Germany leads Europe with target to reach 100% clean power by 2035

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

German Minister of Economics and Climate Protection Robert Habeck (L) smiles during a press conference in Berlin, Germany, 11 January 2022. [EPA-EFE/FILIP SINGER]

Germany’s surprise commitment to decarbonise its electricity by 2035 is a sign of things to come, writes Charles Moore. It is only a matter of time before more countries join Germany, the UK, the US, and Canada, which have set their sights on 100% clean power, he argues.

Charles Moore is Europe lead of energy think tank Ember.

This week’s surprise news that Germany will decarbonise its electricity by 2035 was the ‘cherry on top’ of its announcement last year that it will aim to end coal power by 2030.

Robert Habeck, the federal minister for economic affairs and climate action, presented the new measures on Tuesday, saying that climate neutrality in the electricity sector by 2035 is essential for 1.5C and is “an ambitious target that we will meet.”

Germany was widely anticipated to cling to gas as it clumsily transitioned away from nuclear and coal this decade. But it now has made it clear that the future will be powered by renewables.

Two of Europe’s largest gas power users – Germany and the UK – have now committed to end power generation from this fossil fuel by 2035. The move brings these countries in line with what is needed to keep 1.5C within reach.

Clean power is a hallmark of a credible Net Zero plan

The announcement by Germany strengthens the emerging consensus that the rapid and early decarbonisation of electricity is an essential feature of any credible net-zero plan.

Clean power delivers a positive feedback loop of emissions reductions through electrification of sectors like transport, heating and industry. Without it, economy-wide decarbonisation is impossible.

However, to unlock these benefits, clean power is needed well in advance of mid-century net-zero targets. The International Energy Agency’s Net Zero Roadmap sees advanced economies like the EU decarbonising their electricity by 2035. The EU’s modelling puts this milestone soon after.

The big players are already starting to take note. This year, G7 countries agreed to ‘overwhelmingly’ decarbonise their electricity in the 2030s, while the UK, US and Canada have all made separate commitments to achieve emissions-free electricity by 2035.

Germany is the latest major economy to join them, while several EU countries including Austria, Sweden and Denmark are already targeting a renewables-based electricity system in the 2030s.

Last year Europe’s biggest utility, Enel, announced it will phase out gas and reach 100% renewables by 2040, hitting net-zero ten years earlier than planned.

The spotlight is now on Europe’s gas problem

Germany’s gas exit is a sign of things to come, but there’s still a long way to go for Europe to be gas-free.

The EU-27 is the world’s second-largest producer of gas-fired electricity, and five countries are responsible for almost three-quarters of that: Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain and France.

Europe’s accelerating coal exit means there’s now nowhere left to hide for fossil gas. It is telling that in 2020 emissions from gas power plants overtook lignite – the most carbon-intensive fossil fuel.

Countries like Poland that are planning a major expansion of gas power this decade are failing to grasp how quickly the energy landscape is shifting under their feet.

It is no longer enough for EU countries to sit back and be happy with exiting coal; they must now set their sights on the next milestone – clean power by 2035.

However, it doesn’t help matters that even Europe’s transmission system operators (ENTSOs) are not planning for this. We recently showed that all the scenarios in the draft TYNDP pathways see the EU miss the crucial milestone of carbon-free electricity by 2035.

Furthermore, European countries remain divided on the gas question. Despite concerns raised by the European Commission, a slim majority of EU member states voted to allow gas projects in the TEN-E regulation earlier this year. This month, leaked EU drafts revealed plans to label some fossil gas plants as “green” investments.

All of this contributes to a messy set of contradictions around the future of gas in Europe. Despite this, one thing is clear: there’s never been a better time to accelerate the transition to wind and solar.

Seizing the moment

The recent energy crisis driven by soaring gas prices has underlined the benefits of an accelerated transition to homegrown renewables. Countries that commit to move away from fossil fuels aren’t just making a climate statement but also working towards ensuring energy security.

As the EU shifts to a renewables-based electricity system this decade, countries that drag their feet will face high electricity prices, an uncompetitive economy and increasing pressure to act as the climate crisis unfolds.

The stage is set for a high-ambition coalition on zero-carbon power by 2035 to emerge. The EU, US, UK and Canada could play a pivotal role in aligning policy and finance towards this goal. Actions taken by this coalition could drive emissions reductions in the next decade while adding integrity to net-zero targets around the world. The EU should seize this moment without delay.

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