Column: Bangers and Mash

Browned-Off by Germany’s Coal Cock-Up

Bonn. In this column, the author looks at life in Germany, as a Brit who is living in Bonn for years. This time, he notices that bragging about Germany’s advantages to the friends and family back home in the UK can indeed backfire…

I have always enjoyed popping back to the UK and preaching on the virtues of Germany’s super green society — but the game is up, and my pontificating is now a source of ridicule rather than pride.

This week, back in London for a visit, friends and family set aside the miseries of Brexit to instead have fun sticking in the environmental stiletto and twisting it ever deeper into Angela Merkel’s environmental legacy.

Instead of patiently sucking it up or politely nodding with boredom at my admiration for Germany’s public transport; efficient recycling system or awesome wind turbines, the word on their lips is now coal, and dirty, brown, lignite coal to be more precise. 

Like a fallen angel, akin to its national football at this year’s World Cup, Germany’s once unassailable and undisputed image as the environmental leader of the free world, has nose-dived and now lies tattered and smoking.

In the past I would, as if in a football match, eulogise my adopted home by dribbling conversationally down the wing, accelerating past the right back and then slamming a peach of a shot into the net.

Pulling my imaginary shirt up over my face to reveal underneath the legend ‘62 million’ (the number of bicycles in Deutschland, linked in no small to its vast network of cycle routes): Germany 1 : England 0!

Or, in a rapid, passing move the cross would come whipping into the box and bullet-headed into the goal as the crowd chants 36 per cent (the level of Germany’s total power coming from wind, solar and other renewables in 2017): 2:0!

Abundance of bio-food, German 3: England 0 and nature conservation, 4:0!

Today the UK does not even need to go into extra time or face a penalty shoot-out such is the calamitous state of Germany’s once great image, especially for climate action—the issue that now is overshadowing successes elsewhere.

Recent statistics indicate that burning lignite produced nearly a quarter of electricity in Germany. That number rises to around 37 percent if you include black coal. 

It is said that emissions from autos have not improved since the 1990s due to sustained lobbying by the car companies with or without the Volkswagen emissions-fixing debacle.Overall Germany’s greenhouse gas emissions have hardly improved for nearly a decade and it will miss its much-vaunted targets for 2020 — the year when climate pollution world-wide is meant to peak.

The UK in comparison — once famously described as the ‘dirty man of Europe’ – had emissions in 2016 36% below the reference year of 1990. Coal use has fallen by around three quarters in a decade. By 2025 coal will be gone from the UK.

It’s easy to imagine that the recent complex political landscape in Germany may be the underlining cause. 

Today it is certainly not helping as mainstream politics here grapples and horse-trades with a rising Right Wing — but to imagine it is all new is to miss the sorry truth: this is no overnight set back but a long standing gulf between green-image building and stark reality.

There is an even bigger picture that is being lost: Germany’s once seemingly strong, green credentials allied to its legendary economic power had provided an anti-dote to those around the world who said growth and environment cannot go hand in hand.

Today the cynics and critics of environmental policy have a scapegoat at a time when the world is facing a full-scale emergency as extreme weather smacks into more and more countries and communities and the scientific forecasts of the past gradually and terrifyingly become real.

For sure a meaningful solution needs to be found for the thousands of coal miners and their families. The way Margaret Thatcher in Britain did this late in the last century when shutting the mines is no model to follow: It consigned a generation to the slag heap of history.

But climate change — like the Far Right or a giant puff adder — cannot be tamed or be a topic for compromise. The future of seven billion people, rising to over 10 billion by 2050 is at stake.

Germany has the technology, the know-how, the economic muscle and an environmentally-supportive public: It can regain its once proud position as leader rather than drift listlessly on the tide of apology.

I hope the government-appointed ‘Coal-exit Commission’, which is due to deliver its full report before the end of the year, provides the direction forward and gets the much-needed, wide, political backing.

Then I can get back to teasing my UK countrymen and woman about the wonders of Germany’s environmental miracle and less well-off countries can be reassured that rich countries take their responsibilities towards a sustainable future seriously.