Germany’s 2020 greenhouse gas target is no longer feasible

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Some of us are slow learners. In 2011, Germany made the decision to shut 8 nuclear reactors and to close three more by 2020. The obvious consequence of this would be that Germany’s greenhouse gas emissions would be higher than they otherwise would have been.

This is simple arithmetic, yet it was denied at the time, and still is, by many (most?) people within the environmental movement. But now many in the environmental movement have suddenly noticed that Germany is not moving away from coal, and this is making their 2020 targets more or less impossible to meet. Naturally, dots remain unconnected, and Germany’s inability to move away from coal is not recognised to be the result of policies lauded by most environmentalists. A new form of denialism.

But how much do Germany’s emissions need to fall? The official target is for greenhouse gas emissions in 2020 to be 40% below 1990 levels. Germany has officially published GHG emissions figures for all years until 2014, and this is what it looks like: Emissions Right now, German emits the equivalent of 912 million tonnes of CO2. This target covers everything from burning natural gas to heat homes to the emissions from changing land use. It is mostly CO2, but includes some other greenhouse gases such as methane. The total reduction needed in the next 6 years is 160 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent.

Now. Look closely at the graph above, and you might see a problem. Germany has never reduced its emissions by this much in a 6 year period. In fact, the only time it can remotely close was in the early 1990s, and those cuts were mostly because of the closure of polluting east German industries after the Berlin Wall fell.

What makes it even more difficult is that Germany still has 3.9 GW of nuclear power plants to close before 2020. These power plants have average capacity factors of around 85%, so if we assume their output will be replaced by coal (as it probably will), then this replacement will result in an increase in Germany’s emissions of around 30 million tonnes of CO2 each year.

Furthermore, Germany’s emissions in 2014 were artificially lowered by warmer weather. They fell by 41 million tonnes of CO2eq. in 2014, but the majority of this was due to warm weather. Considering this and the nuclear closures, Germany really has to cut its emissions by something like 200 million tonnes of CO2 eq. in the next 6 years.

This is clearly much faster than anything it has achieved historically, and there is absolutely no indication that Germany’s policies will achieve this. Germany had planned to force coal power plant operators to reduce their emissions by 22 million tonnes of CO2 by 2020, but indications are that this will be rolled back to 16 million tonnes. These numbers are also clear. Politically troublesome regulations of coal power plants will merely result in cuts in emissions that are one tenth of what is needed.

The emissions target, then, will inevitably be abandoned. This appears to have been accepted privately, but denied publicly, by prominent figures in the German government. But baring any unforeseen incident, i.e. a global financial crash, it will be abandoned. I’m taking bets for when.

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15 thoughts on “Germany’s 2020 greenhouse gas target is no longer feasible

    Proteos said:
    May 21, 2015 at 5:23 pm

    One may add that nuclear power at its pinnacle in Germany produced 170TWh. If all plants were still open in 2020 and replacing coal, it would save ~160Mt CO2, or ~75Mt if it displaced entirely gas (which is impossible, there has never been more than 90TWh of electricity produced from gas in Germany).
    Suffice to say it would go a long way to make the target possible. Combining the pro-renewables policy and a status quo on nuclear power would have been most beneficial for Germany’s climate goals.

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      Robert Wilson said:
      May 21, 2015 at 8:09 pm

      True. If Germany had sensible energy policies they could have met the target. Don’t phase out nuclear; invest much more in wind than in solar; build gas instead of coal plant. This was not complicated stuff.

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        kitemansa said:
        May 25, 2015 at 1:28 am

        Build LFTRs (Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors) rather than either wind or solar and get inexpensive, RELIABLE carbon free power that can easily load follow.

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        Alexander Ač said:
        May 26, 2015 at 11:31 am

        Let’s not forget that Germany exports huge amounts of CO@ by exporting their car fleet all around the world. Great piece BTW, thanks.

        Alex

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        Robert Wilson said:
        May 26, 2015 at 12:08 pm

        Alexander

        I don’t think the fact that Germany has held on to its industry, unlike Britain, means it is exporting emissions. The opposite is true.

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    Christopher Willis said:
    May 22, 2015 at 5:42 am

    What do you use for plotting things? They look really solid and would like to replicate for my own visualization needs

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      Robert Wilson said:
      May 22, 2015 at 8:59 am

      I do my calculations in R and plot using the package ggplot2.

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    Jarmo Mikkonen said:
    May 23, 2015 at 5:58 am

    http://www.br.de/nachrichten/unterfranken/grafenrheinfeld-kernkraftwerk-countdown-100.html

    1.3 GW Grafenrheinfeld NPP closes in a month, ahead of schedule, in Bavaria.

    Germany is getting more offshore wind in the grid in the next couple of years. This spring there have been three 8-15 h periods when wholesale power prices have been negative in Germany. Expect these periods to increase and further depress power prices, while simultaneously increasing EEG levy.

    I am starting to wonder if there is any sense for power companies to keep coal plants operational? Falling wholesale prices, stricter CO2 emission standards and increasing renewable generation that cuts running hours – this means falling revenues.

    New renewable generation after 2015 is not getting paid when power prices are negative but there is close to 80 GW of old wind and solar capacity to whom this rule does not apply. I cannot see German wholesale power prices rising in the next 10 years, especially since all their neighbours are also building more wind and solar. More power price volatility in the horizon.

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      Robert Wilson said:
      May 23, 2015 at 7:10 am

      Jarmo

      Please keep things on topic. This is a post about emissions, not power prices.

      Like

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    kitemansa said:
    May 25, 2015 at 1:26 am

    Meanwhile, Sweden has met their much more stringent goal with nuclear power. Quelle Surprise!

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      Robert Wilson said:
      May 25, 2015 at 2:37 pm

      Where do you get that from? When did Sweden last build a nuclear power plant?

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        jmdesp said:
        July 7, 2015 at 2:08 pm

        Well at least Sweden kept it’s existing nuclear plant, reverting the decision to close them all which helped a lot. They would not be in the same position at all with regards to emissions if they had continued the initial plan.

        BTW about Grafenrheinfeld, it had only 6 more month of operation allowed and it needed a fuel reloading now. This is what explains the accelerated shut down, the profit from the 6 month of operation remaining was not going to pay the fuel reload and the cost of waste handling after that.

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    Paul Chefurka said:
    May 26, 2015 at 4:13 pm

    Germany was left with in a real policy bind after Fukushima: cutting CO2 emissions and nuclear power generation simultaneously was never a realistic prospect. I guess closing nukes buys more votes. Not that I am at all in favour of nukes – the prospect of poorly maintained nuclear plants following an economic collapse is more than a bit worrying – but nuclear power has never posed the global existential threat that CO2 represents.

    I completely agree with your final sentiment, one that is also supported by Tim Garrett’s research. The only thing that will reduce the world’s CO2 emissions is an economic collapse.

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