Is the increasing share of renewables reducing German emissions?

Greenpeace, WWF and Bond Beter Leefmilieu published a brochure called 9 myths about the German Energiewende debunked (Dutch). When I hear that those organizations made a brochure together, then my expectation is that it will be one-sided. When reading it, my expectation quickly got confirmed. Yep, it is one-sided.

Just look at the first myth that they debunk: “The closure of nuclear power plants increases German CO2 emissions”. This title is followed by a summary, written in a large, colored font (translated from Dutch):

Since the start of the German nuclear phase-out in 2002, the CO2 emissions from the electricity sector decreased from 329 million tons to 301 million tons. The total German CO2 emissions in 2014 were 26% percent lower than in 1990.

Between 1990 and 2014, German CO2 emissions decreased by 26 procent. With that, Germany is doing even better than its Kyoto target of 21 percent. […]

That 26% figure is repeated twice already in the first few lines. It is also standing out on the second page (it is printed in boldface and in a colored, large font) (translated from Dutch):

“German CO2 emissions today is 26 percent below 1990 levels, partly thanks to the strong growth of renewable energy. Which more than compensates the nuclear phase-out.”
Dimitri Pescia
(Agora Energiewende)

and also illustrated in this graph:

(screenshot from the brochure "9 mythes over de Duitse Energiewende weerlegd").

(screenshot from the brochure “9 mythes over de Duitse Energiewende weerlegd”).

If they repeat it four times in just two pages, it shows that they consider this very important information. I don’t really doubt that there was a decrease of 26% in Germany since 1990, but I struggle to see the significance of this figure in the debunking of this myth. Remember, what they trying to prove is that CO2 emissions will (partly) compensate for the the phase-out of nuclear power.

There are two different things being said in this summary. The first is that the emissions from the energy sector decreased from 329 to 301 million tons since 2002. It is not exactly visible in the graph (it shows 400 and somewhat below 400), but the graph is not exactly clear anyway. But I have no problem accepting that there was a decrease from 2002 until 2014. The cause will by an increasing share of alternative energy, but also by other factors like energy efficiency, the economic situation, weather (soft or hard winters) and so on.

Look also what happens with the emissions of the energy sector. There has been an increase of emissions since 2009, except for 2014 that saw a decrease. I have to give them credit for at least mentioning that the decrease of emissions in 2014 also had something to do with the soft winter and the following decreased electricity use. Not all of that decrease was caused by the increasing share of alternative energy.

The second thing is the 26%. This is the total emission decrease since 1990. Not only of the energy sector, but also the other sectors like transport, households and so on. But wasn’t the energiewende something from 2011 when, in the wake of Fukushima, eight nuclear plants were closed and all eyes were now focused on wind and solar? Why suddenly go back to 1990, to the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall? That time had different challenges and wasn’t inspired by renewables as in the energiewende.

If we look at their graph, then we don’t see much change in emissions since 2011. If we would draw a trend line, it would be slightly positive. One has to go back to 2008 (just before the economic crisis) to find a trend line that goes down.

When we look at the data of 2015, then we see that it goes in the same direction. Despite a growing share in alternative energy, emissions went back UP in 2015. This because of the colder winter, an economic growth and the influx of refugees, yet somewhat compensated by gains in energy efficiency.

So yes, I believe that there was a 26% decrease of emissions since 1990, but how relevant is that to what is happening NOW in the current energiewende? When it comes to emissions, nothing much happened in the last six years despite an ever increasing share of alternative energy.

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