Russia’s war in Ukraine means that Germany’s much-lauded Energiewende (energy turnaround) policy has now created a triple crisis. First, having closed perfectly functioning zero-carbon nuclear power plants—instead of carbon-heavy coal plants—the country is already massively contributing to the looming climate crisis.
Second, Germany’s energy system has now become even more expensive. It was already heavily subsidizing the expansion of renewable energy sources, and we Germans were paying the highest prices for electricity in Europe; now, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has sharply driven up the price of natural gas, which had previously been promoted as a less expensive bridging energy source. The resulting higher energy bills will hit low-income Germans the hardest.
Third, since half of Germany’s natural gas and hard coal comes from Russia, German energy policy has now become a threat to European security. With the invasion of Ukraine, it is now clearer than ever that Germany must change course and move towards a resilient climate and energy policy that serves both itself and all of Europe.
How did we Germans get where we are today? The energy crisis of the 1970s alerted European countries that they needed to become more energy resilient and independent, and there followed a rapid expansion of nuclear energy in Europe. As early as 1987, political opponents Helmut Schmidt and Franz-Josef Strauß agreed that global warming would be a problem for generations to come, and that nuclear power was one solution to this challenge.
However, Germany opted for a different path. First, it made coal a major energy source and stopped expanding nuclear power. Then, around 2000, it adopted a policy of promoting renewables and phasing out nuclear power. Before long, with awareness of climate change increasing, Germans began to discuss ways to phase out fossil fuels—but support for coal continued. For example, in 2014, Germany’s then-minister of economic affairs and energy, Sigmar Gabriel, wrote to Sweden’s prime minister asking that Sweden continue to invest in opencast mining in Germany—on the grounds that, as he put it, “we cannot simultaneously quit nuclear energy and coal-based power generation.”
In addition, after extensive lobbying by the natural gas industry, natural gas gained popularity as a partner to solar and wind power sources. A new German coalition of Social Democrats, Greens and Liberals agreed on a policy of increasing reliance on natural gas while continuing to reduce nuclear energy. Nord Stream 1, a pipeline carrying natural gas from Russia to Germany, was constructed and began operating in 2011, and an agreement was made for the construction of Nord Stream 2—an additional pipeline that would carry even more Russian natural gas to Germany. Construction of that pipeline was completed in 2021, but Germany had not yet licensed it to begin operations when Russia invaded Ukraine—and it has now put those plans on hold.
All along, experts have been warning that it’s foolish to make a modern society’s energy system dependent on two things that are hard to control: the weather and the availability of a crucial energy source from Russia. Those experts were largely ignored. Today, it is clear they are right.
While the Russian invasion of Ukraine has revealed the short-sightedness of German energy policy, it has also served as a wake-up call: Germany needs a resilient and independent energy system, and a realistic decarbonisation plan—and so the idea of halting the nuclear power phase-out, or even reversing it, is back on the table. We Germans must face the reality that Germany cannot simultaneously achieve energy security and combat climate change without including a significant amount of nuclear energy in the mix, along with wind and solar power. As the historian of technology Anna Veronika Wendland has written, “every running European nuclear power plant is a declaration of independence from the Russian despot and his fossilocracy.”
The central question now facing Germans is this: are we willing to move toward such a system—to shed old habits, resolve the current crisis and overcome our energy challenges without rehabilitating coal? If we don’t do this, our neighbours—and other countries across the globe—will have to solve these problems without Germany—and even in spite of Germany. Germans should also stop trying to get other countries to adopt their failed energy transition concept of 100% renewables or abandon nuclear energy.