This post by guest blogger Dr. Michael W. Schröter discusses recent energy policy developments in Germany that have potentially profound ethical significance. The ethical significance can be attributed to two aspects of recent German energy policy discussed in this post. First, not only has the German government decided to shut down its nuclear power plants, it has passed laws that seek to assure that Germany will meet future energy demand by expanded reliance on renewable energy. In doing this, Germany is committing to assure that future energy consumption needs will be met by the most ethically benign methods of energy production, namely renewable energy. Secondly, the German energy policy is being understood as enhancing the ability of German citizens to control their own energy destinies through their ability to become less reliant on large electrical grid systems. In other words, energy policy can enhance democratic control of energy policy and by doing this enable citizens to choose a more sustainable future.
Energy Policy as Main Road to Sustainability?
Currently Germany is close to achieving some societal consensus about several issues that have been polarizing political and civil groups for over forty years: energy policy. Massive protests about nuclear power plants in the early 1970’s led to the establishment of a new political party–the Greens (Grüne Partei) in 1980. Since the mid 1980’s the German political debate focused more and more on questions of climate change. Increasingly energy questions have become the focus of public attention and recently energy has become the top political issue in Germany. The conservative party of chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU), forming a coalition with the liberal party (FDP), completely changed her party’s position in just three months because their former more conservative positions on energy that had formerly been the basis for energy policy were no longer supported by the majority of the Germans. The recent Fukushima nuclear power disaster was, as Germans say, just the final drop which brought the tap to overflowing.
Energy policy allowed the social-democratic party of Germany (SPD) in coalition with the Greens to win a federal election in 1998, already, with the promise to end the use of nuclear power in Germany–twelve years after Chernobyl. So there has been a tradition of energy policy being an influence on the results of federal elections in Germany for some time. Now, however, the focus of political struggle is to find ways of transforming the energy supply completely from nuclear and fossil to renewable sources.
How do we explain this intense focus on energy issues and why have questions like the preservation of biodiversity not warranted the same public attention although they are, at least, as important?
Our whole way of life depends on energy. For this reason, we have adopted a life-style which consumes fossil resources (or, better, natural CO2-storages) rapidly while producing waste which will be there for many future generations and threatening the face of earth–including us–as we know it. Yet, although it is still, unfortunately, too early to say uncontroversially that we have a political consensus that Germany’s energy future will be completely comprised of renewable energy, it is even more controversial to say how we must achieve an exclusively renewable energy future.
But it is also clear that if we would be able to find a sustainable answer to the energy challenge this would give us real hope that we will be able to find solutions to other threats of the ecological crisis like the ongoing loss of biodiversity. Energy policy therefore appears to be the best candidate for seriously tackling most issues on the road to sustainable societies.
So far, mainly two approaches to an energy future in Germany can be identified. The first is to stick to traditional ways of producing energy and add technical options to diminish the risks. These include carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies for coal plants, the construction of more nuclear power plants that are being promoted as being climate neutral and various geo-engineering solutions to climate change.
The other approach is finding completely renewable energy sources coupled with energy storage options to solve the intermittency problem of some renewable energy sources such as wind and solar.
The discussion of this second approach has become more than a sober technical debate among experts in Germany because people now understand that these choices will affect the way of life of every individual. This political discussion is beginning to be understood as more than just a technical question but a question of democracy in Germany because a renewable energy approach will affect the power of people to control their own destinies in ways that the pursuit of former larger energy technologies did not do. And so the debate about energy policy is becoming a debate around the culture and structure of political problem-solving in Western democracies.
Energy suppliers are mostly big companies with good connections to politicians. They do have the power to influence a public debate just by saying what kinds of options are realistic and which are not. The challenge is to find a democratic modus in which every citizen can actually choose what kind of energy supply structure he or she wants to be, a development that would allow citizens have a role in their energy future and no longer limit them to the mostly passive part citizens have played in energy policy. A renewable energy future allows citizens to become producers themselves. In some villages in Denmark and Germany, people have started projects to achieve exactly this: to become their own producers of energy just out of renewable sources. The future of energy policy in Germany will tell us if we can expect “normal” citizen to follow the ethical example of idealistic energy pioneers that are growing in numbers.
The democratic challenge of the energy debate therefore is to grant everyone the possibility of a fair choice; in some ways this can be considered as an ethical obligation that politics should embrace.
The German government tackled this challenge already 1990 with a legal framework guaranteeing everyone installing a renewable energy source a special amount of money for a fixed period of time. According to law, the big energy companies are obliged to inject this energy into their power grid. This partly adjusts the economical imbalance between big companies and citizens and gives the latter a fair choice to become a producer themselves, if he or she wants more renewable energy to be there. Surprisingly people installed nearly double of the amount than was expected. Energy policy was no longer a question of theoretical debates but practical action. Thereby it opened a new field of economical activity in the society which by now has become an important pillar of the German system. Therefore it does not surprise that the law declaring an end to the use of nuclear power by the year of 2022 in Germany is accompanied by another law that has established goals for the increase of renewable power: from now around 15% up to, at least, 35% by 2020 and 80-95% by 2050.
The experience in Germany shows another effect. By installing renewable power other environmental political issues are arising. Strangely we now see in Germany those who once argued for more renewable energy are founding action groups against some renewable projects and making claims such as that there are too many windmills, expressing concerns about windmills kill birds or are spoiling the landscape. These controversies are now much more frequent than former issues about the threat of a nuclear accident or the of the enormous carbon emissions of coal plants. Thus a growing culture of renewable energy is creating, as always, new political issues. But these problems are encouraging debates about not only how people will supply energy but new issues about how technology fits into nature. This can be considered an essential step on the road to sustainable societies. Another important issue that is arising is concerned with potential problems with renewable transportation fuels among other challenging transportation issues.
In summary, the move towards sustainable energy in Germany that is well under way is creating new political issues about how a democratic society can achieve a greater control over its energy options as well as new questions about integrating human needs with ecological protection. One can see these developments as positive steps that are inevitable on the road to a sustainable future.
Dr.Michael W. Schröter (Berlin, GER)