In a move that is controversial with Green Party supporters, German Vice-Chancellor, Minister for Economic Affairs and Climate Action, and Green Party co-leader, Robert Habeck, announced the reactivation of coal fired power plants that were due to be phased out.

As coal is the most carbon intensive fossil fuel in terms of emissions, this is clearly not something that the government wanted to do, especially with the Green Party taking a leading role in the government.  

After taking power late last year, the center left coalition government of Social Democrats, Greens and Free Democrats made fighting climate change a top priority, setting ambitious goals to end reliance on coal by 2030 and eliminate all greenhouse gas emissions by 2045. 

Nonetheless, the reason for the reversion to coal is also clear. With the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the resulting sanctions, the Germans are scrambling to replace dwindling gas supplies from Russia.

In June, the Russian state owned energy company Gazprom announced that it was reducing deliveries through the Nord Stream 1 pipeline, which runs under the Baltic Sea between Russia and Germany, by at least 40%.  

The company’s explanation, that the reduction was due to a technical problem with delayed repairs, was dismissed by Habeck as “only a pretext”.  

Habeck has no doubt about the real reason, “Putin’s strategy is blatantly to stir insecurity, to drive up prices and drive a wedge through our society”.  He describes the recent reductions as an “attack being carried out against us with energy as a weapon.”

This comes with ominous warnings of even further reductions, as Gazprom has made it clear that it will play by its own rules. Habeck recently noted that Russia could begin a blockade of this key pipeline as soon as July 11. Maintenance is scheduled from July 11 to 21.

The Germans are looking to coal to relieve their immediate energy needs as they try to build up their gas reserves before a cold winter with the prospect of gas rationing. 

“That’s bitter, but it is also necessary in this situation to reduce gas consumption. We must and we will do everything we can to store as much gas as possible in the summer and autumn”, Habeck said in a translated statement. Nonetheless, the Germans remain committed to achieving their emissions reduction targets.

While Germany has the largest economy in Europe it is not the only country in this predicament. Austria, Italy and the Netherlands have also revived old coal plants to compensate for dwindling supplies of Russian energy. This has raised concerns about a longer term threat to European efforts to fight climate change. 

European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen cautions that, “We have to make sure that we use this crisis to move forward and not to have a backsliding on the dirty fossil fuels.” 

While a renewed reliance on coal is an unfortunate set back in the fight to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, it is hoped that this is just a temporary expediency.  The German government blames the current crisis on previous German governments for being overly reliant on Russia energy and failing to diversify their energy sources. 

Hopefully, this crisis will provide the necessary incentive for Germany, and all of Europe, to develop cleaner and more renewable sources of energy. This would be best not only for the environment, but also for protecting Europe from political and economic pressure from Russia.

Nord Stream Pipeline, Stretching from Russia to Germany, across the Baltic Sea

David Arnott

David Arnott of Toronto, recent graduate of Political Science from McGill University.

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