German Chancellor Angela Merkel is anything but a left-wing greenie. The party she leads, the Christian Democratic Union, is the political equivalent of the Republicans in the U.S. Her coalition government is decidedly pro-business. Often described as Europe's most powerful politician, Merkel's top priority is job creation and economic growth.
Yet if the chancellor succeeds with her new energy policy, she will become the first leader to transform an industrialized nation from nuclear and fossil fuel energy to renewable power.
In mid-March, Merkel stunned the German public and other governments by announcing an accelerated phasing out of all 17 German nuclear reactors as an immediate reaction to the Fukushima disaster in Japan. The chancellor now says she wants to slash the use of coal, speed up approvals for renewable energy investments, and reduce CO2 emissions drastically. That means that the 81 million Germans living between the North Sea and the Alps are supposed to cover their huge energy needs from wind, solar, geothermal, and biomass within a few decades. Indeed, by 2030 green electricity could be the dominant source of power for German factories and households.
"We want to end the use of nuclear energy and reach the age of renewable energy as fast as possible," Merkel said.
After the chancellor's surprising announcement, opposition parties from the left decried it as a political stunt, an act of opportunism, and even panic, ahead of key regional elections in Southern Germany. But after these elections were lost by her party, Merkel soldiered on. In the past weeks, government officials have already offered details of the "energy turn," as Merkel calls the change.
The numbers that circulate in Berlin's government district at the moment are staggering. Merkel's administration plans to shut down the nuclear
reactors - which in recent years reliably provided up to a quarter of Germany's huge needs as baseload electricity - by 2022 at the latest. It wants to double the share of renewable energy to 35 percent of consumption in 2020, 50 percent in 2030, 65 percent in 2040, and more than 80 percent in 2050. At the same time, the chancellor vows to cut CO2 emissions (compared to 1990 levels) by 40 percent in 2020, by 55 percent in 2030, and by more than 80 percent in 2050.
That makes Germany the world's most important laboratory of "green growth." No other country belonging to the G20 club of economic powers has a comparable agenda. In the U.S., President Obama is expanding state-backed loan guarantees for the nuclear industry to build more reactors, and Republicans are blocking measures to reduce CO2 emissions. Germany is Europe's largest economy. Making such a country a renewable powerhouse would transform it into the undisputed mecca for everyone on the planet concerned with the environment and green-tech business.
But why would Merkel have Germany do what other big nations deem too risky and too expensive? Is she prepared to sacrifice Germany's economic viability, which stems from manufacturing and technology export to a great extent?
Clearly, Angela Merkel has reacted to the Fukushima disaster completely differently from Barack Obama and other world leaders. In the past, Merkel too has been pro-nuclear. She was convinced that nuclear power was safe and clean, and that the Chernobyl accident was a result of Soviet inefficiency, not of the technology itself. Only last year, she fought to extend the operation time of Germany's reactors by 12 years on average, against fierce opposition from the left and environmental groups.
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