I’m on the road this week in southern Ontario, making a series of presentations about what I call “The German Leap.” The title is derived from my new book, and I’m speaking mainly about the way that Germany’s pioneering feed-in tariff, passed in 2000, has vaulted the country to the global lead in cleantech innovation and implementation and radically transformed its industrial base.
As the energy bureaucrats and passionate climate activists around the world prep for their trips to Durban, South Africa, for COP17 — the latest round of international climate negotiations which start on Nov. 28 — it’s worth considering how it is that Germany became the planet’s pacesetting green economy.
There were of course many factors in Germany’s transformation, but if you had to put a single face on it — the visage of the guy who did the very most to guide Germany’s energy policy to the green path — then that face would be Hermann Scheer’s. In 1998, Scheer’s party, the old-left Social Democrats, united with the upstart German Green party to form a “Red-Green Coalition” in the Bundestag (Germany’s parliament) and set about turning a simple municipal solar incentive into the backbone of Germany’s federal energy policy.
The resulting law, the Renewable Energy Sources Act, ramped up Germany’s renewable energy industry at staggering speed. Within a couple of years, Germany was a world leader in new wind and solar installations, as well as the manufacture of panels and turbines. In its first 10 years, Germany’s feed-in tariff created 300,000 jobs and a $50-billion clean energy industry, and it all but single-handedly industrialized and globalized the solar business, which almost by accident set up shop in the collapsed industrial towns of the former East Germany and inspired a downward trend in the 20-percent-plus unemployment rates that had plagued the region since reunification.
The feed-in tariff — a fairly straightforward tweak of electricity prices in which green sources have to be bought by grid operators at well above market rates to offset the externalized costs of their fossil-fuel competitors — has since spread to more than 60 jurisdictions. It sets off clean energy booms everywhere it goes. Even the modest university town of Gainesville, Fla., has reaped the benefits — its municipal feed-in tariff has added more than seven megawatts of solar power to the local grid in just its first three years, more solar power per capita than California uses.
All this because Hermann Scheer and his allies — in particular the Green party’s Hans-Josef Fell, author of the seminal feed-in law in the tiny town of Hammelburg — decided that the best way to tackle climate change was to focus on building out the solution rather than bickering about who would carry the largest share of the burden of reducing emissions.
Let me briefly introduce Scheer (who passed away last year at the age of 66). Scheer was a 30-year veteran of German parliament, a brilliant political strategist and ferocious solar advocate, long-serving head of both Eurosolar and the World Council for Renewable Energy. He was also the chief architect of IRENA, the International Renewable Energy Agency. In 1999, he received the Right Livelihood Award (often called the “alternative Nobel”) for his work on solar energy.
In other words, if you were to name a leader of global stature who has done the most to actively reduce our dependency on fossil fuels, reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and hasten the growth of the renewable energy industry, if you wanted to know who has been the most effective green champion of the first 20 years of the climate change era, the name you’re looking for is Hermann Scheer.
So let me share with you the most intriguing detail about Hermann Scheer’s singular biography: he was the only German parliamentarian, from any party, to vote against ratifying Kyoto. His justification for his vote and his longstanding disdain for the whole international climate treaty process should be required reading for anyone boarding a plane for Durban this week.
Here’s how he put it in the forward to his book "The Solar Economy":
Why should we expect comprehensive, fast and effective policy responses to emerge from what is the most long-winded political decision process imaginable, namely consensus-orientated negotiations between the parties to an international treaty? What were the reasons for the success or failure of other international treaty negotiations? But above all, is it even possible to achieve international agreement on the technological and structural transformation of the energy sector that a successful climate change strategy would require?
The conference process has given governments a perfect excuse to postpone any environmental overhaul of their respective domestic energy sectors until a global treaty has been agreed and ratified, on the pretext that a global framework is essential to preserve international competitiveness. Governments have thus largely been able to forestall taking swifter action at national level – such as increased taxation on fossil energy – while still protesting innocence on the global stage. The effect of the climate change negotiations has thus been to preserve the status quo.
Scheer reiterated his argument in an essay written in anticipation of the failed Copenhagen climate talks in 2009:
Humanity stands on the threshold of an era of unprecedented opportunities. In the past decades, many innovative new technologies have become available and affordable that can transform our current economies based on polluting fossil fuels into sustainable renewable energy economies. This transformation will provide millions of new jobs. It will halt global warming. It will create a more fair and just world. It will clean our environment and make our lives healthier. However, for all this positive change to happen, we don’t need an international climate treaty. We don’t need a Copenhagen Protocol, just like we didn’t need a Kyoto Protocol. In fact, these international attempts stand in the way of the progress almost all of us need.
And one more time, this one from a 2008 interview in New Scientist:
The protocol starts from the premise that the solutions to climate change will be an economic burden. So it is all about how we share this burden. But it is not an economic burden; it is a new economic opportunity. So I don't accept the idea of issuing emission rights that can be traded. It is like giving rights to trade in drugs, and saying drug dealers can buy and sell those rights.
There will be a great deal of noise generated in Durban next week. But it would surprise even most of the attendees if there was much motive energy. Maybe, as Scheer long argued, it’s because all that busy work is pointed in the wrong direction. Instead of looking only at the carbon dioxide clouds, maybe it’s time for the world’s climate advocates to look to the sun.
To chase the sun 140 characters at a time, follow me on Twitter: @theturner.
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