Jim Warren

By Jim Warren

Excessive zeal on the part of Germany’s utopian environmentalists over the past few decades has wound up encouraging Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and threatens an energy crisis in Europe. The real life consequences of dogmatic climate activism and the mad rush to put an end to the use of nuclear energy and oil in Germany should stand as a cautionary tale for Canadian politicians.

Germany’s system of proportional representation typically results in the need to form coalition governments which has given out-sized influence to mid-size parties like the Greens.

The Greens have used their political advantage to force Germany into a series of misguided self-defeating greenhouse gas (GHG) mitigation policies. In 2000, when in a coalition with Gerhard Schröder’s Social Democrats, the longstanding Green demand to phase out nuclear power in Germany became government policy. Subsequently, nine nuclear power plants were shut down between 2000 and 2020. Three of Germany’s last six nuclear plants were closed at the end of 2021. This happened despite the fact that at the beginning of 2021 those six plants were producing 13.3 per cent of Germany’s electricity.

The Greens optimistically imagined that as the nuclear reactors were phased out solar, wind and other renewables would pick up the slack, but they didn’t – not by a long shot. As a result the Germans had to put previously retired coal-fired power plants back into production.

So, far from leading the world in greenhouse gas emissions reduction, Germany’s GHG footprint has remained stubbornly high. They are now behind a number of other rich countries in the fanciful quest to reach net zero emissions by 2050.

Ships are loaded and unloaded at the port of Brunsbuettel, Germany, Tuesday, March 1, 2022. The immediate neighborhood is under consideration as a site for a new LNG terminal (wind turbines stand in front of a coal storage facility on the Elbe dike at the Port of Brunsbuettel. The area is under discussion as a site for a new LNG (Liquefied Natural Gas) terminal. Europe is scrambling to reduce its natural gas dependence on Russia and it won’t be easy. Governments are rolling out plans for new gas imports and pipelines. But that’s going to take time. For now they’re rounding up more liquid gas that can come by ship instead of by pipeline from Russia. (Frank Molter/dpa via AP)

Not all European policy makers have been as deluded as the German Greens. The grownups in German politics overrode Green opposition in 2000, by insisting that modest measures be taken to increase natural gas imports to compensate for the loss of nuclear and growing demand for electrical energy. The Greens’ insistence on policies inimical to oil has contributed to increasing demand for electrical power generation. For example, German law requires that auto makers build only electric vehicles after 2030. The electricity has to come from somewhere.

Even the EU has now effectively admitted that hopes for a quick and seamless transition to renewable energy were overly optimistic. Just before the end of 2021, the European Commission made changes to its GHG emissions law. It now allows that both nuclear energy and natural gas should be considered suitable transition fuels during the period while renewable options become more viable.

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Construction of the Nord Stream 1 pipeline was the first significant step taken after the nuclear phase out was announced to increase Germany’s natural gas imports. Planning for the new pipeline was actually underway in 1997, three years prior to Germany announcing the death sentence for nuclear. Nord Steam 1 would run along the bottom of the Baltic Sea from Vyborg, Russia, to near Greifswald, Germany. When completed it would supply Germany, along with a few other European countries, with approximately 55 billion m3 of natural gas annually.

Construction on Nord Stream 1 was held up for several years due to the need for environmental approvals, political disputes and changes in corporate ownership and financing arrangements. The line finally went into operation in 2018. By that time, Germany and other EU countries had long realized they would need more than Nord Stream 1 to meet the growing demand for natural gas. Part of the solution would be Nord Stream 2, which consists of an additional pipeline running under the Baltic adjacent and parallel to Nord Stream 1. Together, the two new pipelines would transport another 55 billion m3 of gas from Russia to Germany each year.

The Nord Stream 2 lines were completed in June and September of 2021. The only things left to do were to make the final connections to the European gas transmission system and the mere formality of obtaining a final approval from the German government.

Completion of the Nord Stream 2 line would coincide comfortably with the closure of Germany’s remaining nuclear plants by the end of 2022. As it turns out it also dovetailed nicely with Putin’s plans for invading Ukraine. As of January 2022 it would be possible for Russia to stop the flow of natural gas along the major trunk line running through Ukraine to Europe without losing all of the revenue available from gas sales to the west. Nord Streams 1 and 2 would allow for a detour around Ukraine. Putin could now hold Ukraine to energy ransom. He could threaten to cut off the supply of natural gas for meeting its domestic needs and he could put an end to Ukraine’s ability to collect the natural gas transmission fees it depends on.

Furthermore, if and when Russian invaded Ukraine it could reasonably expect that a number of European countries, including Germany, would be reluctant to support punitive international sanctions against Russia lest it cut off their gas supplies.

As of today, it appears Putin may have miscalculated. The Europeans, including Germany, have remained four-square behind NATO sanctions to the point of blocking activation of the Nord Stream 2 system.

Nonetheless, some observers remain skeptical about the longer term resilience of NATO solidarity with respect to sanctions. For now, winter is coming to an end and it appears gas still flows to Europe through Ukraine and via Nord Stream 1. The big question is how determined the Europeans will be to uphold sanctions should the Ukraine crisis go on into early winter of 2022? Will the average European be willing to freeze in the dark on behalf of NATO and the Ukraine? The pressure to obtain gas by activating Nord Stream 2 will no doubt intensify. Putin may yet have his way – at least some of it.

Options to prevent or forestall a European energy crisis being floated include restarting moth-balled nuclear reactors and commitments from energy producing countries to ship natural gas and oil to Europe. Skeptics point out that storing and shipping liquified natural gas involves the development of expensive infrastructure and specialized ships. Furthermore, it is as yet uncertain as to how much time and effort would be entailed in restarting the decommissioned reactors. Nord Stream 2 will loom large as a more immediate solution to European energy needs.

One lesson to be taken from the German experience for those setting Canada’s environmental policy is that poorly conceived, inadequately assessed climate change policies can have significant unintended adverse consequences. Furthermore, assuming that fanciful, overly optimistic predictions about the pace at which renewables can be adopted can lead to significant economic and social disruption. Moving too far too fast on behalf of appearing environmentally virtuous can make for poor public policy.

 

Jim Warren is an adjunct professor and lecturer in environmental sociology at the University of Regina.

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