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Third Way

France, Germany and Two Paths to Cut Carbon

By Mykael Goodsell-SooTho and Josh Freed

Industrialized nations are engaged in a vigorous debate on the best path for countries to meet Paris Agreement targets and ultimately eliminate carbon pollution from the economy. Policymakers in the United States and across the globe would be well served by examining the competing experiences of Germany and France. Germany has often been lauded as a climate leader because of its aggressive deployment of wind and solar in recent years, but this deployment has been at the expense of other low-carbon energy technologies. On the other hand, France has committed to increasing renewables while also relying on nuclear power to reduce emissions from fossil fuels more quickly. The results are stark. German policymakers have quietly started to acknowledge that continued reliance on coal will prevent the country from meeting its emissions targets. Meanwhile, France is on track to hit its own targets, and is setting its sights on the complete elimination of coal-fired power.

France is on track to hit its own targets, and is setting its sights on the complete elimination of coal-fired power.

Implemented in 2010, Germany’s Energiewende, or “energy transition” is a strategy to develop a low-carbon economy. The plan seeks to increase the use of carbon-free power by promoting wind and solar while simultaneously closing another carbon-free energy source: the nuclear plants that as recently as the early 2000s accounted for nearly 30% of German electricity generation. The result has been clear — more emissions and some of the highest electricity prices in Western Europe. After receiving roughly $220 billion in government incentives since 2010, Germany’s wind and solar generation has increased — just not nearly enough to fill-in the demand gap left by shuttered nuclear plants. Germany has turned to coal plants to keep the lights on, relying primarily on lignite, which is a particularly dirty and energy-inefficient form of coal.

By essentially replacing zero-carbon nuclear power with coal, German emissions actually increased in 2013, 2015, and 2016. Just last week, German leaders acknowledged that the nation will miss its 2020 emissions target by a wide margin and is several years behind schedule at best. Without the nuclear phase-out, Germany would have likely met or surpassed this target. In the end, Germany sacrificed its climate agenda in order to fulfill its anti-nuclear agenda.

Germany sacrificed its climate agenda in order to fulfill its anti-nuclear agenda.

France, like Germany, also experienced a surge in anti-nuclear sentiment following the 2011 Fukushima Daichi incident. After his election in 2017, French President Emmanuel Macron intended to scale back nuclear in his country to 50% by 2025 — by replacing nuclear power plants with wind and solar power. However, after assessing the impact of this action on emissions and electricity prices, it became clear that renewables could not be deployed fast enough to offset the rapid nuclear phase out in France. In fact, emissions would actually increase as natural gas plants provided electricity in the interim and electricity prices would go up to pay for their deployment. In response to these findings, France has extended phase out target dates to the 2030–2035 period to allow more time for the deployment of renewables required in its 2015 Energy Transition for Green Growth Act.

President Macron explained to France and the world why he did not want his country to follow Germany’s energy strategy:

The good news is that many European nations are following France’s example, deploying renewables alongside nuclear and other clean energy solutions with emissions reduction as a central goal. The United Kingdom has continued with its plan to phase out coal by 2025, while committing to build multiple new reactors. Sweden has a goal of eliminating greenhouse gas emissions by 2045, and recently overturned a tax that had been hurting its nuclear sector. Norway has divested its sovereign wealth fund from companies which derive more than 30% of their sales or activities from the coal industry, and is aggressively pursuing carbon capture projects, another technology area the IEA concludes will be absolutely essential to meeting world emissions reductions targets.

Germany and France show two different pathways to low-carbon energy development. The former only emphasized the deployment of renewable technologies, without also preserving other zero emissions energy sources, and fell behind in its climate goals as a result. The latter is prioritizing climate impact through a combination of low-carbon technologies to maximize emissions cuts.

As state and federal lawmakers in the United States and policymakers in other countries consider how to address climate change and shape the future of the energy sector, they should keep the lessons of Germany and France in mind. If addressing climate change and cutting carbon emissions is the goal, policymakers should use every available zero and low emissions solution that will help them get the job done. Otherwise, they may find themselves with little more than a technology deployment strategy that helps keep coal in furnaces and carbon emissions on the rise.

Mykael Goodsell-SooTho is the clean energy fellow and Josh Freed is Vice President for Clean Energy at Third Way.