Deputy Head of Greenpeace’s Political Unit (Berlin) talks about energy policy priorities for 2017, the economic benefits of alternative energy sources, and what to expect of Donald Trump.
- Mr. Münchmeyer, what is 2017 going to be like in the area of energy policy?
- This year Germany is going to see a federal election campaign. On 24 September 2017 the country’s citizens are going to elect the new members of the Bundestag. It is highly likely that six parties will make it into the parliament, among them a right-wing populist and Eurocentric political party Alternative for Germany (AfD). The country has not seen anything remotely resembling the current situation since the 1960s, that is, since the birth of the Federal Republic of Germany. Domestic security is bound to become one of the main topics in the election campaign. However, according to the polls, environmental conservation and energy production remain high on the list of issues that preoccupy the majority of Germans. Our aim is to show the voters how different parties incorporate these issues into their programmes and agendas.
- Speaking of environmental conservation and energy production, what are the priority areas in this department?
- Nuclear power certainly used to be the key topic in the past. Other problems have come to the fore since 2011, when the German government decided to phase out nuclear power completely by 2022. First and furthermost, we are talking here about coal-fired power stations. At this point it is quite clear that Germany is planning on pulling the plug on its coal mining industry. However, there are different ideas as to when exactly this will or should happen. While we demand that the coal-fired power stations be decommissioned by 2030, other organisations are talking about 2040, 2045 or even 2050.
Our second priority is the automotive industry, which is a particularly important topic here in Germany. We can confidently say that the days of the internal combustion engine are numbered. The German economy is currently experiencing serious external pressure. For instance, China has just introduced an EV [electric vehicle] quota plan, in accordance with which a specific percentage of all vehicles imported and sold in the country should be zero- and low-emission vehicles, i.e. electric cars. We maintain that by the year 2025 the production of internal combustion engines should be banned.
The third point on our agenda is the critique of intensive animal farming. We will do our best for these issues to be incorporated into the new coalition treaty.
- Is there a chance that the “energy turn” will take a radically different direction after the election?
- I do not think that we are to expect a sudden U-turn, a reversal of the nuclear power phase-out plan. I do not see that happening. However, the real question here is to the pace at which we are moving towards our set goals. In the worst-case scenario we will face a standstill, and if we are lucky we will make great strides forward moving quickly and confidently.
- How would you describe the stage that Germany is at now? What is your take on the “energy turn”?
- We have made progress, but it is rather limited. I would give it a “C”. We hoped that the deadline for the decommissioning of the coal-fired power stations would have been finally set by now and spelled out in the new climate change action plan that was adopted by Germany’s coalition government in November 2016. Yet the discussion is still under way and this is good news. By 2018 the Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy is expected to appoint a special commission overlooking the shutting down of the remaining coal mines and the phase-out of the coal sector. The commission will have to produce certain guidelines for this process and to decide on the fate of the jobs in the coal-mining industry. This will primarily affect the regions of Rheinland and Lusatia. Merely two years ago Sigmar Gabriel, Germany’s Minister for Economic Affairs and Energy, believed that the simultaneous phase-out of nuclear power and coal was impossible. Today this has become a reality and the new government will be forced to continue working on these issues. All in all, in today’s Germany renewable energy sources, such as wind, sun and water, supply a total of 33% of all energy produced in the country. It is an impressive progress compared with the data for 2011 when the share of energy from renewable sources stood at just 20.3%.
- It is quite possible that with the arrival of Donald Trump American environmental and energy policy will be altered. In your opinion, how will it affect the overall situation in the world?
- We are extremely worried. America has elected a President that on numerous occasions has expressed doubts about human activity having any impact on climate change. He has publicly promised to resuscitate the struggling coal industry. He picked Rex Tillerson, the chief executive of ExxonMobil, as his Secretary of State. He has announced that the US isready to quit the Paris Climate Agreement. These are all very worrisome signals.
Within several hours of Donald Trump’s inauguration ceremony, all of the climate-related references were suddenly missing from the White House website, apparently scrubbed by the new Trump Administration. Instead, the website now states that Trump is “committed to eliminating harmful and unnecessary policies in the Climate Action Plan”, President Obama’s strategy for climate change and energy solutions. Besides, one of Trump’s first executive orders in the Oval Office revived the Dakota Access and Keystone XL oil pipelines construction plans that had been rejected by Obama. Greenpeace activists have already held an anti-Trump protest, hanging a giant “RESIST!” banner from a construction crane near the White House.
- What would you say about President Obama’s record of environmental achievements, about his legacy in that area?
- All in all, I would say that his accomplishments are quite average. The main problem is fracking, the process of injecting pressurised liquid into subterranean rocks so as to force open existing fissures and extract oil or gas. Of course, if one compares Obama’s environmental record with that of his predecessor, G.W.Bush, it becomes clear that he has made good on his promises in that area. Bush was determined to develop nuclear power, Obama has practically knocked the bottom out of all these plans. He has also made a major contribution to the shaping of the Paris Climate Agreement. His Administration made several important decisions concerning the environmental protection of the Arctic, banned commercial fishing in the Arctic Ocean, and supported the UN agreement on marine conservation.
To be sure, the Trump Administration might cause new problems. Yet at the same time, the US President cannot make all of the decisions completely on his own, without consulting anyone. A lot of questions, particularly those that have to do with the funding for renewable energy projects, are solved at state level. In certain states, take California, for example, renewable energy sources play a big role in the economy. Alternative energy sources are hugely profitable. I doubt that Trump, who is a businessman first and furthermost, will decide to go against this trend. Perhaps, it will prompt him to revisit some of his beliefs.
- So are you actually saying that alternative energy sources are profitable? This runs contrary to popular belief that they do not generate revenue and are only able to thrive due to political backing.
- The technological potential of these sources is boundless. Their economic potential is expanding with every passing day. Equipment has recently become much cheaper. That has to do with a kind of tax, a surcharge, that energy consumers pay each month, regardless of the specific energy supplier they stick to. This surcharge goes towards the development of alternative energy sources and is part of their electricity bill. On average, a family of three pays a monthly surcharge of 22 euro for electricity. Industries and community enterprises are also required to pay specific fees. Thus, in 2016 alone renewable energy producers received 24,2 billion euro, which enabled them to sell energy at an underwriting price. That has worked to motivate the investors. The more money was invested into this sector, the more equipment was produced, and the cheaper it became not only for German investors, but also for other countries. Today, both China and the US invest much more into renewable energy sources than into coal, let alone nuclear power. This is a very positive trend. However, we believe that this is not enough. The success of alternative energy alone will not be able to help us achieve our goals. What is needed is an appropriate government policy geared towards the rejection of coal regulated by law that would stipulate the deadline after which the consumption of coal would become illegal.
- Fascinating! It means that Germany de facto sponsors the development of renewable energy on a global scale. What is the situation like with the EU energy policy?
- Practically all of the decisions in this sphere are made at the national level. This has both huge advantages and serious disadvantages. The Emission Trading System (ETS) was supposed to become a common European tool, however, because of the powerful industry lobbying it has yielded almost no tangible results so far. That is why we are seeking to reach out to specific countries. We succeed in gaining traction with our agenda in some countries, but fail in others. For example, Poland is the number one troublemaker in Europe when it comes to coal industry.
- Is the construction of nuclear power plants still under way in the European Union?
- The number of nuclear reactors has decreased from 177 to 129 since 1989. Today there are still several construction projects under way, but they make for a very small part of the energy market. There is one construction project in Finland, one in France, and Belarus and Slovakia both have two. Perhaps, there will be two more reactors built in the UK, but they are still to settle the question of subsidies. Hungary plans to build two Russian VVER 1200 nuclear reactors. Depending on whether or not the conservative François Fillon wins the presidential election this year, France might see the revival of the debate on that subject. The same goes for the potential victory of the right-wing populist Marine Le Pen. I do not think that Le Pen will be keen on building new reactors, but she will probably want to extend the operating lives of the existing ones well beyond the phase-out date.
So far, President Hollande’s policy has been geared toward the gradual closing down of nuclear power plants, which is not much publicised outside of France. France plans on reducing its dependence on nuclear power from 75% to 50% by 2025. It means that approximately the same number of nuclear plants that were shut down in Germany must permanently cease operation in France. This seems to be a rather dramatic transformation in the making. Let us not forget that some countries in the EU do not produce any nuclear energy at all, for example Austria, Ireland, Poland, etc. The Poles keep bringing up construction plans for the country’s first nuclear plant, but I very much doubt that these plans will amount to much.
- Is it possible to conclude, that the global trend has been towards the rejection of nuclear power?
- Absolutely. Today the remaining large-scale projects are mostly found in China. Both India and South Korea have been toying with some construction plans for some time now. In the rest of the world the nuclear plant construction has been rather limited, new plants coming on line are balanced by the old plants being retired. There have been many plans to build new power reactors in South Africa and Turkey enlisting Russia’s state energy corporation Rosatom, but I doubt that they will be implemented. The projects require vast amounts of invested capital. Although Russia has promised to provide debt financing, it is not very likely to have the funds to follow through with these intentions. At the moment the government does not even have enough money to complete construction of several nuclear plants on its own territory. There was supposed to be a new power plant built in Kaliningrad, but the construction works at the site stopped two years ago due to lack of funds. Compared to the burgeoning development that we are currently witnessing in the field of renewable energy, nuclear power is a marginal sector. There are practically no domestic producers of nuclear reactors left in the developed democratic countries.
- Will Brexit have any impact on energy policy?
- I am afraid, it is too early to say now. As I have mentioned earlier, Britain is seeking to build two reactors. But these projects are horribly costly, so I would not rule out the possibility that the government would put them on hold. In any case, there are plenty of old nuclear plants in the UK, which are going to be shut down soon. As a result energy production from nuclear power will drop in this country, too.
- What are the goals that environmental organisations have set themselves for the upcoming year?
- The world is currently in the grip of dramatic transformations, and it often seems that certain challenges that we are confronting today are way more important than environmental conservation. Just think about the global migration processes, terrorism or security. Our mission is to demonstrate to the public that all these issues have a lot to do with resources and energy production. Besides, we are witnessing the rise of authoritarian tendencies all across the world, which we find extremely disturbing. We would like to focus more on how the issues pertaining to human rights, free press and environmental conservation are interconnected. When the freedom of expression is curtailed, non-governmental organisations face additional difficulties in trying to reach out to the public and to communicate their agendas. Therefore, we are going to emphasise these issues in our work, and we shall also do it as part of the upcoming federal election campaign here in Germany.