By: Nicholas Johnstone
The lights have been turned off at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. In normal times, this iconic monument and tourist attraction is spectacularly lit up at night; however, it is now a dark symbol of the energy crisis that Germany and other European nations are currently facing. As of September, a number of energy-saving measures approved by the German government have come into effect, including the capping of temperatures in public buildings to a maximum of 19 degrees celsius, a decision not to allow public buildings and monuments (as well as private businesses) to be “aesthetically lit,” and a publicity campaign educating citizens on ways to cut down on energy use this winter.
The proximate cause for this sad state of affairs is Russia’s continuing war in Ukraine, and Vladimir Putins’ decision to drastically limit the Nordstream 1 pipeline, hurting those EU states reliant on Russian energy. As of September 29th, the Nordstream 1 pipeline has been completely closed. Although Mr. Putin has cited technical failures as the reason for the weaker flow in the pipeline, many observers believe that he is engaging in deliberate sabotage as a way to punish those European countries that have placed sanctions on Russia. Germany was receiving about 55% of its natural gas supply from Russia prior to the Ukraine invasion. The sudden closing of the pipeline has created an energy catastrophe there and across Europe, which has on average seen the wholesale price of gas increase by more than double over the past year.
Why exactly is a wealthy country like Germany so dependent on Russian energy in the first place? Mr. Putin’s actions have clearly had an enormous effect on Germany’s ability to provide a decent standard of living for its citizens. Why can’t it make up the difference with energy of its own?
The ultimate cause for Germany’s energy crisis can be found in the counterproductive manner in which it has pursued its net-zero carbon ambitions. Though it has gained significant solar and wind capacity in recent years, the coinciding decision to phase out its nuclear energy plants has seen energy shortfalls large enough that it had to turn to Russian natural gas to make up the difference. It has shuttered its nuclear plants in the belief that there is neither an environmental nor an economic case for their existence.
Germany’s nuclear phase-out has a fairly protracted history. The anti-nuclear movement has been very influential in Germany since the 1970s, and was a strong influence on the Green Party (Die Grünen) when it emerged in the 1980s. The anti-nuclear position continues to significantly animate the party, and has since spread into decision-making in more mainstream parties such as the Christian Democratic Union (CDU). The nuclear accidents in Three Mile Island (1979), Chernobyl (1986), and Fukushima (2011) all significantly tilted German public opinion against nuclear. Fukushima in particular spurred a large groundswell of public protest, with many anti-nuclear activists demanding the government speed up the phase-out. In response Angela Merkel, then-leader of the CDU, proposed the permanent shutdown of eight plants as well as a drastic limiting of the remaining ones.
Despite the continued Ukraine invasion and the resulting European energy crisis, Germany is still committing to its plan to shut down its three remaining nuclear plants by the end of 2022. In fact, some commentators, such as the writer Michael Shellenberger, posit that when a country embraces green energy while simultaneously abandoning nuclear, it is almost inevitable that it will turn to dirtier sources (both in the ethical and environmental sense) in order to meet its energy needs. Germany’s experience over the past few months would seem to vindicate that idea; a number of domestic coal plants which had been slated for closure prior to the Ukraine invasion are now being re-started so that natural gas supplies can be conserved for the winter.
Another question worth asking: why isn’t an allied country like Canada, which is abundantly endowed with natural gas, exporting more to Germany to help with its energy insecurity? For one thing there are no LNG terminals on Canada’s Atlantic coastline and, at the moment at least, there is very little political will in Canada to build the infrastructure necessary to deliver more LNG abroad. This became clear over the summer of 2022, when German Chancellor Olaf Scholz arrived in Canada hoping to make Canada his country’s primary source of LNG, but was met with a response from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that there was not a “business case” for exporting to Europe. In desperation, Chancellor Scholz then turned to Qatar, with which he quickly hashed out a 15-year LNG trade deal.
As has been demonstrated, the push for green options, excluding nuclear, has proven insufficient to power a country. Countries that have switched to wind and solar appear to need other forms of energy (often LNG, but in the case of Germany now, also coal) to make up for the shortfall. Since natural gas is more emissions-intensive than nuclear and therefore not as beneficial in the push for net-zero, it is unfortunate that Germany and other countries have been boxed into a corner and now have to accept it from Putin’s Russia and now Qatar. Less nuclear means more reliance on natural gas (as well as much dirtier sources like coal), and the less natural gas that liberal democracies are willing to supply (or to produce for domestic consumption) means that more will inevitably be coming from autocratic nations.
Vladimir Putin’s aggression has confronted Germany with some difficult but important choices. First off, its leaders need to recognize, as many are doing, that its current energy situation is not tenable. From there, there are a few possible decisions. They can decide to restart their nuclear plants, which would be a low-carbon way of ensuring a plentiful energy supply. If not nuclear, they could decide to embrace the second-best option in terms of energy density, natural gas, which they could start importing from countries with less problematic human rights records. Or they can continue to eschew both domestically-produced nuclear and allied-produced natural gas, instead committing themselves to wind and solar. As neither of these has been shown to effectively support an industrial economy just by themselves, Germany will likely continue to entrench its reliance on countries with problematic human rights records. It would be a mistake to choose this third option.
Nicholas Johnstone is a Master of Public Policy candidate at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy. He holds an undergraduate degree in Political Science from the University of British Columbia. His areas of interest include energy policy specifically, Canadian politics generally, and international relations.