Germany’s merger of energy and climate change policy

By Lutz Mez, November 1, 2012

Nuclear exit has been on the German policy agenda for more than three decades. After the Chernobyl accident in 1986, a majority of the public and relevant stakeholders opposed nuclear power and strove for renewable energy alternatives. At the same time, climate change policy gained the attention of German policy makers, and they approved ambitious targets for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. In 2000, the federal government and the operators of nuclear power plants reached a phase-out agreement, and since 2002, the purpose of the Atomic Energy Act has been not the promotion but the phasing-out of commercial nuclear electricity generation. After the federal elections in 2009, the conservative–liberal coalition government implemented a slow-down of the phase-out. But that reversal provoked strong negative public reaction, and in response to the nuclear disaster in Japan, the German cabinet and the Bundestag agreed in the summer of 2011 to a gradual phase-out of nuclear power that will shut down the industry by 2022. They also agreed to accelerate the transformation of Germany’s energy portfolio. This transformation, or Energiewende, will include three key methods of replacing the electricity once produced by nuclear reactors: It will expand renewable energy production and provide the infrastructure needed for that expansion; it will significantly improve the country’s energy-efficiency efforts; and for a transition period, it will also encourage the construction of new and more efficient coal- and gas-fired power plants. Already, the Energiewende has observably decoupled energy supply from economic growth, with Germany’s energy supply and carbon-dioxide emissions dropping from 1990 to 2011 as its gross domestic product rose significantly. It is this evolving Energiewende, rather than the nuclear phase-out, that will require and, perhaps, inspire continuing reforms of social, economic, technological, and cultural policy in Germany.


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