Fighting Climate Change and Phasing Out Nuclear Power Are Two Sides of the Same Coin


Fighting Climate Change and Phasing Out Nuclear Power Are Two Sides of the Same Coin

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June 4, 2012
Arne Jungjohann

Recently, the editorial board of the Washington Post asked if the world can fight global warming without nuclear power, looking to Germany and Japan for the answer.

Both countries are known for a nuclear shutdown path. In Japan, only one of the 54 nuclear reactors cur-rently remains in operation. Germany has closed eights reactors following the nuclear catastrophe of Fu-kushima in March 2011 and the remaining nine are scheduled to be closed by 2022.

That obviously must lead to rising emissions, the Post claims. Germany’s “electricity sector emits more carbon than it must after eight reactors shut down last year.”

If you look at the most recent emissions data, however, the opposite is happening. Germany reduced its carbon emissions in 2011 by 2.1 percent despite the nuclear phase out. How can that be?

The cut in greenhouse gases was mainly reached due to an accelerated transition to renewable energies and a warm winter. In addition, the EU emissions trading system capped all emissions from the power sector. While eight nuclear power plants were shut down, solar power output increased by 60 percent. In 2011 alone, 7.5 gigawatts of solar were installed. By the end of last year, renewable energies provided more than 20 percent of overall electricity.

The Washington Post refers to critics of this transition who “reasonably predict that the country will instead rely on electricity imports from neighbors running old, reliable coal, gas and, yes, nuclear plants for years to come.”

So this means Germany would import electricity from neighboring countries, such as France, Poland, and the Czech Republic? It’s true, depending on time of day and year, that Germany imports electricity. How-ever, even after shutting its eight oldest nuclear power plants, Germany is still a net exporter of electricity.

In 2011, Germany exported 6 TWh more than it imported, according to the industry federation German Association of Energy and Water Industries BDEW. Countries like Poland and the Czech Republic are not as concerned about providing electricity to Germany. On the contrary, they are mainly concerned about wind and solar power surges from Germany offsetting their own production of fossil and nuclear power. Additionally, German electricity exports to Europe’s nuclear power house France actually increased in 2011.

What does this tell us? The nuclear phase-out does not conflict with efforts to fight climate change. You can reduce emissions while shutting down nuclear power. And you can still supply industry and consumers with enough power.

By the end of 2011, Germany had reduced its CO2 emissions by more than 23 percent compared to 1990 levels, overshooting its Kyoto target. In addition, the country has build up a competitive renewable energy industry providing thousands of new jobs, even as competitors like China enter the game and catch up fast. In Germany, fighting climate change and phasing out nuclear power are two sides of the same coin.

Instead of repeating myths about Germany’s nuclear phase-out, the editorial board of the Washington Post would do better by looking at the facts. It would also help to expand the article’s narrow focus to include a question about whether nuclear is even the most cost-effective or safe option to fight climate change. It is not, says even the Economist.

A vast majority of Germans have made up their minds on the need to phase out nuclear. And what happens in Germany will be a major indicator for other countries. As Paul Hockenos, an American living in Berlin, concludes in the European Energy Review: “Whatever the case, Germans aren’t the only ones waiting for a more pro-active policy. The world is watching Germany’s Energiewende.”

Let’s see where the Germans can go with their energy transition.

The article was originally published on April 27, 2012 on Climate Progress.

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