Pipeline challenge for German Greens

German Green co-leaders and new ministers Annalena Baerbock and Robert Habeck (photo: Bündnis 90/Die Grünen Nordrhein-Westfalen (CC BY-SA 2.0))

Dave Toke says German Greens face policy crunch in the new government

As they settle into their roles in the new German government, the two co-leaders of the German Green Party face two key challenges which could make or break them. These are whether a new pipeline taking natural gas directly from Russia (Nordstream 2) should be given the go ahead, and how quickly greenhouse gas emissions can be cut.  

German Green co-leaders Annalena Baerbock and Robert Habeck have reaped the rewards of their party’s highest poll ever – almost 15% – in the September general election, by taking two key ministries. Baerbock has become foreign minister in the SDP-Green-FDP ‘traffic light’ coalition government, headed by the SPD’s Olaf Scholz. Besides becoming vice-chancellor, Habeck is the new minister for economic affairs and climate action.  

But the Greens, and Annalena Baerbock in particular, face an intense early problem. This is whether to authorise operation of the highly controversial Nordstream 2 gas pipeline project, which doubles the capacity of the gas link between Russia and Germany across the Baltic Sea.  

The Greens have been strong opponents of the pipeline inasmuch as it will increase pipeline capacity for a fuel that the party is pledged to phase out. In that, they have an unlikely alliance with the USA and, crucially, central and eastern European states, including the Ukraine, who face losing the transit fees for the gas flowing through pipelines across their countries.  

But despite the intense controversy surrounding the project, Baerbock is struggling to have the project cancelled. The SPD have been consistent supporters of the project and so, despite all the international pressures, she has an uphill struggle to ensure that the now physically completed project is not put into commercial operation.  

Moreover, Baerbock does not have clear control over the decision, which is in the hands of the Bundesnetzagentur, the infrastructure regulator. They will decide about whether the project represents a monopoly that is contrary to law. Baerbock risks being cast a lame duck Green Party leader if she cannot ensure that the project is cancelled. 

In fact, though, for green activists, the most important battle is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Here, the new government, under Green Party pressure, has ramped up the targets. Coal is now to be phased out by 2030, changing the only recently (2020) adopted target of 2038 for total coal phase-out. Renewable energy is now set to produce 80 per cent of electricity by 2030, with the rest coming from gas given the commitment to also phase out nuclear power.  

Yet reaching these targets requires a major acceleration of renewable energy roll-out. Ambitious targets have been set for offshore wind, and 2 per cent of German land is to be allocated for onshore windfarm development. In addition, a very large target has been set for solar power. All new commercial buildings are to be fitted with solar panels, and also the roofs of most new dwellings. German reluctance to support large-scale use of agricultural land for solar farms is being dropped in favour of the concept of ‘agrivoltaics’, which involves the co-use of land for agriculture and solar farms. 

Of course, much establishment opinion in the UK has attacked German policy for its phase-out of nuclear power and the German refusal to countenance the building of new nuclear power plants. However, whilst the nuclear phase-out in Germany is planned, in the UK a nuclear phase-out seems to be happening by unintentional stealth as older nuclear plants retire and the nuclear industry fails to deliver the increasingly costly programme of nuclear power deployment.  

Indeed, the more time goes on, more and more problems are encountered by EDF in its attempt to build its model of the European Pressurised Reactor (EPR) in the UK. Hinkley C, the first EPR to be built in the UK by EDF, looks increasingly late, along with other EPRs being built in other countries. EDF was awarded a much higher than expected price to be paid from energy consumer bills in return for building the project. The only completed EPR model, in China, is now partly offline and regulators are investigating whether this involves a serious design flaw in the EPR. If this proves to be the case then this could delay the Hinkley C project by several more years. The government is currently deciding whether to give EDF virtually a blank cheque to build an EPR at Sizewell C, but this project may not generate energy for decades.  

Indeed, if Britain’s programme of building nuclear power gets nowhere very slowly, as seems likely, the last laugh could be on German anti-nuclear faces. Germany has much less offshore renewable energy sources, and indeed far fewer windy locations onshore, compared to the UK. Yet by giving complete priority to renewable energy and energy efficient technologies like heat pumps rather than nuclear power, the German programme may ultimately move faster towards decarbonisation than the UK. 

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