The 15th of February 2012 was a notable day in Germany, even if no one noted it at the time.
The “Progress Report on the National Sustainability Strategy” was on the agenda of the German federal cabinet that Wednesday, where ministers of the ruling coalition at the time, consisting of the center-right Christian Democratic Union and center-left Free Democratic Party, nodded approval of the 264-page report without debate.
It's not known how many even bothered to read the report, which recommended raising the national target for carbon dioxide emissions reduction from 30 to 40 percent. Adoption of the report has had far reaching consequences.
Achieving the 40 percent target has long since become a bugaboo. The reduction has become an obsession for climate activists in the same way that achieving a balanced budget, the infamous "black zero", has consumed German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble.
The 40 percent cut is not set in law. The report is the only place the figure is specifically mentioned outside the usual political sermons. Yet the German federal government will go to any lengths to achieve it.
It’s worth looking back a few years to understand why hitting the target became an obsession.
First, the European Union decided to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent from 1990 levels by 2020. German Chancellor Angela Merkel added another 10 percent reduction for Germany in her first legislative period, coupled with the condition that other industrial nations ramp up their ambitions, too.
These conditions have never been fulfilled, and Germans are now burdened with an additional 10 percent. Despite its lack of legal impetus, the 40 percent target has become firmly entrenched in the minds of Germans.
Despite its lack of legal impetus, the 40 percent target has become firmly entrenched in the minds of Germans.
The latest report from the German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy demonstrates the grim determination to meet the goal. Operators of fossil fuel power plants are required by law to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by at least an additional 22 million tons within five years.
At least they can decide how to hit the targets. Plant operators could take a few older power plants offline. A couple of old coal-fired power stations don’t matter much.
But that doesn’t alter the fact that the government is taking a sledgehammer approach on energy policy. The ministry has already opened the way for further burdens with the reference to “at least” 22 million tons. It sees leeway of five to eight percent in reaching the 40 percent reduction goal by 2020 from today’s point of reference. It can still blithely make readjustments.
Meanwhile, the German Federal Environment Ministry has long demanded a reduction of 40 million tons of carbon dioxide from the power plant operators. When this is all totaled up, things are getting tight.
Obviously, the easiest way to hit the target is put the thumbscrews on the operators of coal-fired power plants. They already have massive image problems, meaning no one will stand up for their interests. And this strategy allows the government to cover up its inactivity over the past few years.
That achievement of the 40 percent goal is a long way off has been known for a long time, but unfortunately, no federal government has been able to properly address emissions reduction in other industrial sectors. If the government hadn’t been so consistently inactive in the building and transport sectors, the target would not be so far off.
German Economy Minister and Vice-Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel, a member of the Social Democratic Party, the junior partner in the ruling coalition, has repeatedly stressed that the country's transition process to green energy (the energiewende) cannot be allowed to endanger its standing as a business location.
Germany's coal-fired power plants offer a dependable and comparatively inexpensive form of electricity, even if they don't offer a long-term solution. Still, phasing out coal-fired power generation should be done with caution.
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