There are two persistent and overlapping trends in American discussions of climate change, nuclear energy, and renewable energy. The first is American exceptionalism, the idea that the USA is doing better than any country in the world despite denying climate change and walking away from the Paris Accord. The second is that Germany is awful, choosing to shut down its nuclear plants, resulting in massive increases in greenhouse gases.
The US is not exceptional.
Let’s look at some of the common types of statements that emerge. Michael Shellenberger, environmentalist and ardent fan of nuclear energy as the solution to global warming, likes bold statements like the following in a Forbes opinion piece:
All that German will have gotten for its “energy transition” is a 50% increase in electricity prices, flat emissions, and an electricity supply that is 10 times more carbon-intensive than France’s.
Alec Epstein, author of The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels, talks about Germany’s nuclear shut down in equally glowing terms in, unsurprisingly, a piece in Fox News:
In the midst of a still struggling and fragile global economy, Germany has announced that it will shut down seven nuclear plants by the end of the year–which means that Germans will be left to run their factories, heat their homes, and power their economy with 10% less electrical generating capacity. Nine more plants will be shut down over the next decade and tens of billions of dollars in investment will be lost.
Equally, US exceptionalists such as the conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute, release glowing statements about the USA when it gets something right, but are silent on its failures and miss a lot context, and naturally these statements are picked up and trumpeted by conservative outlets as a reason for not actually doing anything:
Declines in CO2 emissions in 2017 were led by the US (-0.5% and 42 million tons, see chart above). This is the ninth time in this century that the US has had the largest decline in emissions in the world.
So according to nuclear advocates such as Shellenberger, fossil fuel advocates such as Epstein, and conservative think tanks, the USA is green and Germany is black and sooty. Oh that this were true. Of course, this is kicking in again with AOC’s Green New Deal, which in an early fact sheet omitted to mention either nuclear or fossil fuels with carbon capture as possible solutions.
As I pointed out in an article in early March, the USA is responsible for 26% of all of the excess CO2e in the atmosphere, is still the second biggest total emitter of CO2e after China, and has twice the emissions per capita as China. The article also pointed out the massive program of decarbonization of electricity and transportation that China is undertaking, built on the back of a lot of wind and solar generation installation.
But let’s compare the USA to Germany, shall we? First, how is Germany doing? This chart is from the Clean Energy Wire (CLEW), a German non-profit foundation funded by Stiftung Mercator and the European Climate Foundation, to provide evidence-based support for journalism about the energy transition.
What does this tell us? Well, a few things. First, Germany has been on a steady decline of CO2 emissions in absolute terms since 1990, currently about 28% off of 1990 emissions. Second, the country has had a steady increase in GDP since 1990. Third, its actual power consumption is relatively flat in comparison to GDP increases and GHG decreases.
What did Shellenberger claim? “Flat emissions” due to its policies. That’s wrong both on the electrical generation front and on the overall GHG emissions front.
Shellenberger claim busted
What did Epstein claim? “During a struggling and fragile global economy,” Germany was going to suffer due to shutting down nuclear and lose “tens of billions of dollars in investment.” Well, the country shut down half of its nuclear generation, and its economic growth has continued unabated with exactly zero blips showing up in the economic results.
Epstein claim busted
How does the USA do on absolute greenhouse gas emissions per the US Environmental Protection Agency?
Oh, wait, the USA is up slightly from 1990? Not down 28% in a relatively straightforward decline as Germany is?
What was the claim of the US conservative think tank again? The “US has had the largest decline in emissions in the world.” But since 1990, emissions are up in the US and down in Germany. That’s called cherry-picking from most perspectives.
American Enterprise Institute claim busted
Maybe there’s a reason for that?
Oh, while Germany’s primary energy consumption is down 10% since 1990 due to excellent efficiency programs, the USA’s primary energy consumption is up about 20%, heading in the opposite direction?
Why is this important? Another one of Shellenberger’s claims, that one of the only things that Germany received from their policies was “a 50% increase in electricity prices.” However, even the World Nuclear Association admits the reality of Germany’s electricity prices.
Germany has some of the lowest wholesale electricity prices in Europe and some of the highest retail prices, due to its energy policies. Taxes and surcharges account for more than half the domestic electricity price.
Correct. Germany pays very low prices for its electricity yet charges its consumers quite a bit more. This is called a market price signal, something you would think that conservative commentators would understand. If you have something that has negative externalities, you want to include the cost of those externalities in the price paid by consumers to reduce consumption. Germany’s price of electricity paid by businesses and citizens has made it much more efficient in its use of electricity than the USA, exactly what a policy should do. That Germany has very low wholesale rates alone kills Shellenberger’s argument, but the result of the high consumer prices puts a nice headstone on its grave.
Shellenberger claim busted
But did the USA and Germany start out from the same place? No, of course not. To give us absolute numbers, let’s look at an equivalent chart to US GHG emissions from the German EPA equivalent, the German Environment Agency (Umweltbundesamt – UBA).
Germany’s total emissions in 1990 were 1,251 million tons of GHGs. What were the United States’? About 6,200 million tons, about 5 times greater. Was this because the USA had five times more people in 1990? Well, Germany had a population of 80 million, and the USA had a population of 250 million then, about 3 times the difference. Even in 1990, Germany’s GHGs per citizen were 36% below USA’s emission levels. But what about today?
Germany’s population is about 83 million now, and the USA’s population is 326 million. Today Germany’s emissions per capita are about 43% below the USA’s, so Germany continues to move further into the lead in absolute terms and by this metric.
But what about GDP measurements? Surely the economic engine of the free world must be doing better based on GDP? Well, S&P maintains statistics on inflation-adjusted GDP for Germany and the USA. In 1990, Germany’s real GDP was $2.41 trillion USD, while the US’ was $9.31 trillion. Germany’s GDP to GHG ratio in 1990 was about 20% better than the USA’s. Today with GDPs of $3.38 and $18.22 trillion for Germany and the USA respectively, Germany’s lead on this ratio has increased to about 21%. To be clear, the USA’s GDP has grown more than Germany’s but as the first chart shows, Germany is an economic powerhouse and grew just fine.
What was Shellenberger’s claim again? “All that German will have gotten for its “energy transition” is a bunch of things which have so far been debunked. But Germany has also started well ahead of the USA and moved further ahead on every measure of absolute and relative emissions.
Shellenberger claim busted
There’s one claim outstanding, Shellenberger’s claim that one of the only things Germany received was “an electricity supply that is 10 times more carbon-intensive than France’s.” You’ll notice that Shellenberger didn’t choose USA for the comparison. His point is that nuclear is the only game in town for carbon emissions — obviously false as Germany’s absolute and relative results show — and that if Germany had only invested solely in nuclear, life would be a bowl of already pitted cherries. Is he right?
Well, at one point he was close to right. In 2016, many headlines screamed things like “German electricity was nearly 10 times dirtier than France’s in 2016.” But what was that headline from? An Environmental Progress press release, which is to say the organization Shellenberger runs, which is pretty much devoted to pro-nuclear advocacy. But let’s give the numbers the benefit of the doubt for now. 560 grams per kWh vs 58 grams per kWh is close enough to 10 times that we could probably given Shellenberger this one, although trust in the numbers can’t be that high given their provenance.
But of course, time marches on, and it’s worth looking at what’s actually happening, especially from sources which aren’t run by Shellenberger.
The generation of one kilowatt-hour of electricity has produced an average of 489 g of CO2 in 2017, which is 36 percent less than in 1990, the Federal Environment Agency has calculated in a new publication on CO2 emissions trends in the power sector in Germany. A growing share of CO2 emissions is associated with energy exports, the UBA said. In 2017, electricity exports rose to an all-time high of 55 terawatt-hours (TWh). Between 2012 and 2017, the increase in power exports was higher (32 billion kWh) than the increase in net power production (25 billion kWh), the UBA added. If Germany cut its net power exports to zero, this would reduce emissions by 25 million tonnes, the researchers found.
So a 36% improvement over the years. And a drop of 71 grams per kWh in a year, a drop of 13%, if we were to take Shellenberger’s 2016 claims at face value. Power is actually one of the sectors in Germany which is on track to meet 202o and 2030 emissions targets, and Germany started well ahead of the USA and is pulling away.
That 25 million tons is interesting too. It’s about 3% of Germany’s total electrical generation emissions, so it would have been doing even better.
Germany’s electrical generation continued to shift rapidly to renewables. Over 40% of Germany’s electricity in 2018 was supplied by renewables.
So what else did Germany get? 55 TWh of exported electricity for cold hard cash. That’s something Shellenberger and others tend to sweep under the rug. Germany has a lot of excess capacity and is well ahead of the transition compared to much of the rest of Europe. It’s supporting other jurisdictions with a lot of electricity. Including France.
In 2017, Germany exported a net of 13.7 TWh to France. And Germany’s exports account for a substantial percentage of its emissions as discussed. France soaked up just under 1% of Germany’s total electrical generation emissions. That’s unsurprising. Nuclear is an inflexible form of generation and very expensive to use for load following. As a result, France depends on other countries for load following to a great extent, both with night time exports and daytime imports. It’s cheaper for the country, and something that it can do because it is surrounded by countries which don’t have inflexible forms of generation.
What did France’s electricity do in 2017? Well, EDF’s results for direct generation for the year were 88 grams of CO2e per kWh (not 58, interestingly, and going up). And France bought about 13.7 TWh from Germany too. But let’s just take the 2017 numbers we have: Germany at 489 and France at 88. Hmm… that’s only 6 times the emissions, not 10 (which Shellenberger had rounded up). That’s a massive improvement in relative performance in a single year, and yet the conservative press is dead silent on this. Surely Shellenberger issued a correction?
Well, no. When all the numbers came in, Shellenberger managed to say that the situation had gone in exactly the opposite direction that primary sources show. He’s now claiming that Germany’s electricity is 12 times dirtier than France’s. At least that’s what he says in articles, but the source he points to is his own Environmental Progress site and it doesn’t support the numbers he cites either.
Okay, even his 2016 numbers are now highly suspect. Basically, he cooked the books in 2016, overstated the cooked numbers, promoted them massively and ignores net energy imports and exports.
Is 6 times better good? Absolutely. But the ratio is declining fast, probably wasn’t even close to 10x, and it’s not what Shellenberger is saying.
Shellenberger claim busted
Shellenberger is fighting a rearguard and quixotic action to save an expensive, slow to build, inflexible form of generation in the face of massively better competitors, wind and solar. He cherrypicks his data, massages it carefully, overstates it, and ignores a lot of important factors.
This wouldn’t matter that much if nuclear could be built quickly and cheaply. But even Shellenberger admits it takes ten years to build a reactor these days (the nicest possible interpretation of the numbers) and that innovation has only made nuclear slower to build and more expensive. His arguments on why nuclear really isn’t 3-5 times more expensive to build than wind and solar are equally lacking in merit. He admits freely that wind and solar are really cheap and then wraps himself around an axle to make that sound like a bad thing. He ignores the maintained or enhanced grid stability that Texas, Germany, and other high-renewable penetration places have been seeing empirically while wholesale electricity prices drop in favor of arguments that renewables are inherently unreliable.
I continue to assert that I’m happy for every nuclear plant that continues to operate, for every nuclear plant China builds, and for every plant which is refurbished. The alternatives in a lot of jurisdictions would be more greenhouse gas emissions.
Epstein is merely a fossil fuel apologist, as is the AEI. It’s clear where their interests lie. But Shellenberger claims to be an environmentalist, to understand energy, and to care about global warming. If he did, he’d work from facts, not the fictional narratives he creates. He’s an unreliable narrator. He’s an unreliable analyst. He’s a nuclear advocate, not an environmentalist.
He’s shooting for a nuclear future when it’s a wind and solar future. He’s pretending that the conditions of the 1970s that favored nuclear in France exist today when even he admits that they don’t, speaking carefully from both sides of his mouth at once. He pretends that the nuclear non-proliferation and proscribed technology treaties should be ignored so that every nation on earth can enjoy the benefits of nuclear weapons, never mind nuclear generation. Yes, South Sudan, Congo, and Afghanistan would be immeasurably enhanced by nuclear technology. This is a truly surreal opinion, one that brings to mind Dr. Strangelove.
As my assessment shows, the US Could Achieve 3X As Much CO2 Savings With Renewables Instead Of Nuclear For Less Money.
Any version of Shellenberger’s future is worse than the best case line of GHG reductions with wind and solar. It’s unclear why he’s a motivated thinker on this subject, but it’s clear that he is.
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