Germans and Climate Change

With its Energiewende (energy transition) Germany has, in the last decade, advanced policy initiatives that have shaken up the energy sector, and this has provoked a range of responses amongst the German populace. Whether it's their concern for their environment, their pocketbooks or their relations with neighboring countries and those around the world, this issue is one which strikes deep chords in the political consciousness of this country. 

At issue in this debate is the relationship between the effect that the German government's policies have on climate change and the effect they on the average German citizen. As a leader in the effort to fight climate change, Germany has fostered technological innovation. Its policy initiatives are bringing about a paradigmatic shift in how energy is generated, distributed, and consumed, but this change has meant higher energy bills for German consumers, and according to some, a risk to the competitiveness of German industry stemming from the high cost of power.

According to the Economist, "About half of an average consumer's bill now goes to taxes and subsidies for renewables rather than the actual price of electricity." In a time of economic uncertainty this factor is given added weight.

This concern for energy policy on the part of the average citizen has been around for a long time in Germany. Ever since the 1970's, a grass-roots movement has been underway to end nuclear-power generation, and after the Chernobyl accident in 1986 and, most recently, the disaster at the nuclear power plant in Fukushima, the popular pressure forced Angela Merkel to address this issue.

Her government has set the goal of shutting down all nuclear reactors by 2022. In order to compensate for the loss of production, the Energiewende includes another goal: for Germany to get 80% of its energy from renewable sources by 2050. One of the challenges in moving toward a power generation system based on renewable energy is the transmission of that energy once it is generated. This will require the construction of a huge new system of "power superhighways" as they are called. 

These political and technological factors serve to make this ambitious energy transformation a difficult proposition. This uncertainty along with the higher bills paid each month by consumers means that Germans are taking on a degree of risk and expense that, when compared to what other countries are doing to tackle climate change, may make them feel uneasy.

The presence of nuclear reactors in neighboring countries, such as France and the Czech Republic, ensures that at least some of the risk associated with the nuclear power generation will remain even after Germany has shut down its own plants, and the less-than-stellar environmental performance of much larger countries like China and the U.S. serves as a comparison to the efforts their own country is making.

So far polls show that, despite the higher costs that Germans are currently paying, the promise of a "democratization" of the energy grid, encouraged through "feed-in tariffs", which provide incentives for private individuals, co-ops, and municipalities to generate electricity, is enough for Germans to remain in agreement with their governments policies. The upcoming elections in September 2013 will give us an even better idea of what they are thinking.


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