The German Gas Crisis And The Future Of The Energieweinde
August 1, 2022 Yefren Nye
Much noise has been made in recent weeks about the impending German energy crisis, with much furor over announcements that some apartment complexes will have to cut heating to 17 degrees (Celsius) and an increase in the likelihood of a German recession. The crisis has moved previously taboo ideas like a reversal of German nuclear phaseout and speed limits on the famous autobahn into political consideration, and drawn a certain degree of both schadenfreude from those who see Germany as overweening and self-satisfied, as well as anger at its’ apparent ditching of climate change related targets.
For today’s blog post, we will explore some of the history behind Germany’s energy situation, going back to the Soviet period when West Germany first sought to chart a course towards stronger ties with the USSR, for this section I rely heavily on Patrick Wintour’s excellent article for the Guardian. Then we will briefly look at the fallout in Europe and explore how the situation will affect the ‘Energieweinde’, Germany’s longstanding goal to be a leader in the transition to renewable energy. Although there have been significant reports of German backsliding on climate commitments and some media have reported that Germany is abandoning its 2035 emissions targets, it is important to note that Germany has built up strong legislative momentum in the direction of emissions reductions, and will face significant headwinds if it tries to reverse course.
German consumption of Russian natural gas began in the 1970s as part of a policy of rapprochement towards the Soviet Union, pursued by the West German Government at the time. Though this policy was looked on with skepticism by some of Germany’s NATO allies, it was pursued for 50 years justified with the argument that stronger trade ties between the two great powers of central and eastern Europe would gradually bring their political systems closer together and foster peace in Europe’s east. Germany also made the calculation that a supply of gas from its geographical neighborhood was more dependable and likely to be politically stable than one from other major oil producing states like those of the Middle East.
The bilateral relationship reached its zenith in the first decade of the twenty first century, with Gerhard Schröder and Vladimir Putin having a close relationship. The creation of the Nordstream pipeline was a significant further move towards mutual dependency. The pipeline travelling through the Baltic Sea meant that Eastern European countries were cut out of the process, missing out on transit fees, and having no opportunity to disrupt the relationship. The Polish defense minister of the time, Radosław Sikorski, compared the creation of Nordstream to the Molotov Ribbentrop pact, which led to the division of Poland between Germany and the Soviet Union. The skepticism of the USA and Eastern European countries towards the relationship began to appear increasingly vindicated from 2014 onwards, when the conflict between Russia and Ukraine first broke out. With the recent explosion of the war’s scale to encompass all of Ukraine and EU sanctions against Russia, supply of natural gas has been restricted, and Russia has cut Nordstream supply to 40%.
Germany now stands as the world’s fourth largest economy and seventh in primary energy consumption, without the ability to guarantee continuance of supply. The situation has led to a certain amount of recrimination both from eastern European countries and the USA where Germany has been seen as too friendly to Russia, and from southern European nations where Germany’s overbearing economic power is sometimes resented. When, in a move to share the burden of the shortage, the president of the European Commission Ursula Van De Leyen requested that European economies cut their consumption of natural gas by 15%, the request was refused by the Spanish government, with minister of ecological transition Teresa Ribera commenting that “unlike other countries, we Spaniards have not lived beyond our means from an energy point of view”. The quip is a rejoinder to a Germany which was seen by many in southern Europe as having refused to share the burdens of the economic downturn after 2008, and which the European economy has still not shaken off. Nonetheless, as of July 26th, the measure has been approved by European energy ministers.
Because of this situation, reports of German reneging on its climate commitments, of both the panicked and smug varieties, have begun to make the news. It is certainly not a positive development that, as we covered in our previous entry, the EU is set to categorize natural gas as a green investment after German lobbying. The last fortnight also saw a controversial trip by Ursula von der Leyen to Azerbaijan, another oil supplying country which recently attacked its’ neighbor, in a search for new European gas supplies.
Despite these discouraging signs however, the momentum in Germany is still towards decarbonization. Germany began the 21st century aiming to be the global leader in energy transformation. In 2000 it began a legislative program of providing support to solar energy developments so that people could sell power back to the national grid, a policy which lawmakers today consider to be a success, and which was pioneering in its time. Even after the outbreak of war in Ukraine, Germany has been embarked on a legislative program aimed at meeting its target of carbon neutrality by 2045, and a decarbonized electricity grid by 2035. An intermediate target of 80% grid decarbonization by 2030 is still in place, and the wording of the Easter Package which passed the Bundestag earlier this month combines a restatement of the 2035 goal and changes to the Renewable Energy and Onshore Wind Power acts which aim to accelerate the building of renewable power.
The security situation in Europe is extremely volatile, and the real test is likely to come in the winter, but the consensus around the necessity of accelerating the energy transition is looking increasingly like the consensus position of European policy elites. A particularly interesting sign of this shift came in a speech this week by President of Hungary Victor Orban, long a climate skeptic and bete noir of Western European liberals, when he declared that nuclear and solar energy were the future of secure European energy, reversing his earlier position, although pitching his ideas in the same language of antagonism towards EU bureaucratic elites. If this is indeed a vision of the future, then it is one in which Europe will be battered by storms both internal and external, but the Energiewende has put down firm roots nonetheless.