By Abdul Khan
Image: a destroyed building next to flowers in Borodianka, Ukraine (via NPR).
The world is on the cusp of one of the greatest breakthroughs in global climate and energy policy since the 2015 Paris Accords, yet the front pages of newspapers around the world largely feature the war in Ukraine instead. As delegates burn the midnight oil at COP27, an annual UN Conference of Parties that meets to coordinate the global climate change policy, one may wonder why news feeds continue to be dominated by the war in the East. It could simply be that readers engage more easily with the sensationalism of armed conflict rather than with stuffy diplomats and environmental researchers. However, it is more likely that the Russian invasion of Ukraine not only disrupted how many prominent states powered their industries, militaries, and livelihoods, but also the geopolitical balance of most of the developed world. Increasing economic interdependence has meant that conflicts have a tendency to reverberate and amplify throughout the global supply chain. Specifically, the Russo-Ukraine conflict upset the global supply of exports ranging from crude oil to sunflower oil. The effect of the former has been particularly harsh, as much of Western Europe depends on Russian exports for natural gas and oil. As a result, European states have been forced to square their geopolitical interests with their environmental ones. This quagmire is evidenced by NATO (whose members include most of western Europe), who provides military and financial aid to Ukraine while many EU states continue to import natural gas and oil from Russia. For Germany in particular, it seems the piper eventually came calling, and he wanted his payment in Rubles.
In order to understand how the German government found itself importing critical natural resources from a country it was funding a war against, one must first understand the politics of renewable energy in Germany. Unlike the United States, Germany, along with most European states and developed democracies in the world, is a form of parliamentary republic. This means that multiple parties compete for seats in the legislature and the winner elects their party leader as the head of state. Furthermore, the German parliament, Bundestag, is the core of federal German governance, law-making, administration, and policy regarding international matters. Since the voting mechanism rewards proportional seats unlike the first-past-the-post system in the United States, it’s extremely rare for one party to win even half of the seats in the Bundestag. As a result, compromise and intra-party coordination are key to forming coalitions to conduct all the affairs of the state. This provides context for the Green Party's influence over German politics, controlling 118 (the second-most) out of 736 seats in the Bundestag. Because of this, the Green Party is a key member of the government.
For the past several decades, the platform of the Green Party has been a staple of leftist coalitions in Germany. It advocates for sustainable practices, including environmental protection, sustainable and green transportation, and consumption. Most important is its role in the policy of Energiewende – the implementation of solar, wind, and other renewable sources of energy while vehemently opposing nuclear energy. This saw significant support from the German public since the Chernobyl disaster where a meltdown in a Ukrainian nuclear power plant killed thousands of people and spread radioactive waste as far as Sweden. This crisis was the result of disastrous mismanagement, corruption, and incompetence from the reactors’ haphazard design to their expedited construction and maintenance. Nevertheless, the Green party has found great success in curbing the use of nuclear energy as a result. Nuclear Energy went from approximately 25% of gross German energy production in 1990 to just over 10% in 2021. A 2011 German nuclear phase-out plan (which followed the Fukushima Nuclear Disaster) targeted 2022 as the year to completely end nuclear energy production and shut down all functional reactors. After the outbreak of the Ukrainian war, however, the government was forced to keep the last three reactors running so they could meet energy needs. These reactors produced just 6% of the total energy consumed in Germany in 2021. An optimistic view might consider these steps in the right direction. However, overreliance on a currently unreliable green sector has left German energy needs in authoritarian hands.
Germany’s reluctance to conduct pragmatic energy policy reinforces the need to import Russian gas. This relationship stretches back to the early days of the Cold War when Soviet natural gas was funded by Germany and transported through the country’s pipes. These imports continued to grow as Russian influence over the eastern bloc grew. However, as many soviet states – including the GDR itself – wrangled themselves free of communist control, the gas kept flowing. This relationship between Russia and Germany only got stronger in the 21st century, and Germany ballooned to one of the largest economies, which meant its appetite for fuel only grew. However, these overly optimistic attitudes about green energy have come at the expense of a reinvigorated and emboldened post-cold war Russia. This unpleasant partnership has been a blight on US interests since the days of the iron curtain and continues to be a US national security concern today because of the continued threat Russia poses to global peace. The idea that Russia is a gradually reforming state seeking to engage with neoliberal and democratic values is misguided at best. This is a fact that German environmentalists had to learn the hard way.
The German Green Party’s campaign against nuclear energy has crippled the state’s ability to respond to external shocks and effectively transition into renewable energy in any reasonable timeframe. This fact has become increasingly obvious as Germany significantly increased coal energy production throughout the Ukrainian War. This suggests a nationwide weariness of nuclear energy prevalent throughout much of the developed world, an attitude that has persisted despite evidence that nuclear energy is extremely safe when appropriate safety procedures and oversight are implemented.
Germany and other developed countries like the United States must trade their idealism for pragmatism if they wish to pursue energy independence, and the war in Ukraine might be the kick that Western Europe needs to accomplish this. Germany especially, must begin working to reform its nuclear phase-out strategy, starting by reopening the three reactors that closed at the end of 2021 and gradually funding the restoration and reopening of all the post-2011 reactors. This policy would make Germany a greater net exporter of energy rather than an importer of Russian energy, ultimately helping preserve global security as well as reinforce US national security and hegemony.
The global community must recalibrate its expectations and begin making real progress toward energy independence and emission reductions before it is too late. The countries at the COP27 conference could take advantage of this moment and transform the approach to sustainable energy, or they could continue to pay lip service to change while upholding the status quo. Whether the delegates agree to alter their approach to long-term energy production or do just enough to kick the can down the road, one can only hope that hindsight looks more favorably upon them than it did on the 21st century architects of Germany’s energy policy.