In the years since the Nord Stream 2 pipeline from Russia to Germany was permitted, evidence continues to mount that fossil gas does not provide a clean bridge to renewables. Projected to emit over 100 million metric tons of CO2 per year – plus fugitive methane, German regulators refuse to investigate the climate impacts of Europe’s largest fossil fuel project. Nor have they agreed to hold hearings on this emerging data ahead of September’s federal elections. But the EU’s adoption of emissions reduction targets of 55% by 2030 on the way to mid-century carbon neutrality means NS2 will clearly breach these limits. In the third installment in an on-going series, Lead Blogger L. Michael Buchsbaum interviews one of the world’s leading authorities on methane, Dr. Robert Howarth, whose data suggests the pipeline’s impacts could be worse than the coal it’s replacing.
Poised to split the EU and poison the climate for generations, the controversial Nord Stream 2 fossil gas pipeline is almost complete. With Russian Premier Vladimir Putin its nominal chief, the €10 billion project to transport Siberian gas to western European markets is headed by a former German Chancellor and a former spy in the East German Secret Police. To understand how such a project could come this far, despite tightening environmental regulations and ever more alarming scientific evidence, one must look at the personalities behind the pipeline. In the second in a series of posts, lead blogger L. Michael Buchsbaum reviews the strange bedfellows created by Nord Stream 2’s climate killing politics.
While construction on the Russian-backed Nord Stream 2 fossil gas pipeline nears completion, international media attention remains focused squarely on its geopolitical significance. Often missing are the project’s looming climate impacts. Following the landmark decision by Germany’s Constitutional Court ordering politicians to protect future generations from climate harm by staying within the nation’s carbon budget, NGO Deutsche Umwelthilfe or Environmental Action Germany is suing the Federal Maritime and Hydrographic Agency (BSH) to revoke its construction permit. Despite the pipeline being the largest fossil fuel project in Europe, its climate impacts have never been reviewed during its approval process, nor has any official body ordered a complete lifecycle analysis of the project. Against this backdrop, Nord Stream 2 is also a litmus test of Germany’s commitment to climate. The first in a series of posts, lead blogger Michael Buchsbaum reviews how Nord Stream 2 contradicts German and European Union climate targets, the 2015 Paris Agreement and violates recent court decisions.
2021 is the European Year of Rail in recognition of the key role trains play in efforts to strike climate neutrality by 2050. As well as reducing short-distance flights, regulators across the continent are also promoting night trains as a more sustainable form of travel. This summer, rail operators are re-launching services that had been halted and are investing in new routes and equipment across the continent. As part of its , the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung has launched a to underscore the benefits of night trains as a climate solution and urge more action from Brussels and other capitals. Lead Blogger Michael Buchsbaum reviews recent European Night Train developments and interviews one of the two Atlas’ Chief Executive Editors and rail expert, Philipp Cerny.
There’s a lot less coal smoke in the air, approaching mid 2021. Analyses from climate think tanks Ember and E3G illustrate a dramatic drop in the US and the European Union. But there are still a few holdouts as some continue digging in their heals. The US state of Wyoming, long the nation’s largest coal producer, is threatening to sue those who turn to cleaner energy sources. And Poland, Europe’s biggest coal dependent, has decided to ignore international law and cause a diplomatic crisis to keep mining. Aren’t these the antics of a dying King? Lead Blogger L. Michael Buchsbaum weighs in on the fray.
The empirical evidence of our widening climate crisis is piling up faster than most of us can absorb the data. Bottom line: We have run out of time to negotiate a new middle ground or erect more “bridges” to an eventual green future. There can be no more delays. Sweeping action must be taken now. That is the shared view of the editorial board of the prestigious magazine, Scientific America, which recently joined the Covering Climate Now coalition and a growing list of other publications in jointly declaring that going forward, to emphasize the exigency of our situation, we will use the term “climate emergency” instead of “crisis,” because we damn well better start treating it like one if our society is to survive. Lead blogger Michael Buchsbaum reviews the situation.
In March’s two state elections, no party lost more ground than Angela Merkel’s ruling CDU. Tarred by deepening scandal, a slow vaccination rollout and lockdown fatigue, its popularity is plummeting. Conversely, big gains in these early contests in the nation’s super-cycle election year — culminating with September’s federal parliament and chancellery vote — show that public opinion is turning decidedly Green. New polling shows that as approval for the CDU and their CSU sister party collapses, the Greens are pulling almost even with them — in some cases, even creeping slightly ahead. As spring comes to Germany, for the first time in both national and party history, a Green chancellorship seems possible. Energy Transition’s lead blogger, Michael Buchsbaum reviews the early stage of the race to succeed Merkel.
(Photo by Arne Bevaart, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Long recognized as an alternative to fossil fuels and once again heralded as an invaluable tool for tackling climate change, hydrogen is a key component within many of the recently announced national net-zero energy plans being rolled out by individual nations as well as the European Union. Hydrogen will likely be given a center role in new President Joe Biden’s climate plan too. To help sort out hope from hype, climate think tank, Carbon Brief recently published a detailed and invaluable hydrogen explainer. With comments from one of the analysts quoted in the explainer, L. Michael Buchsbaum helps untangle hydrogen’s reality.
Few folks are going to look back fondly on 2020, but renewable energy campaigners will mark it as the year when clean electricity finally overtook coal and gas in Europe. New reporting by think tanks Ember and Agora Energiewende detail the progress to reduce fossil generation’s share. Despite this, now that the EU has upped its net emissions reduction goals to at least 55% by 2030, the data also shows how much more work needs to be done. Michael Buchsbaum reviews the good news and troubling data.
In late January, Ember and Agora Energiewende’s published their fifth annual report tracking Europe’s electricity transition. The big reveal was that renewables overtook fossil fuels as the EU’s main source of electricity for the first time in 2020.
The data shows that renewables rose to generate 38% of Europe’s electricity in 2020, up from 34.6% in 2019. Conversely, fossil-fired generation fell to 37%.
“Wind and solar rose to supply a fifth of Europe’s electricity in 2020. And that’s having a major impact in helping to reduce Europe’s coal generation, which has nearly halved in five years,” said Dave Jones, Ember’s Global Program Lead.
Of course Covid-19 impacted generation in all countries. But the data shows that the virus’ impact on the overall trend away from fossil fuels was quite limited. In fact, not only was the rise in renewables “reassuringly robust” despite the pandemic, the drop in dirty electricity would have been greater had it not been for such a bounce-back in electricity demand combined with the worst year on record for nuclear generation. So many plants were simultaneously offline due to maintenance problems – or being taken offline via policy – particularly in France, Sweden and Germany, that nuclear generation fell 10% across the continent. Ironically, said Jones, had this not happened, even more fossil energy would have been knocked-out.
Success is achievable
During a web-based conference detailing the report, Jones clarified that renewables had overtaken fossil-generation only in electricity generation not in overall energy consumption–a misunderstanding that led to several media retractions as global outlets rushed to report on the rare bit of good news.
Citing a statement from the activist group Extinction Rebellion, Jones further qualified the progress made. “This isn’t success. It means success is achievable.” In other words, said Jones, “while we’re on the right pathway, it’s by no means where we need to be.”
Nevertheless, the report documents where Europe is on what is now an existential transition towards clean energy and climate neutrality.
Real Renewable progress
Ember and Agora define renewables as bioenergy (including biomass), hydro-electricity, wind and solar.
Biomass, particularly the burning of wood, has been displacing coal in some nations, particularly the UK—with dubious actual environmental progress being made there. However throughout the EU, with the exception of the Netherlands, it’s share has been flat or declining.
Throughout the EU, hydro-generation has been fluctuating as rain patterns change. But most of the overall renewable growth comes down to wind and solar.
No other nation has as much renewables on the system in terms of overall Terawatt hours (TWh) of service as Germany. However in terms of increasing TWh, in 2020 the Netherlands saw a rapid 40% increase. Sweden’s also grew at 36%, Belgium likewise saw a 28% rise. Germany, where renewables already play an outsize role, increased clean energy terawatt hours by an additional 8%.
Combined wind and solar now make up 20%
But in reviewing the previous decade through 2020, despite the increase in awareness around the necessity to act, let alone the growing costs of inaction, overall renewable growth in the EU did not move any faster in the second half of decade compared to the first. In many nations, including Slovakia, Czechia, Bulgaria and Italy, the pace of renewables coming online from 2015 through 2020 actually slowed.
However Hungary, France, Finland and Netherlands did see large increases although the Netherlands remains under both 20% and the EU average.
Conversely, Germany is now generating 33% of its electricity from just wind and solar. “Quite an impressive feat and achievement,” said Jones.
Gas is the new coal
As Agora also reported, last year renewables overtook fossil energy in Germany. In Spain too, renewables now generate more than fossil energy. Both achievements reflect coal’s shrinking role throughout the continent. Overall, Jones contextualized, coal generation is now half of what it was back in 2015.
Cleaner generation in the UK, however, had already surpassed coal. Moreover, Ember’s data shows that the UK is the only nation in Europe where wind and solar is displacing more than coal. “As more and more wind comes online, its no longer offsetting coal, but gas,” said Jones.
And therein lies the rub: in order for the EU to achieve its climate goals, gas needs to become the new coal. As more wind, solar and other renewables come online, it’s gas they need to displace. Instead many countries seem to be opting simply to switch fossil fuel dependencies, hoping the “optics” of phasing out coal would be enough to satisfy the clamor of environmentalist pressure. Never mind the science that doesn’t support gas’ climate superiority.
But back in the UK, the question is now how quickly can that country phase out fossil generation all together?
Not fast enough
Though 2020 did see an overall uptick in renewable capacity, it was not a substantial increase and nowhere near where it needs to be.
While definitely progress has been made, the report emphasizes that the transition from coal to clean is “still too slow for reaching minimum 55% greenhouse gas reductions by 2030 and climate neutrality by 2050.”
Getting there, “means that in the next ten years, the EU must reduce emissions as much as we have over the last 30,” said Matthias Buck, Head of European Energy Policy for Agora Energiewende.
Data shows an average increase of renewables of only about 38 TWh per year through the 2010-20 period.
Achieving the more ambitious emissions reductions by 2030 requires a 68% increase in renewable capacity. Not only does this require close to a 100TWh per year increase, “that’s almost three times more than what we did in the last decade. We need to be increasing at three times those levels of build-out to meet our new targets,” Jones said, with virtually no other fossil fuel generation coming on.
“The step-up in renewables going forward needs to set new records. The only question is ‘will it be fast enough to hit targets?’” asked Jones.
To reach these targets, renewables need to constitute some 70% of the EU’s electricity capacity, said Buck. And coal needs to be phased out almost completely by then, making up only 2% of generation by Agora’s estimates.
Achieving the goals of the European Green Deal and striking climate neutrality by 2050 means transforming the entire mobility sector, which currently makes up nearly 30 percent of the bloc’s CO2 emissions. To help steer readers in the right direction, the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung’s (hbs) new 2021 European Mobility Atlas provides a host of fact-based recommendations from sector experts. As 2021 is also the European Year of Rail, many of the Atlas’ graphics focus on this key sector, including the impacts of enhanced night-train service and more continent-wide cross-border connections. Franz Timmermans, Executive Vice President of the European Commission for the European Green Deal, dubbed the publication a “fantastic resource,” and underscored that “the more people who know about this, the more successful we’ll be.” A review by L. Michael Buchsbaum.