The World Needs More Energiewende

Germany should do what it does best: Take a great product, and start exporting it. The country’s ambitious approach to sustainable energy is ready for international adoption.

Germany’s energy transition (or “Energiewende”) is the most ambitious current effort to put a large industrial economy onto a sustainable energy path, recognizing the 21st century reality of a climate-constrained world. If the world’s fourth largest economy demonstrates that this shift is possible without undermining economic growth, it could be a major factor in enabling a global energy transition. And with climate change intensifying – 2012 was the 36th straight year of above-average global temperature, and 2011 and 2012 each produced more extreme weather events costing over one billion dollars each than any other year in recorded history – reducing greenhouse gas emissions is imperative for any future energy system. Thus, the Energiewende is critical to the ongoing fight against global warming.

At the same time, more and more countries are experiencing the rising cost of powering conventional energy systems. The unconventional oil and gas boom in the United States might create an illusion of continued availability of cheap fossil fuels. But the fundamental trends remain: increasingly, countries do not have enough domestic fossil fuel or uranium supplies. Global demand for these resources continues to grow, while exploiting such finite reserves becomes more complicated, risky, and expensive. For many countries, depending so heavily on volatile international fuel markets presents a major economic and security risk.

Sustainability is the only sensible strategy

In this climate- and resource-constrained world, improving energy efficiency and developing renewable energy is the only sensible strategy. Germany is leading the way, but it is not the only country recognizing the need for this transition. At least 118 countries have renewable energy targets; 65 countries now follow the model of Germany’s Renewable Energy Act and offer predictable feed-in-tariffs to renewable energy producers. About half of the estimated 208 GW of new electric capacity added globally in 2011 came from renewable sources. Global investment in renewable energy excluding large hydropower was 237 billion dollars in 2011, more than global net investment in new fossil-fuel power plants.

The World Resources Institute works with policymakers, business leaders, and civil society in Brazil, China, India, the United States, and other countries to develop sustainable energy strategies. We recently conducted a small survey on the Energiewende within our network of experts and decision makers from 12 countries, and found great interest in understanding the mix of policies and investments that Germany has chosen to successfully grow clean energy. The respondents recognized Germany as a global leader in climate policy and renewable energy, but specific knowledge of the country’s actions was limited. All respondents said that Germany should communicate more about its experiences internationally, because they believe there will be relevant lessons for their country.

The skeptics aren’t convinced yet

While there is much optimism that Germany is well positioned to undertake this fundamental transition, respondents still were fairly skeptical as to whether it would be feasible. They have many questions about how Germany is putting targets into practice, which vary by national context. For example, many of our Chinese respondents asked about technology and about the overall transition plan. Americans had more specific questions on implementation, on how political support was organized, and on impacts on jobs and existing industries. Japanese respondents asked about how phase‐out of nuclear was possible, Brazilians about how to build out renewables other than large hydro, and Indians about equity and socio‐economic impacts.

It is in Germany’s best interest to address these questions, because achieving the Energiewende’s objectives will be much easier if it can be internationalized. From an economic point of view, energy transitions in other countries will mean faster price declines for clean energy technologies as well as larger export markets for German companies. From a technical standpoint, a faster move toward renewable energy in neighboring countries will make the Energiewende easier to implement. Politically, the German public is more likely to keep supporting this rapid transformation if it is not perceived as an irrational and expensive German exception. In foreign policy, the Energiewende can help Germany multiply its influence at the international level. Finally, from a climate perspective, the Energiewende’s contribution to limiting global warming below two degrees Celsius will depend on other countries replicating elements of the German experience and beginning their own energy transitions.

Germany needs to be much more proactive in communicating what’s happening and engaging in real dialogue with its global partners. This is a task for government, requiring a clear diplomatic strategy, strategic communications, deep partnerships, and a club of countries interested in leading the clean energy transition. It is also a task for the business community and civil society. Germany has a strong case to make, but it needs to be made.

Co-written with Lutz Weischer

Read more in this debate: Chris Nelder, John Rhys, Mitsuru Obe.

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