Climate Change, Development & Aid, Energy, Environment, Europe, Global Governance, Headlines, Nuclear Energy - Nuclear Weapons, Peace

OP-ED: Germany Shows the Green Path

Peter Custers*

BERLIN, Jul 27 2011 (IPS) - The decision was expected, yet it shook the world’s nuclear establishment. On May 29, some two and a half months after disaster struck at Japan’s Fukushima- Daiichi nuclear complex, Germany’s right-wing government of Angela Merkel announced that Germany is exiting from the nuclear era.

Whereas up until now the country has relied on nuclear production for an estimated 27 percent of its electricity needs, in 11 years all reliance on nuclear production will be ended.

Out of 17 existing reactors, operations at eight including the seven oldest ones were suspended immediately after Japan’s catastrophe. Then, Chancellor Merkel – against opposition from German energy corporations – announced that all other nuclear plants will be closed too, by 2022 at the latest.

This heralds a major turn-about in German policymaking, since Merkel’s government had previously planned extending the country’s reliance on nuclear energy. Critics of the German government are quick to point out that Chancellor Merkel has bowed to popular pressure.

And there indeed is no doubt that the government’s turn-about is the result of popular mobilisation against its opportunist energy policies. Regional elections held in May were accompanied by massive demonstrations in German cities against any continued reliance on nuclear energy. In these elections, the Green Party which has consistently advocated a nuclear exit emerged as principal victor.

Germany’s exit by no means stands alone. It represents a trend which, if not Europe-wide, is at least partly so. At least two other Western European governments have taken similar decisions under the pressure of public opinion. Switzerland, which earlier planned to build new nuclear power plants, now has officially abandoned these plans. And Italy, ruled by Silvio Berlusconi’s right-wing government has witnessed a dramatic resurgence of anti-nuclear sentiments too.

As recently as 2008, Berlusconi’s government had announced plans to build four new nuclear plants. It had reversed the suspension of nuclear construction programmes which had been in force since the 1986 meltdown in Chernobyl.

Yet in May last year Berlusconi’s government put all construction of new nuclear plants ‘on ice’. Now Italy’s shaky government is in no position to resume any nuclear construction. In a Jun. 15 referendum an overwhelming 94 to 96 percent expressed themselves against construction of new reactors. The referendum participation at 57 percent did not seem high, but the outcome was considered a solid blow to Berlusconi’s government.

Merkel’s decision was the outcome of a long process, dating back to the beginning of the 1990s. Twenty years ago, a section of Germany’s political and business elite had already visualised the need for a transition from nuclear production and fossil fuels, such as coal and oil, towards ‘alternative’ sources of energy, such as hydro-electric energy, windmills and solar panels.

In 1991, the German government adopted a law that wind and solar energy would have to be accepted by companies supplying energy to German consumers, and at par with fossil fuel sources of energy. The law also specified the price to be paid to alternative energy suppliers.

The system was further refined in 2000, when a second text was adopted offering suppliers of alternative energy a 20 years’ guarantee. Some critics argue that the ‘feed-in-tariff system’ contains nasty loopholes; it is not the corporate sector but German households that bear the brunt of the costs for alternative energy protection.

Nevertheless, there is no doubt that Germany’s legal framework has facilitated a significant transition. Renewable energy sources supplied no more than 3.1 percent of Germany’s electricity in 1990, by 2010 this reportedly was 17 percent. Also, of the world’s electricity from windmills, Germany is known to supply as much as 25 percent.

Nuclear proponents in Germany and beyond have launched a vigorous counter-offensive. They question the implications of Merkel’s decision for ongoing international efforts to avert a climate catastrophe.

Merkel’s government instituted an ethical commission, and the outcome of this commission’s work seems to leave room for doubt. In line with the commission’s recommendations, the German government remains committed both to a reduction of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions (40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020), and to a rapid expansion in production of wind energy.

Yet in the short run Germany is set to construct new power stations relying on gas and, of all polluting sources, coal. This seems contradictory, to say the least. But then the entire debate in Europe regarding future energy supplies is still axed on one unassailable presumption, that is, the presumption that exponential growth in energy production should continue forever.

This is exactly the point that needs to be urgently questioned. For it is only possible to avert both climate catastrophe, nuclear catastrophe and combined climate-cum-nuclear catastrophes, if strict restrictions on energy use by Western consumers can be agreed on.

Meanwhile, Germany’s decision to exit from the nuclear era is healthy from an ecological perspective. The founding of the nuclear sector during World War II, with the Manhattan Project of the U.S. government, had a doubly negative significance.

On the one hand, humanity entered the era of atomic weapons. On the other hand, the initiation of nuclear production – for military purposes first, then for civilian purposes – also heralded, or coincided with, the start of a global ecological crisis. That crisis is today is escalating almost beyond human control.

Against this background, the German government’s decision to bow to people’s demands is the beginning of a new trend.

True – Germany is not at the point of building a ‘green’ economy, we are far from that. True – Germany’s system for promotion of alternative energy is not watertight. It is no more than one ‘Keynesian’ element in policymaking that is largely neoliberal. True – controversies in Germany now are shifting, for instance to whether production by windmills and solar panels should be corporate- controlled or decentralised. Yet the decisions by Western European governments to reject the idea of a nuclear renaissance impacts beyond nuclear production itself.

A section of humanity at last has decided consciously to reject a technology which is outright destructive and severely damages life on planet earth. This shows that an ecological future for humanity is possible.

*Dr Peter Custers is a theoretician in nuclear waste.

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