If Germany can’t hit its own climate goals to help the world, can anybody else?

Energy Shocks
Energy Shocks

The two parties likely to form the next coalition government in Germany have agreed to give up on the country’s climate targets for 2020. The goal was to achieve a 40% reduction in emissions from 1990 levels. In 2016, Germany’s had only reduced emissions by 28% versus the baseline (pdf), so the plan is now unrealistic.

There are two ways to interpret the announcement.

A charitable response would be that the news isn’t a surprise. Although Germany has made heavy investments in renewable energy, it has also been shuttering zero-carbon nuclear power plants since 2011. Giving up on the 2020 climate goals makes sense, especially if the coalition maintains the 2030 target of a 55% emissions reduction versus 1990 levels.

A harsher response would be that the news is devastating. “This damages the credibility of Germany but it also damages the whole international climate process,” Tobias Austrup, an energy expert at Greenpeace told the Financial Times. “Why should other countries stick to their climate goals if we don’t?”

The truth, as always, is somewhere in between.

For context, in 2010 the German government laid out plans for Energiewende (energy transition). The idea of burning fewer fossil fuels and relying more on renewable sources wasn’t unique, but most policy analysts thought that the pace of Germany’s planned transition was very ambitious. Still, given the country’s technical expertise, its ability to execute difficult plans, and the stable leadership offered by long-time chancellor Angela Merkel, it seemed like it could manage to reach its goals.

Nuclear power was supposed to be a big part of Energiewende. It’s a zero-carbon source that provides stable base-load power when needed. But in March 2011, six months after policy details of Energiewende were published, Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plant was hit with a tsunami and suffered a meltdown. Within months, under political pressure, the German government pulled support for nuclear power and began a process of shutting down its nuclear fleet. The upshot has been that, instead of German emissions falling after 2010, they briefly increased until 2013, before falling to current levels.

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(OpenClimateData/Robert Gieseke)

Still, one reason to believe in Germany’s Energiewende was the country’s commitment to solar power, as Quartz explained previously:

Starting in 2000, the German Renewable Energy Sources Act required that electricity from renewable sources be prioritized over all other sources in the country. The German government also set a fixed price for renewable electricity, and provided low-cost loans for homeowners to install rooftop solar panels. The combination of incentives suddenly created a huge market for solar cells, which were still expensive at the time. At one point, Germany was buying nearly half the world’s supply of solar cells. The huge demand pushed innovation and gradually lowered the price, and today the whole world reaps the benefits of Germany’s efforts.

The push for renewables puts Germany in an enviable position among rich countries, with nearly a quarter of all its power generated by wind and solar alone.

But a high proportion of renewable energy, for which producers were promised a certain price for the electricity they provide, created a different problem. To smooth out the intermittency of solar and wind, given the reduction in nuclear power, Germany has had to rely on dirty fossil-fuel sources to fill the gaps. The trouble is that fossil-fuel power companies have to provide power at market prices that don’t cover the cost of production. As a result, Germany’s biggest utilities, RWE and E.ON, reported combined losses of more than $30 billion in 2015 and 2016.

So, in a sense, the Greenpeace activist is right. If a country with Germany’s technical and financial might can’t meet its climate goals, it’s not good news for the rest of the world. At the same time, it’s also correct that had Germany priced its electricity more carefully and not pulled support for nuclear, it could have hit its 2020 goals.

Energy transitions are hard. But as depressing as it seems at first, Germany’s stumble offers hope. It’s within our technical and financial means to achieve climate goals, if we plan well and use every technology lever available.

Read next: Humanity’s fight against climate change is failing. One technology can change that.

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