the Kyoto Protocol target anyway, and furthermore argues that the EU emission trading scheme (ETS) will ensure that carbon emissions are limited.
Is this the end of the green movement? Does this mean that the Greens in Germany are happy with the ETS and assert that this trading scheme will be sufficient to protect countries like Bangladesh from further worsening of the flood disasters that regularly hit the country while the Greenland ice sheet is about to melt away completely, literally turning Greenland into green land? Does that mean that environmentalist believe that the Kyoto Protocol will limit desertification around the world and prevent more heat waves, now almost annually causing thousands of deaths in Europe?
I do not claim that nuclear power is completely free from problems. For example, it is clear that, as with all technologies, efforts to continuously improve the safety are necessary. But nuclear power is a powerful source of energy with very low carbon emissions per kWh, and should therefore play a significant role in the global energy supply. Therefore, I argue that if we take climate change seriously and think globally, need nuclear power in Sweden, Germany, and elsewhere. It is to be hoped that the broad environmental movement realizes this while there is still time.
[translated and adapted from an article in Dagens Nyheter on November 27, 2012]