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Consensus on New Energy Policy Eludes German Leader

United States
The New York Times
10/08/2010


CHANCELLOR Angela Merkel has made combating climate change one of her priorities. But she is having difficulty finding consensus even within her own government on a new energy policy, especially on the most contentious issue: the future of Germany’s nuclear plants.

Governments around the globe are seeking cleaner ways to generate power and trying to reduce their dependence on foreign oil and natural gas at the same time. And most countries are deciding they cannot do without nuclear energy, at least in the immediate future.

But in Germany, citizens are less sure about whether nuclear power should be part of the solution to combat climate change.

With electricity demand expected to grow only slowly, opponents argue that keeping the country’s 17 nuclear power plants going in the years ahead would detract from the effort to develop other renewable sources of energy.

Indeed, the cabinet agreed this month to an action plan to have energy from solar, wind and other renewable sources represent 20 percent of energy consumption by 2020, up from 10 percent now.

Supporters argue that nuclear power, which provides 11 percent of Germany’s electricity, is a reliable and relatively inexpensive part of the energy mix that should not be abandoned if the country is going to meet its needs.

The German public is split evenly. A survey by Forsa, an independent polling institute, published last month in Stern magazine found that 46 percent of Germans favored extending the life of reactors and 46 percent wanted them shut down.

The changed economic landscape is also influencing the difficult balancing act as the government struggles to draft its new energy policy, which is to be presented next month.

Mrs. Merkel, a physicist and former environment minister, was lauded by the German news media in 2007 for getting George W. Bush to agree to a compromise on cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

But when the United Nations climate conference in Copenhagen convened two years later in the midst of a global recession, she failed to persuade President Obama — and China and India — to accept the European Union’s ambitious position on reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Now some German leaders want Mrs. Merkel to reclaim the initiative for Europe by setting even more ambitious goals at home. But others caution against making demands that could endanger the economic recovery that has just taken hold in Germany — led by export-driven, energy-intensive heavy industries.

“Merkel wants to demonstrate that she still is committed to reducing greenhouse gases,” said Claudia Kemfert, an energy specialist at the economic research institute DIW in Berlin. “But no matter which energy sector she looks at, she is confronted by powerful lobbies.”

In 2002, the previous government, led by a coalition of Social Democrats and Greens, passed a law requiring that all German nuclear power stations be closed by 2022 and not be replaced. Mrs. Merkel did not dare question that law during her first term, when she shared power with the Social Democrats.

The more business-friendly Free Democrats, her coalition partners since last October, have a different approach. The party leader, Guido Westerwelle, who is also the foreign minister, said this month that he wanted the life of the nuclear power plants to be prolonged.

He even supported the coal industry provided that production was “cleaner, modern and more efficient.”

Mrs. Merkel and her Christian Democrats have yet to take a firm position but are generally considered sympathetic to extending the life of the nuclear plants. The Christian Democrats’ small sister party in Bavaria, the Christian Social Union, is adamant that they remain open.

Yet at the Environment Ministry, Norbert Röttgen, a Christian Democrat, has upset many of his fellow conservatives by questioning the need for extending the life of the nuclear power plants.
At the same time, Mr. Röttgen is pushing the European Union to unilaterally commit to reducing carbon dioxide emissions 30 percent by 2020 from levels in 1990, up from the current pledge of 20 percent.

But Mrs. Merkel is no longer convinced that Europe can go it alone after that proposal was defeated in Copenhagen. As she reconsiders what role Europe can convincingly play, the prospect of reopening of the nuclear issue has drawn the interest of energy companies.

Jürgen Grossmann, chief executive of RWE, one of the biggest energy companies in Germany, insists that the country could not survive without nuclear power, which he argues is safe, clean and inexpensive.

Electric companies in Germany, as in most European Union countries, are obliged to buy electricity generated from renewable sources produced by individuals and companies. In some cases, that energy is heavily subsidized, and Mrs. Merkel wants to reduce those subsidies.

Once she returns from her hiking vacation in Italy, Mrs. Merkel will have to find a compromise. That might mean closing some nuclear power plants but prolonging the life of the most modern ones.

Meanwhile, the Social Democrats and Greens are seeking to gain capital from the energy debate, hoping to further weaken the governing parties before regional elections next spring.
“It is a big mess,” said Ms. Kemfert of DIW. “There is no real energy policy. Merkel should have stepped in months ago with one.”

 

The news content in this section is responsibility of the information agencies and does not necessarily reflect the position of the Government of Mexico on this or other related topics.

El contenido de las noticias que se presentan en esta sección es responsabilidad directa de las agencias emisoras de noticias y no necesariamente reflejan la posición del Gobierno de México en este u otros temas relacionados.

    

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