Among the many and diverse climate policies and programs driven at different levels in European countries (European, country, regional, and local), it seems difficult to choose a specific one as the most successful, and even more, that could be proven by results which happened directly in 2023; as usually, emissions measurement take some time to be ready and published.
Based on the available data, it can be argued that the most significant climate policy or program in Germany with a measurable impact on changing emissions levels would be the so-called “Energy transition” (Energiewende), particularly the shift from coal to renewable energy sources in the power sector.
This transition might not necessarily be seen as a policy itself as a whole -at least not when it began with the first related regulations- but one can today describe it as one. It is derived from multiple specific laws that have contributed significantly to reducing emissions in the electricity grid and changing the source of that power to cleaner sources, mainly renewables.
One of those laws was the 2020 Coal Phase-out Act, a law to define the process of coal used to generate electric power (Kohleausstiegsgesetz) to put Germany’s energy mix on a more sustainable path to gradually phase out the use of coal to generate electricity by 2038.
“Power generation from coal has long served German industry, and despite Germany’s reputation as an ecological role model, the cheap, carbon-intensive fossil fuel is still an important pillar of the country’s power supply, despite its high emissions factors. Hard coal and lignite had a share of 35.3 percent in German power production (compared to 38% from renewables, 11.7% from nuclear, and 12.8% from natural gas in 2018). The energy sector is responsible for a large share of Germany’s greenhouse gas emissions (37 percent).” Source: Clean Energy Wire ( share of renewables corrected based on UBA’s data)
“In 2019, about 43 per cent of electric power was generated from renewable sources including wind and solar power – thanks to the wide range of state assistance available. (..) The procedures to be adopted when decommissioning power plants and paying compensation to operators are laid out in the Coal Phase-out Act. A new program to promote greenhouse-gas-neutral heat generation has been launched parallel to the legislation. (..) The goal is to make electricity generation and consumption greenhouse-gas-neutral before 2050”—source: German government.
Parallel to this, the federal government supports the affected regions, helping them with such structural change. “Under the provisions of the Structural Development Act (Strukturstärkungsgesetz), the federal government has earmarked up to 40 billion euros to support the affected regions, enabling them to move towards a more sustainable economy with higher quality employment as coal is phased out. The federal government has provided up to 14 billion euros for significant investments. Other affected and structurally weak locations can also receive assistance, with one billion euros available. In addition, there will be supporting measures in coal mining areas.” Source: German federal government. Germany had experienced a similar structural change before when hard coal mining was phased out from the states of North Rhine Westphalia and Saarland (closing down its last hard coal mines in 2018). However, lignite remained a major source, and its mining has still been performed. More information on this is here.
Moreover, the so-called Climate Action Act (Klimaschutzgesetz, 2019, with several revisions, one currently planned), which lays out the emissions reduction goals (also for each of the sectors), could also be seen as part of the Energy transition policy, together with the older “Renewables energy law” from 2000 “, particularly in the interests of climate and environmental protection, the transformation to a sustainable and greenhouse gas-neutral power supply that is based entirely on renewable energies.”
Germany aims to be climate neutral by 2045 based on the Climate Action Act but also has set a goal for emissions reduction by 2030 (65% less CO2 than in 1990), which seems hard to achieve as of now (based on the German environmental protection agency UBA Unweltbundesams’s Report Projektionsbericht 2023 für Deutschland).
Furthermore, by 2030, renewables are to account for 65 % of gross electricity consumption (power sector). “The power sector — which generates the electricity used to run everything from kettles to data centers — is the biggest source of Germany’s emissions. It spews almost as much pollution as the next two biggest sectors combined. 2022 after Russia invaded Ukraine, Germany burned more coal to replace a shortfall in imported gas. The sector’s emissions increased but were still below the legal limit.” (..)
“Germany must cut pollution in the power sector to 108 Mt by the decade’s end. So far, emissions have fallen from 369 Mt in 2010 to 256 Mt in 2022.”
Source: Deutsche Welle.
Despite 2022’s increase, Germany has surpassed its power sector targets in recent years, compensating for slower progress in other areas. Closing coal plants and increasing renewables (wind turbines and solar panels) have been the main paths. While other sectors like transport, building, and agriculture have also seen reductions in emissions, the progress in these areas has been slower or less impactful than the changes in the power sector. The waste sector has already surpassed its legal target for emission reduction, but its overall impact on total national emissions is minor compared to the power sector.
The Energy Transition includes, among other measures, ensuring more energy efficiency and the stability of the grid and even research projects to find innovative ways for the same, including stable energy storage. Still, also the phase-out of the nuclear energy plants finished with only a short delay (due to the energy crisis sparked by the Russian war and consequent gas prices increase) as planned in 2011 after the Fukushima nuclear accident (called Nuclear power phase-out law, Atomaustiegsgesetz): in April 2023 were turned down the last three plants in the country.
Thus, all these mentioned factors based on the so-called Energy Transition policies amid exogen factors such as Russia’s war on Ukraine and its consequences have influenced the increase in renewable energy to the point that according to the UBA’s (German Environmental Protection Agency) predictions, in 2023 for the first time, Germany produced more than half of its power based on renewable sources. That is about 5% more than in 2022, when the increase reduced the renewables share in coal’s share -as mentioned before- and less wind as it occurred in 2021 due to atmospheric conditions, among other factors).
The following graph -available in German only from the UBA- shows the development of the share of renewable energy in power consumption in Germany and the 2030 goal defined by the Renewables Energy law of 80% share by 2030.
In summary, Germany’s energy transition, particularly the shift to renewable energy in the power sector, stands out as having the most significant measurable impact on reducing emissions in 2023, despite the forced shift from Gas to coal happening only the year before in 2022. The following graph does not include data for 2023. Still, it shows the historic amount of greenhouse gas emissions avoided by using renewable energies in all sectors, including electricity (power generation)—source: UBA.
The following graph (available in German only) shows in detail the estimated emissions (as of 2022, by the German Climate Protection Agency, UBA) avoided by the power generation for each of the leading renewable sources: Wind, Solar, Hydro, biowaste or sources with a total of 180.6 M tonnes of CO2 equivalent emissions for the year 2022; in which (as shown above) the renewables share in power generation was only 46%. (See first graph above for Strom (Electricity), with M tones CO2 equivalent emissions avoided by energy source: Biomasse (biomass), Wasser (Water), Wind, Photovoltaik (solar) and Geothermie (Geothermal energy).
Thus, it is clear that the increase in renewable energy derives from reducing fossil energy sources, which are much more contaminated and vital to achieving the climate neutrality goal. However, the grid stability without nuclear energy in the energy mix (as decided more than a decade ago and now fulfilled as a political decision, thinking not only on the risks but the nuclear waste issues) added to a large consumption makes such a large share of renewables a challenging goal.
Thus, the Energy Transition policy includes increasing energy efficiency and limiting energy supply needs. Additionally, the development of energy storage solutions and an intelligent energy network are being researched and developed. For instance, the concept of “Gas power” is one of the most expected to be developed, where excess wind or solar power could be used to produce hydrogen, which could be sent back to the power grid via fuel cells. Also, a decentralized structure with many small power generating stations could replace the large power plants. All the R+D of these solutions and options is also being supported by more than 180 Universities and a further 120 research institutes, supported by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research. Moreover, the Ministerium leads the main German R+D institutions researching these topics: Fraunhofer Institute, Max-Planck, and the Leibniz Gemeinschaft.
Furthermore, “various ministries are involved in reshaping Germany’s energy policy:
- The Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Climate Action (BMWK)is the vanguard of such efforts. This ministry promotes energy efficiency and ensures that Germany has a reliable and affordable energy supply.
- The Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Nuclear Safety and Consumer Protection (BMUV)) sets policy for climate protection and the development of renewable energy. It is also in charge of radioactivity exposure and nuclear reactor regulations.” Source: UBA
Overall, the sustainability of the Energy Transition is a challenge faced by one specific country and humanity. The expected benefits are also not limited to reaching specific citizens. The increase in renewable energy is key to achieving climate neutrality. Many technological and political hurdles still need to be overcome.
The challenge is on, and Germany is facing it firmly. An even more structured and organized approach to measuring and reporting emissions among the different federal institutions and ministries is reclaimed by experts. (Brigitte Knopf, ERK (Experts for Climate Questions institute –Expertenrates für Klimafragen) representative quoted by NDR)
This Post was submitted by Climate Scorecard Germany Country Manager Katherine Cote.