Consensus with Losers

It seemed we had left behind the major conflicts in the transition from the old energy world of fossil fuels and nuclear to that of renewable energies. It seemed there is an an all-party consensus on the energy revolution in Germany. But civic demand for rapid decarbonisation is revealing open lines of conflict in the Energiewende. Sebastian Helgenberger explains.

Opponents of lignite protest in Germany’s Lausitz region, they are wearing white clothes and facemasks.

What do the protests in Lausitz mean for the process of German Energiewende? (Photo by 350.org / Paul Levis Wagner, modified, CC BY-NC 2.0)


The train lines are blocked, demonstrators are chained to railings, trains with problematic freight are brought to a halt, and there is a big on-site police presence. It all sounds very familiar. On this occasion the setting is Germany’s Lausitz region, and once again, like previously further to the north in Wendland, a broad civic action movement is mobilising for a responsible energy policy. This time, however, the focus is not on radioactive waste but on fossil fuels that are harmful to the climate, and the issue represents one of the remaining lines of conflict in Germany’s Energiewende.

Hang on – wasn’t a general social consensus that the energy revolution is right and important, and should even be accelerated? The battle about coal may well be the start of the decisive phase of one of the last conflicts around the energy revolution.

The energy revolution has proceeded along several lines of conflict in society since the 1970s – taken together, the commitment to the energy revolution by Germany’s governing Conservative-Liberal coalition in 2011, the decisions by the Social-Democratic and Green coalition government on phasing out nuclear power, and the renewable energy law (EEG) in 2000 could be interpreted as an all-party consensus on the energy revolution. We can summarise the interim result of a number of successively layered strands of discussion about the energy revolution as follows: Energy revolution Phase 1 involved efforts to reduce dependency on fossil fuels imports in the face of the 1970s oil crisis; Phase 2, from the 1970s/1980s onwards, consisted of opposition to risk-entailing nuclear plants – the term “Energiewende” was coined at that time by the Öko-Institut/Institute for Applied Ecology. In Phase 3, from the 1980s/1990s onwards, a broad movement for sustainability and climate protection engendered the determination to push ahead with the energy revolution in social terms in Germany. In Phase 4, from 2000 onward, the EEG prepared the setting for widespread financial participation by German citizens in renewable energies.

It seemed we had left behind the major conflicts in the transition from the old energy world of fossil fuels and nuclear to that of renewable energies. Socio-economic co-benefits of renewable energies, not only for future generations and southern countries but also directly here and now, are increasingly becoming key topics in the debate. Impressive technological progress and rapidly falling solar and wind energy costs make us imagine that we are at the point of transition to Phase 5 of the energy revolution with a solar system on the garage roof and the Tesla car underneath as the keynote. In other words, we could imagine that the circle which opened in the 1970s could be closed with energy autonomy – from car-free Sundays back then to daily life without petrol and carbon dioxide today. And now those scenes in the Lausitz – what do they mean?

First, the scenes from the anti-coal/pro-climate movement “Ende Gelände – Here and No Further” highlight the civic determination to achieve ambitious, timely climate protection and to speed up introduction of the low-carbon economy against the background of a rather weak performance by the German government on the issue of climate protection and the disintegration of Germany’s model image internationally. According to a current Emnid opinion poll there is broad public support for the resolute civil disobedience of about 3,000 activists around the Schwarze Pumpe power station on Whitsun weekend 2016 to speed up the end of coal-based power.

Second, the protests over the weekend also revealed the uncomfortable truth that along with the opportunities and the many (future and current) beneficiaries of the energy revolution there are also losers. Apart from companies, there are the hard-working machine operators of the old energy world with their families and their concerns. This is another aspect that is brought to light by the pictures and reports about “pro coal” counter-demonstrations and the worries articulated by power station employees. If an energy revolution is to be seen as a community venture it should not lose sight of this.

Doubtless many people in Germany and the world, both in future generations and directly in our own times, will emerge as winners from the energy revolution as part of an international restructuring of energy systems and the shift of global investments towards renewable energies. But it is also indisputable that there will be, and already are, losers. The change from the old to the new energy world cannot be achieved for everybody without ruptures in the economic sphere or in individual lives. The much-used euphemism of structural change may conceal this all too easily. Moreover, the increasing discussion about a consensus on carbon emissions should not hide the fact that for some of those involved – companies, employees, and local populations – there is a great deal at stake.

It seems quite possible that a broad, permanent and increasingly public civic movement and civil disobedience will develop around the artefacts of the old energy world. If the Swedish Parliament nods through a half-hearted strategy for a low-carbon economy in the next two months by selling off Vattenfall’s German lignite business – and not closing it down – this will even further boost the civil action movement for phasing out coal. The peaceful coexistence of wind turbines and bucket wheel excavators is coming to an end – with a reinvigorated civic movement for speeding up decarbonisation perhaps faster than planned.

Politicians would be well advised to appreciate the value of an active civil society as a driving force of the energy revolution and a constructive counterbalance – the German Minister for the Environment indicated this positively in a recent speech to the German Bundestag. Expanding the possibilities for social participation – both political and financial –, facing up to the open conflicts honestly and firmly, paying serious attention to the losers of the energy revolution in a ‘coal consensus’ without contradicting the urgency and aspirations of the decarbonisation process that has already begun – if all this is achieved, the energy revolution will indeed work as a community venture and consequently have a greater impact beyond Germany’s borders as well.

This article by Sebastian Helgenberger was first published in the German newspaper Potsdamer Neueste Nachrichten on 25 May 2016 and is republished here with permission.

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