German Energiewende – A Weapon Against Climate Change, A Blueprint For A Third Technological Revolution?

Time is running out. Jeffrey D. Sachs, renowned world economist and director of the Sustainable Development Solutions Network strongly urges policy leaders of high and middle income countries to kick-start massive climate action immediately and congratulates Germany on its Energiewende.

“Carbon arithmetic is brutal: We are close to surpassing the 2°C ceiling, but the world makes little effort to prevent it and to reduce emissions sharply.

The cynicism, ignorance and inertia prevailing in global policy making frighten me,” he declares. Luckily, “Europe is already well ahead the rest of the world with its energy roadmap 2050.”

Could the German Energiewende become a trigger for innovation and a blueprint for other countries’ transitions to low-carbon economies?

Could it also provide food for thought for the Sustainable Development Goals?

Wolfgang Maier, deputy department head at the Konrad-Adenauer Stiftung launched an inspiring panel discussion on these crucial questions, organized jointly by his organization, the Sustainable Development Solutions Network and the German Development Institute on 4 March, 2014 in Berlin.

A third technological revolution

While the regulatory framework for the Energiewende and amendments in the feed-in-tariff, one of its driving forces, are currently heavily debated in Germany, this energy transition gains worldwide attention. “The global impact of the Energiewende goes well beyond energy. It could become a third technological revolution”, states the chair of the evening and director of the German Development Institute, Dirk Messner.

The industry plays along: “The Energiewende is not only a huge opportunity for Siemens, but an obligation for the industry to supply technology for low-carbon pathways and to thereby demonstrate feasibility” emphasizes Udo Niehage, Siemens representative for the German Energy Transition.

“Subsidies for renewable energies are still important today and can be reduced step by step”, he explains and calls on policy makers to provide the right regulatory framework for low-carbon transitions.

“Germany’s job is to present innovations and technological improvements to the world, leading to steep learning curves and hence to cost-reductions in renewables,” reinforces Claudia Kemfert, head of department at the German Institute for Economic Research. “In Germany, we will get on without nuclear energy, without CCS.”

Energy revolutions around the globe

From a global perspective, we might need “many energy revolutions addressing the different challenges in different parts of the world” according to Nebojsa Nakicenovic, deputy director of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis. CCS and nuclear energy could still be important for other countries.

“With 2.5 billion people still relying on fuel wood for cooking today and projected population growth [to 9.6 billion people in 2050, author’s note], the challenge will be to halve the emissions and at the same time double the energy supply until mid-century.

In the next 30 years, energy investments will need to double from 1.3 to 2.6 trillion USD. Providing energy access for the poor is of highest priority,” he complements the debate. “Europe can show that it will be doable.”

Carbon tax and performance standards versus emissions trading

Meanwhile, Europe is facing its own challenges with the EU Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) that so far failed completely and seems not to work for stock pollutants such as carbon, according to Sachs. Solutions are either reform or replacement by a carbon tax which was originally intended for the EU.

Jeffrey Sachs, Nebojsa Nakicenovic and Udo Niehage all suggest a combination of carbon tax and performance standard to replace the ETS in Europe.

Claudia Kemfert prefers to reform the EU ETS since it is in place, although she agrees that it was the wrong choice. Still, “debates on the ETS should not distract from the real debate on technology and physical implementation,” Sachs emphasizes. “We need to decide what to do with fossil fuels and to stop using fossil fuels altogether. Policies that constrain their use need to be put in place.”

Niehagen reaffirms “the key target should be to find solutions within the carbon budget.” Taxes are generally not well-liked by the industry, but NASA scientist James Hansen recently proposed a new carbon tax model, combining the tax with the incentive to disseminate the revenues to the best performers.

Climate solutions for Paris 2015

The Energiewende is an experiment. It provides solutions for the geophysical large-scale experiment humans have already engaged in by emitting massive amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

Addressing climate change adequately requires all the major emitting countries to join in and cooperate for the next decades to develop and deploy innovative, low-emission energy pathways.

“For the climate negotiations in Paris in December 2015, we need to accept physical boundaries” Dirk Messner concludes and Jeffrey Sachs suggests: “At Paris, every country should present their scenario for decarbonisation, and Germany and Europe should insist that all countries accept this approach”.

Right now we have all the information at hand, there is overwhelming scientific evidence on climate change, and the industry is willing to contribute their part. We only lack the political will.

Could this change until the climate negotiations in Paris in 2015? As a matter of fact, there is no other choice if we want future generations to continue life on earth.

About the Author Katrin Heeren

A professional expert in sustainability, sustainable energy and climate change topics, with over 15 years of work experience in various projects on sustainability and policy related issues, Katrin holds a M.Sc. equivalent degree in geology and completed a post-graduate environmental sciences course in 2010. Katrin worked on national climate policy for the German Federal Environment Agency, on international climate policy and carbon finance as GIZ consultant to the German Federal Environment Ministry, and she was involved in the intergovernmental founding process of the International Renewable Energy Agency in 2008. She is experienced in communicating complex subjects to diverse target groups and especially interested in creative writing and storytelling.

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