Do targets mean anything?

Angela Merkel told Australia that climate change would not stop at the Pacific Islands, meaning, I take it, that we Australians shouldn’t see it just as a problem for others. No one pointed out to her that global warming seems to be in a very long stasis, and no one pointed out that Germany is not exactly showing how to cope with the problem — if there is a problem.

Germany does have a target with respect to greenhouse gas emissions: cut 40 per cent of the 1990  emission levels by 2020. This is actually quite an ambitious target, but the reality is not on target, if you will forgive the play on words. You can see the problem in the graph.



German emissions have been rising, not falling, over the last three years for which we have data. Another report, said to be by the McKinsey people, claims that to achieve the target Germany would have to cut emissions by an average of 3.5 per cent a year, whereas the actual average decline is just 0.7 per cent. You can see the gap in the graph. The target year is only a few years away, and to reach it the country would have to increase the rate by five times. It’s not going to happen.

Why is the target so far away? Well, after the Fukushima tsunami and the destruction of the nuclear power plant there, Germany decided to phase out its own nuclear power plants. What would replace them? Brown coal — lignite — of which the country has a great deal. But it’s dirty and well supplied with CO2 emissions. Wind and solar were intended to make up the shortfall, but they aren’t doing it. There was a quick decline after 1990, but that was caused by the closing of formerly East German factories that did emit a lot of CO2. One consequence of this whole initiative is that the target is unreachable, at least to my eyes. Another is that Germans have the highest power bills in Europe.

The German Economics Minister is said to be in conflict with his Environment colleague about the target, which he claims (again, via der Spiegel) ‘is no longer viable’. He is apparently defending the use of coal-fired electricity. According to the Environment Ministry Germany would have to cut 62 to 100 million tonnes of CO2 in order to get there. Even if it shut down all old coal-powered power stations that would only reduce emissions by 40 million tonnes.

So what will happen? Some news stories say that the Economic Minister will be or is the winner within the German cabinet. Others say, no, he accepts the target. I said in my last post that one should not accept at face value statements about the future made by state planning commissions, utilities or companies. I would add newspapers to that list.

But we can be sure that the German Government, faced with a target that is a long way away from achievement, a few years to do it in, and real and unpleasant consequences to the Germany economy if anyone seriously tries, will have some heated discussions in the immediate future. And we might reflect that targets of every kind are usually not achieved. They are aspirations, signs to encourage us to do the right thing, and work together for the common goal, and so on.

When they are not achieved, few remember. What has happened since Kyoto? Does anyone care any more? What about the indigenous targets set by the Rudd Government? What about our own Australian emissions targets? The closer we get to a target date the more the original target will be forgotten, perhaps to be replaced by a new one. Germany will find this a more difficult process than Australia, because we were never a leader in the global warming campaign.

And to get a sense of it all, the next graph shows what the International Energy Outlook thinks will be the pattern of electricity generation in 25 years’ time.


The IEA sees oil as declining, perhaps because it will be more expensive, and more needed for transport. Natural gas will be there, and hydro, and nuclear. Wind will make a small contribution, and solar energy hardly any. But coal — coal will still be the most important single source. My guess is that that will be true in Germany, as it doubtless will in Australia.

Chancellor Merkel will, I am sure, have moved on to other activities by 2040, as I will have.





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