I came across an interesting documentary here from Australian TV regarding Germany’s phase out of coal. It is definitely worth a look.
Mention Germany’s growth in renewables (currently contributing 46% of Germany’s electricity) and inevitably someone will bring up the fact that Germany still gets a lot of power from coal, worse lignite (otherwise known as “brown coal”). Of course such individuals merely demonstrate that they are poor at maths, being unable to tell the difference between the 60% coal used to contribute to Germany’s electricity production and the 30% it has now fallen too. This forms part of an overall 30% drop in Germany’s carbon emissions since 1990 (note when I say overall, I mean everything, not just electricity).
But certainly yes, Germany does get some of its electricity from coal. But, as our documentary points out, its already begun phasing out coal. Germany closed the last of its deep pit mines back in 2018. Furthermore, they did so without a single involuntary redundancy. The mines were phased out gradually, with training programmes funded by the government such that workers could re-train and enter other professions (the older ones taking early retirement).
This counters one of the main arguments against renewable energy in parts of the US. That the Greenie’s are comin to tok Ur Jerbs. As Germany’s phaseout plans show, there are alternatives to the lassie-faire approach adopted in the UK or the US. The simple fact is that coal is a dying industry. Nevermind the carbon emissions it simply can’t compete anymore against either natural gas or renewables. Committing to continued coal production means simply delaying the inevitable. Eventually, the day will come where the mines are no longer productive (or there’s some sort of mechanical breakdown or a collapse underground) and all the miners get the sack, causing the local economy to implode.
And already this has happened in UK and in parts of the US, turning once thriving mining towns into economic black spots, wrecked by crime, “diseases of despair” (drug abuse, alcohol addiction, etc.) as well as the illnesses and environmental pollution that comes from living next to an old coal mine. And, as I pointed out in a prior post, yes things are getting much worse in places such as the Appalachians under Trump, a region that voted overwhelmingly for him in 2016.
However, while Germany deep mines are now closed, its open cast lignite mines still remain open. And the last of them aren’t scheduled to shut until 2038. While environmentalists say this is way too long to keep them open, the German government wants to give these communities more time to adapt. As well as more time to build the energy infrastructure that will replace coal. They are also promising tens of billions of euros to help cushion the blow.
And for the record, it is certainly possible to do that. In particular there will be the need for more energy storage, although smart grid technology does greatly reduce the amount of storage you’d actually need (this report from the UK points out that you can convert a potential 30 GW peak in demand, due to electric cars charging, to just 5-10 GW’s by using smart grids). So Germany could phase out coal more quickly, but that would lead to a temporary increase in reliance on Gas (some of which they have to source from Russia). They could do so more slowly, but that would require switching coal plants to carbon capture and storage (which means investing in an industry that everyone seems to accept has no future, so pouring good money after bad). Its a difficult dilemma made worse by the politics and recent history of Germany.
Several of these brown coal mines lie in the east of the country. German reunification is still something of a work in progress. While politically its a single country, economically there’s still a big divide. After the Berlin wall came down, the economy of East Germany collapsed. Their industries simply couldn’t compete and their infrastructure was a mess, requiring much investment from Berlin to fix. Meanwhile for West Germans, their GDP per capita dropped and there was a recession. This was felt most heavily in the more deprived parts of West Germany (which includes some of the coal mining regions of the west), as funds they’d previously relied on got diverted towards the East.
And the situation in East Germany played out across Eastern Europe. Western leaders went adopted a strategy of “shock therapy”, an extreme model of neo-liberalism, to rapidly transition these nations from communist to market capitalists. Needless to say, this created many problems, leaving a trail of economic and social issues in its wake. And this resulted in a political backlash, leading to the rise of authoritarian populists parties and leaders in Eastern Europe and Russia.
And in Germany its no surprise to learn that the areas voting AfD are the same economically deprived areas (mainly in the east) hit hard by reunification. While the voters blame recently arrived migrants and refugees (there’s an inverse relationship between AfD support and either economic growth or the number of migrants, i.e. the less migrants the higher the support for AfD and the slower the poorer the performance of the local economy), the root cause is of course the shortcomings of reunification (and hence why, as with brexit, restricting immigration will achieve nothing, it will simply make things worse). So you can understand in that context why the German government is reluctant to accelerate the phase out of coal.
However, my two cents are they might not have any choice. Coal miners just need to get with the programme and accept that probably the end of the decade is a more likely end date for German coal, not 2038. Firstly, the rise of AfD has led to a huge backlash in the more affluent parts of Germany. In some states the Greens are now the largest party. And as our Australian documentary shows direct action protesters are now swarming coal mines in a effort to shut them down.
Now when I say direct action, you are probably thinking of a few dozen crusty hippies waving placards (or gluing themselves to the side of an eco-bus or an electric train). Think again, instead German coal mines are being besieged by thousands of protesters who descend on a mine all at once in carefully coordinated near military style operations. And least we forget, it is the more affluent parts of Germany (i.e. the bits now voting increasingly for the Greens) who will foot the bill for the energy transition. As their support grows they may use their control of the economic purse strings to get their way (by for example threatening to cut off all economic aid if the phase out isn’t accelerated).
The other problem is that there seems to be an assumption that Germany’s open cast coal mines will remain competitive until they get phased out. They won’t. We’ve seen as much in other parts of the world. And keeping out hordes of protesters doesn’t exactly help the situation. This is largely why the Germans are also sticking to the plan of phasing out nuclear power. The cost of protecting these facilities from protesters has just become too high (both in financial terms and politically).
Unfortunately for the coal miners if they are expecting AfD to save them they are going to be as disappointed as many of the US coal miners (now losing their jobs under Trump). While populists will talk the talk of protectionism and dissing globalisation, in reality neo-liberal economics, low public spending and low taxes for the wealthy are their default economic model. Voting for them is like having an arsonist burn down your town hall and then, angry at the fire department for not putting the fire out quickly enough, you elect the arsonist as the new fire chief.
The idea that AfD are going to spend billions to help out miners (money that could otherwise be helping to buy them a yacht, a mansion or a bigger car), when they could easily buy their energy off their boss (Putin), is about as likely as it is that Trump would help out the poor in the US. And why should they? After all if you know that these people are so dumb and bigoted that you only have to play the race card next election and they’ll vote for you anyway (regardless of how badly you’ve screwed them over) why would you help them (compassion? humanity?, honour?…so for populists, nah no compelling reasons!). This is exactly how Hungary’s Fidesz or Poland’s
Lies and Bigotry Law and Justice party win election after election.
But either way, its pretty clear that Germany has begun its transition away from coal. The pace of this is really the only question. Accelerating the transition would be better for the environment and indeed might be entirely necessary given the issues I’ve raised, but it comes with considerable risks and costs. Hence why the German government is sticking to a longer phase out. Whether or not they will succeed is the question.
But at the very least the German have a plan. We can nitpick, but they have shown that getting rid of fossil fuels doesn’t have to be crippling. It is possible to transition away from them, without creating mass unemployment. In fact this is the problem facing many other countries, who don’t have any plan!
There seems to be lack of awareness of the economic consequences of not transitioning away from fossil fuels. All climate change denial means is that there will be no time left to undertake any sort of transition. Economic factors or the impact of climate change itself will simply force countries like the US or Russia to make hasty cuts to their fossil fuel consumption and bare the devastating consequences that follow.
And recall its not only coal miners who need a transition plan. Oil industry workers, farmers (given that any carbon reduction strategy will probably mean changes to farming practices, notably less meat production) and some construction jobs (concrete is another major source of carbon emissions) will all see significant changes in the jobs they currently do. Without any sort of a transition plan then you are going to see an awful lot of lay-offs and bankruptcies. And while the situation will likely sort itself out eventually (those made redundant will find work in new industries), its not going to be smooth sailing and the political and socio-economic consequences are going to be severe.