German coal phase-out criticised but welcomed on whole

Students demonstrate during a meeting of the country's Coal Commission at the Federal Ministry of Economics in Berlin, Germany, 25 January 2019. [Adam Berry/ epa]

Green activists have criticised the German coal commission’s goal of phasing out coal by 2038, saying it is too late. But environmentalists and industry representatives at least agree it could lead the way for other countries. EURACTIV Germany reports.

The negotiations were tough, most recently involving a 21-hour-long meeting to wrangle over the final dates for phasing out coal. But, measured against the various interests that are dependent on the powerful coal sector, the coal commission’s compromise announced on Saturday (26 January) morning was positively received by the vast majority.

German Federal Minister for Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety, Svenja Schulze (SPD), said there had been “very, very good work” and her colleague from the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy, Peter Altmaier also praised the outcome.

“By the way, phasing out coal is just ONE part of what has to happen in total for #climateprotection. We also need the capacity for compromise and the will to find solutions in other areas like transport or agriculture. We’ll make sure of this by establishing a climate protection law,” Schulze tweeted.

Altmaier left the question of whether the German government would stick to its objectives open for now. He added the ministry would need a few days to review the report in detail.

“We are ready to make a very quick start with respect to funding,” he told the public broadcaster ARD. He said there was already an initial budget for this, with €1.5 billion a year available until 2021 for an immediate programme in the German federal budget.

But this could not happen overnight. Altmaier added that “we will need a number of laws” and that this process would take at least a few months.

France also hesitant about energy transition

Former minister-president of Saxony and one of the chairs of the coal commission, Stanislaw Tillich, stressed the projection effect that implementing the schedule would have. It could be “an example for other coal regions in Europe and beyond.”

In France, where nuclear energy is what coal long was to Germany, the French energy transition is also being worked on. On Friday (25 January), the French government presented its multiannual energy programme. It foresees a significant expansion of renewable energies, which currently constitute only around 20% of the French electricity mix.

What’s in the German coal commission’s final report?

With negotiations having lasted eight months and the outcome already postponed once, the German Commission on Growth, Structural Change and Employment (the so-called “coal commission”), has presented its final report. What’s in it? EURACTIV Germany reports.

The German coal commission’s plan therefore sent an important message to its neighbour, believed Audrey Mathieu, senior advisor on Franco-German and EU low-carbon policy at Germanwatch.

“The commission is showing the way to an energy industry in which renewable energies constitute the fundamental pillar,” Mathieu said.

“In France, it’s currently being decided whether nuclear energy will be used as a bridging technology or whether it will actually remain the foundation of the French energy mix in the long-term. With the commission, Germany has therefore taken an important first step which sends a signal to other EU states,” she added.

However, the plan was not enough to achieve the Paris climate objectives, Mathieu emphasised. For these to be met, there needed to be a review in 2023 and further measures taken, such as establishing a minimum price for CO2 in the electricity sector.

The French Climate Action Network also considers the objective of phasing out coal by 2038 to be too late and is calling for there to be a Franco-German energy agreement to drive forward the European energy transition.

This would “make it possible for both countries to speed up the end of coal mining and nuclear energy in order to meet the commitments of the Paris Agreement.”

Power station operators against environmental activists: not happy but open to dialogue

Meanwhile, environmental activists in Germany are also welcoming the compromise reached.

For instance, one of the coal commission’s chairs and former director of the think tank Agora Energiewende, Barbara Praetorius, told the Süddeutsche Zeitung daily newspaper: “I’m not happy with the level of ambition but I’m satisfied with what has been achieved. It’s a compromise where all legitimate concerns were taken into account.”

She added that Germany would at least achieve its climate objectives for 2030, provided that decisive measures were also taken in other areas.

But DIE LINKE (The Left) party was much more critical.

“‘Brave climate protection does not look like this. The proposals by the #coalcommission are clearly in the coal lobby’s handwriting. Phasing out coal in 20 years is much too late both for the climate and for humanity,’ says @katjakipping #Endcoal,” DIE LINKE tweeted.

At the other end of the negotiating table, the energy company RWE stated that “the proposals by the commission have serious consequences for RWE’s lignite business”, adding that the company was certainly “open to discussions.”

This was expressed in diplomatic terms since the coal commission’s report specifically calls for the Hambach forest in Western Germany to be preserved. The forest is at risk of being cleared by RWE and has long been a symbol of the German energy transition.

Michael Vassiliadis, the chair of the miners’ trade union IG BCE, who is also a member of the coal commission, said that a compromise had been reached, “which can’t make us happy but is mainly satisfactory.”

On the other hand, the far-right AfD is not satisfied at all. There is concern about the huge cost of phasing out coal.

“The bitter irony of this is that those who are so severely harmed by this are supposed to pay for the damage caused themselves,” said its environmental spokesperson Karsten Hilse. He said that “the path of ‘climate church’ ideologists” was being taken and that there was “finally agreement about the surest way of making Germany a poor agricultural country.”

“Commission for phasing out coal: Soon there’ll only be energy for the rich! Karsten #Hilse, environmental spokesperson: “The #AfD will put a stop to this dirty manoeuvre in the bumper election year of 2019 and name those responsible,” the AfD parliamentary group in the German Bundestag tweeted.

In the meantime, the German federal states are pleased with the coal commission’s planned financial assistance. Over a period of 20 years, €40 billion is to be invested as financial support for the structural change.

This was an “incredibly huge figure” that Saxony would have never come across on its own, its minister-president Michael Kretschmer said on Sunday (27 January).

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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