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Fossil fuels: is the empire striking back?

Irene Quaile
April 25, 2017

A fossil fuel revival and fake news discrediting the energy transition could endanger progress on climate protection, says economist Claudia Kemfert. 100 days into Trump's administration, renewables can't be complacent.

Kraftwerk Oberhausen Wasserdampf Abgase
Image: Getty Images/L. Schulze

DW:  Professor Kemfert, you've just published a new book. The title is "The Fossil Empire Strikes Back." What lies behind the title? 

Claudia Kemfert: We see that the global energy transformation towards more renewable energy was quite successful in the last years. The cost of renewable energy has declined and after the Paris agreement to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions in December 2015 and the ratification of the climate protocol, we were on a good track. But then we have been completely moved back by the fossil energy sector. They tried to give around some kind of fake news and myths around all the renewable energy, about potential blackouts, cost increases and so forth. We see that especially in the USA. And here with the Trump administration we see a lot of "roll back", to provide more help for the fossil industry and this is why we have to defend the global energy transformation. 

Author and expert Claudia Kemfer at a conference. Photo credit: picture-alliance/dpa/B. Wüstneck.
Kemfert says fake news is discrediting the energy transitionImage: picture-alliance/dpa/B. Wüstneck

What kind of fake news is doing the rounds with regard to the energy transformation? 

There is a lot of fake news around. For example, they always claim that renewable energy is responsible for some kind of blackouts. We never saw blackouts, especially not in Germany, on the contrary, we have the safest electricity system in the world. Or it is claimed that renewable energy is extremely costly and will also bring economic disadvantages, although the opposite is true. In my new book I show that these are all myths and fake news, they are not true. 

Is it possible to eliminate fake news or to tell what's true and what's fake in an age where everybody can be his own journalist, in a way, using social media? 

It's very important to identify fake news. And this is why scientists are so important. To me as a scientist here, I see that there is a dangerous development ongoing. And this is why we need also scientists to say what is going on, what is really fact and what is not fact. But it is also in the responsibility of everybody not to believe every myth, to get transparent information and to question sources.

What has been your personal experience as a scientist, a writer and a public figure? As it happens to many scientists in the world, scientific facts are neglected and doubted. The opponens claim that these kinds of scientific facts are not true. They are also fake news. There is a lot of skepticism and science ay, "it's not the

hostility. The main aim is to create doubts, spread around myths and fake news.

When Donald Trump first said that he was going to bring back coal, a lot of people said that will just never happen, the time has passed. Are fossil fuels really making a comeback or is this just a kind of fake news, sort of "alternative facts" created by the fossil fuel giants? 

A power station in Germany. Photo credit: Fotolia/blumenkind
Germany is in danger of losing its leading position on energy transitionImage: Fotolia/blumenkind

Well there is a danger around this because the politicians decided already towards the fossil technology. For example, in the US, they tried to get back to the past energy policy and support especially coal companies. Because they are not economically efficient, they have to provide subsidies in order to make them economically competitive.We have the same discussions  in Germany as well, although there are not many jobs in the coal industry left. Here we see that the fossil industry is quite successful in bringing this fake news into the policy campaigns, and in the US we will see this of course as well. And this is why it's so dangerous, what's now going on, because we are losing time to bring the greenhouse gases down and help the planet to survive.

Germany has a reputation internationally for being a leader. The term Energiewende has even made its way into English for the energy transition. Do you think Germany is in danger of losing that leading position? 

Indeed. Germany is in danger of losing this position. We had a good start, as we had increased the share of renewable energy from almost zero to approximately 30 percent of electricity production right now.The costs of renewable energy have declined substantially.  But then a lot of decisions were made to stop this development. Not only in the electricity sector - to have more time for the coal industry for example - and coal still has a high share of 45 percent of electricity production. And this will not go down if the politicians will not do anything about it. But also we need to see that the energy transition is much more than electricity. In the heating sector we have to do a lot for energy efficiency improvement and increase the share of renewable energy, and also in the transportation sector. Here we are not a leader at all.

Science march in Washington. Photo credit: CQ-Roll Call,Inc./Bill Clark.
Pro-science and environment activists have been protesting in the US against the Trump administration's hostility to science Image: CQ-Roll Call,Inc./Bill Clark

You suggest in your book that the traditional energy industry's struggle to hold onto power and profit and hold up the green energy transition could endanger peace and security. Why is that? 

The energy transition is the most important peace and energy security project on earth, because the new energy transition or the movement towards renewable energy would bring more democratic energy transformation. It's more participatory, and it's also climate neutral. And all this brings a lot of positive impact also to democracy, to participation, and also to the environment and economy. And this is why it's such an important project. For example, if we look at the renewable energy sector, the cost has gone down. Now for example solar energy is also feasible in regions in developing countries, where it was not economically feasible in the past. They could also increase their personal well-being and the economic impact was really positive. And this is why it's so dangerous that the fossil empire lashes back. 

There is a whole protest movement growing with scientists marching, climate activists marching, concerned citizens taking to the streets. How important is that? What can it actually achieve? 

It's really important, this kind of protest, because now it's time to act and we have to show that this development is really dangerous, not only because of the scientifically-unfriendly atmosphere which is being created in the US, in Turkey, in many areas of the world. It's very important to have a free science globally. And free science is an active part of democracy. We all have to show that we are fighting for this. 


Claudia Kemfert is  an economics expert on energy research and environmental protection and is a professor of energy and sustainability at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin. 

The book: Das fossile Imperium schlägt zurück is published by Murmann.

The interview was conducted by Irene Quaile-Kersken.