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German CO2 emissions targets at risk

A new coal-fired power plant has opened in Germany a day after an expert commission told the energy minister the country must triple its annual rate of decarbonization to meet its ambitious 2020 climate policy goals.

On Thursday in the Hamburg suburb of Moorburg, Hamburg's mayor Olaf Scholz, a leading figure in Germany's Social Democratic Party (SPD), stood alongside Magnus Hall, president of Swedish energy utility Vattenfall, and pushed a big button.

The button-pushing symbolized Vattenfall's ceremonial opening of a 1,600 Megawatt (MW) coal-fired power plant that had been under construction for eight years - despite heated opposition from Germany's greens, who want the country to exit from coal altogether.

One day earlier, in London, the UK government had announced a ten-year plan to close down all remaining coal-fired power stations in Britain. At the very same time as UK politicians were basking in the resulting applause, Scholz's fellow Social Democrat, Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel, the leader of the SPD and the country's minister of economy and energy, sat in a Berlin conference room absorbing some bad news.

An independent commission of senior energy experts advising his ministry explained to him on Wednesday that Germany was on track to miss - rather badly - the carbon emissions goals the government had set for the country to meet by 2020.

20.11.2015 Coal-fired power plant at Moorburg: The official launch

Perhaps the button pushed by officials at Moorburg's launch could equally well be interpreted as the detonation button on Germany's emissions reduction goals

Commitments outstripping actions

Germany is on track to meet some sub-goals, the experts reported, including continued brisk expansion of renewable energy generation capacity, which exceeded 30 percent of the country's total generation in the first half of 2015.

But the central target of reducing CO2 emissions by 40 percent compared to 1990 levels by 2020 was "seriously in danger," according to Andreas Löschel, director of the four-person expert commission, as it presented its fourth annual monitoring report on Germany's Energiewende (energy transition).

"The tempo of total carbon emissions reductions achieved each year needs to be roughly tripled" in order to meet the government's 2020 target, Löschel told DW, saying the annual emissions reduction rate in recent years has been 9 million tons of CO2 per annum, but needed to be 27 million tons.

Protest against Garzweiler brown coal strip mine, Erkelenz NRW

Protest erupted against the Garzweiler brown coal strip mine, Erkelenz, in western Germany

"The German government introduced a couple of new emissions reductions programs recently, including a national action plan for energy efficiency,# but the programs haven't been implemented yet and it's too early to say whether they'll be enough to close that gap," Löschel said. The commision's report detailed some reasons to suspect not

Excessive emissions from cars, houses, coal-fired power plants

One of the biggest problems the commission found was that energy use in the German transport sector had continued to increase - it was 1.7 percent higher in 2014 than in 2005. Another was slower-than-planned progress in improving energy efficiency, especially in the housing sector, where too little was being done to improve insulation.

A third was continued operation of too many coal-fired power plants, including lignite (brown coal) burning plants, which are especially emissions-intensive.

For these and other reasons, total carbon emissions were not dropping nearly as fast as the 2020 target demanded. Minister Gabriel admitted more needed to be done, pointing to an expansion in Germany's electric vehicle fleet as one of his priorities. However, he has been a stubborn defender of the coal industry, pointing to the undesirability of job losses in economically weak coal-producing regions.

Greenpeace protest against coal

A Greenpeace protest against coal strip-mining in the Lausitz region south of Berlin. The signs display names of villages that were destroyed to make way for lignite strip-mines

Meanwhile in Sweden, the government was getting ready to travel to Paris for COP21, the big UN climate policy conference, with a flashy "Fossil Free" campaign, boasting that it intends to be the first industrial country to go fossil-free, and inviting others to join in.

On both the corporate and government side, in Germany as well as Sweden, emissions numbers and climate policies were not adding up.

The Pontius Pilate of climate policy

On the corporate side, the problem was Vattenfall's intention to divest from its brown-coal assets. Vattenfall AB is a company wholly owned by the Swedish government, with subsidiaries in several European countries.

Berlin power grid Referendum 2014

In Berlin, a citizen-driven referendum in 2013 aiming to force the city to buy its power grid off Vattenfall nearly succeeded

Vattenfall's German subsidiary is Germany's third largest power generator, with more than 20,500 employees, annual revenues of more than 11 billion euros ($12 billion), and a power-generation portfolio consisting primarily of coal-fired power plants - including several particularly dirty lignite-fueled power plants in eastern Germany, including the one at Jänschwalde, pictured at the top of the page. Those lignite mines and power plants employ about 8,000 people.

The government of Sweden has decided it wants to gradually wash its hands of coal-burning - which is the electricity sector's worst generation technology by far in terms of emissions of climate-disrupting carbon dioxide, as well as other air pollutants. So Vattenfall has been seeking to sell its German brown-coal power generation assets, plus several associated lignite mines - some 9,000 MW of generating capacity.

MIBRAG, a coal and lignite producing subsidiary of Czech company Energetickky a Prumyslovy Holding (EPH), is reportedly interested in buying them - but regulatory uncertainties have delayed a sale.

Cottbus power station

This coal fired power station in Cottbus, Germany, makes the issue visible

Greenpeace's pitch

"Selling its brown-coal mines and associated power plants to another company won't make the slightest difference to greenhouse gas emissions," Annika Jacobson of Greenpeace Nordic in Sweden said. Vattenfall would be able to boast in its annual report that it's shifting away from coal power, but if the only change is that some other company operates the plants, that does nothing at all for climate safety.

That's why Greenpeace Sweden has offered to acquire Vattenfall Germany's brown-coal power plants and mines - with a view to shutting them down over time.

"Greenpeace has proposed that Vattenfall transfer its brown-coal plants and mines to a newly set-up foundation, which in partnership with regional governments would negotiate a gradual exit from coal and an economic restructuring in the affected regions between now and 2030," Jacobson told DW.

Greenpeace didn't offer Vattenfall any money, arguing that the social and environmental costs of burning lignite far exceed the value of the financial profits - so it makes no sense to pay for assets that lose money on a total cost accounting basis.

Hamburg - Moorburg new coal fired power station

The new power station at Hamburg-Moorburg is fuelled by hard, or "black" coal, which is slightly less polluting than lignite (brown coal) when burned

The proposal was dismissed out-of-hand by Vattenfall. The Swedish government "seems intent on selling the assets to the highest bidder, while putting no environmental demands at all on potential buyers," Jacobson said. The price range: Between one and two billion euros - money gained at the expense of Sweden's environmental credibility.

Fossil free or sincerity free?

Jacobson called Swedish government's policy on Vattenfall's brown-coal assets hypocrisy at its purest, asking:

"If Sweden and Germany refuse to manage a near-term exit from coal power in an environmentally and socially responsible way, what does this mean for the world?"

The Swedish government would be sending a devastating signal by selling Vattenfall's brown-coal assets rather than shutting them down responsibly, Jacobson argued. India, China and other less wealthy countries would take note and quietly conclude that if two of the richest and supposedly most environmentally progressive governments in the world clearly weren't serious about getting out of coal-fired power, then they needn't bother taking the issue seriously either.

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