A landmark agreement has been reached by the German utility industry, coal miners, leading environmental movement, and other local interest groups that clears the way for the country to stop burning coal to generate electricity over the next 20 years. The agreement came at the end of a marathon 20-hour long bargaining session involving all stakeholders.
Subject to the approval of state and national leaders, the terms hammered out by the 28 member commission appointed by Chancellor Angela Merkel last year will put an end to Germany’s reliance on coal, a reliance that has fueled the country’s industrial might for generations. Many thousands of coal miners and dozens of coal companies will be affected by the new policy.
The agreement strives to balance the economic needs of miners and companies that depend on coal with the needs of the nation to uphold the pledges it made in Paris three years ago to dramatically reduce its carbon emissions. It calls for investment of up to €40 billion over the next 20 years for job retraining programs, as well as compensation to utility companies that agree to shutter coal-fired generating plants ahead of schedule, according to a report by the New York Times.
It is hoped that creating a new policy through consensus rather than through government mandates will avoid the sorts of citizen protests experienced recently by France and the bitter feuds between utility companies and environmental groups that have become common in Germany in recent years. It is also expected to tamp down opposition from nationalistic groups opposed to climate change action which have gained political power in Germany recently. Those groups have strong support in the German states where coal mining is a way of life for many.
“This is an historic effort,” Ronald Pofalla, the head of the commission, told reporters in Berlin. He stressed that each of the interest groups had made concessions in order to reach an agreement. “I would hope that the conflicts of recent years will now no longer be necessary, because dialogue within society contributed to reaching a consensus.”
After the agreement was announced, Johan Rockström, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research said, “The whole world is watching how Germany — a nation based on industry and engineering, the fourth largest economy on our planet — is taking the historic decision of phasing out coal. This can help end the age of finger pointing, the age of too many governments saying: Why should we act, if others don’t? Germany is acting, even if the commission’s decision is not flawless.”
According to the Times, the plan includes several key steps:
- One quarter of Germany’s coal plants — 12.5 gigawatts’ worth — to shut by 2022. Utility companies will decide which facilities to close.
- A review of the planned reductions every three years.
- End the use of coal by 2038. That deadline could be moved forward to 2035 later.
Greenpeace Germany was one of the interest groups involved in the negotiations. While it signed off on the agreement, it continues to feel Germany is not moving forward fast enough. Its goal is to eliminate the use of coal by 2030. In a statement after the agreement was announced, Martin Kaiser, executive director of Greenpeace Germany said,
“This compromise shakes Germany out of its lethargy on climate action. CO2 emissions in Germany has barely changed for years because of lignite burning, so it is good news that the coal phase-out will not be delayed any longer. However the report has a major flaw — switching off the last coal plant in 2038 is not fast enough to answer what tens of thousands of people have been asking when they demand a solution to the climate emergency. We will continue to push for a faster coal phase-out, to protect the planet and people everywhere from the life-threatening impacts of climate change.”
In a statement that can only be categorized as damning with faint praise, commission member Kai Niebert, president of the German environmental group DNR said, “It is better to have bad climate protection, than no climate protection.”
German environmental groups may be less than pleased with the result arrived at by the commission, but at least they do not have to suffer the indignity of their government actively encouraging more coal-fired electricity and parading its ignorance before the world community at global events like the recent climate talks in Katowice, Poland. Whether the new agreement goes far enough, fast enough, it is still a step forward rather than the “return to 1919” approach favored by the current US government.
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