|M.V. Ramana and Solène Delumeau
This May, a 1,100 megawatt coal-fired power plant was commissioned in Germany. On Twitter, in the thread started by Greta Thunberg, the Swedish teenager who inspired the climate strike, many responded by connecting this decision to the German government’s decision to phase out nuclear power. This connection has become all too common since 2011, when German Chancellor Angela Merkel reiterated commitment to the phaseout, which was originally signed into law in 2002. The oft-repeated message is that the decision to shut down nuclear power resulted in Germany increasing its use of coal and thus increasing carbon emissions. This is misleading. Germany’s progress in bringing down emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) from its electricity sector by increasing uptake of renewable energy — while simultaneously lowering both coal and nuclear energy generation — has been quite remarkable and shows that a nuclear phaseout and climate mitigation are compatible.
The data underlying this assertion are out there for anyone who wants to look, for example with the International Energy Agency (IEA). The IEA’s analysis of global CO2 emissions in 2019 was forceful in its account of Germany’s evolution: The country, it said, “spearheaded the decline in emissions in the European Union … Its emissions fell by 8% to 620 Mt [metric tons] of CO2, a level not seen since the 1950s, when the German economy was around 10 times smaller.”
The story of coal use is complicated by the fact that between 2011 and 2019, Germany brought online about 9.7 gigawatts of new coal-fired power plant capacity but about 3.8 GW were retired. A further 21 coal power stations that were planned ended up being canceled. The new plants are the precursors to Datteln 4. And like Datteln 4, whose foundation stone was laid in November 2007, these plants that came on line between 2011 and 2019 dated back to before the 2011 Fukushima accident.
During this period, nuclear power has declined significantly. That source accounted for 165 TWh or 31% of Germany’s electricity generation back in 2002, according to the Fraunhofer Institute, but only 76 TWh in 2018. In the first half of 2020, the share of nuclear power in overall electricity generation was down to 12%. As the phaseout goes to completion in 2022, it will come down to zero.
Behind the declines in nuclear power, coal power, and CO2 emissions is the tremendous growth in Germany’s wind, solar and biomass power capacity. That growth, in turn, can be traced to when the nuclear phaseout law came into effect. Data from the IEA show that between 2002 and 2018, the amount of electricity generated by wind, solar and biomass has grown by more than an order of magnitude, from 19 TWh to 203 TWh. During the decade before the phase-out law, the contribution of wind, solar power and biomass to Germany’s total electricity generation increased by only 2%.