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Loss and Damage - Adverse Impact of Climate Change

 <Next issue: Implication for Japan>

Prof. Dr. Schreurs is one of seventeen members on the Ethics Commission for a Safe Energy Supply which was formed by German Chancellor Merkel two weeks after the Fukushima nuclear accident. She first came to Japan in 1980 as a high school exchange student with the American Field Service and lived in Hitachi Omiya (Ibaraki) and attended high school in Mito. She has also lived in other places in Japan. She studied for a PhD, on which she compared acid rain, ozone depletion and climate change in Japan, Germany and the US. Over the next two months we will interview Dr. Schreurs to gain a perspective on nuclear issues from someone who has lived in many places including a total of almost five years in Japan.
Miranda Schreurs
Director of the Environmental Policy Research Institute
The Freie Universität Berlin

Prof. Dr. Miranda Schreurs was born in the United States, lived in Japan and the Netherlands for several years and speaks four languages. Since 2007, the 48-year-old Dr. Schreurs has been director of the Environmental Policy Research Institute at the Freie Universität Berlin. She is a member of the Advisory Council on the Environment appointed by the Federal Minister of the Environment. Her research focus includes both comparative and international dimensions of environmental policy. Before coming to Berlin, Dr. Schreurs worked as a professor in the Department of Government and Politics at the University of Maryland. She received her doctorate from the University of Michigan and has also worked as a guest professor at universities in Japan.


Related Link:
The Freie Universität Berlin

November 2011

A Crisis is a Chance
– Energy Supply in Germany-

Prof. Dr. Miranda Schreurs
(Director of the Environmental Policy Research Institute,
The Freie Universität Berlin)

Germany after the Fukushima Accident

--- How did the Ethics Commission for a Safe Energy Supply go about discussing the future of nuclear policies in Germany after the Fukushima Accident?

Schreurs:
The Ethics Commission was called into being by Chancellor Angela Merkel about two weeks after the earthquake and tsunami.

In our first meeting on 4 April Chancellor Merkel and Environment Minister Norbert Roettgen were both there. Angela Merkel started the meeting saying that she was calling the Ethics Commission together to discuss the future of nuclear energy in Germany because the nuclear crisis in Japan made it necessary to reconsider the safety of nuclear energy. If such problems could break out in a technologically-advanced country like Japan, it was necessary to reconsider Germany’s decision of October 2010 to allow its ageing nuclear power plants to continue to operate longer than initially planned. She also noted that nuclear energy was an issue that for decades had been a point of strong contention in Germany, an issue that divided rather than united. She suggested that a future without nuclear energy needs to be considered. Environment Minister Roettgen also spoke. He pointed out his view that shifting to a highly energy-efficient, low-carbon, renewable energy-based society would be a means to provide Germany with a strong future and new innovativeness.

With this initial meeting, the Ethics Commission - a committee of 17 people, was formed with two co-chairs (former Environment Minister Klaus Toepfer - who, since Chernobyl, had been a proponent of a non-nuclear future, and Matthias Kleiner - who had long been a supporter of nuclear energy research). The other 15 members included heads of companies; academic specialists on issues of risk, ethics, consumer issues and environmental matters; former politicians of different political leanings; and religious leaders. The committee included both supporters and opponents of nuclear energy.

The committee discussed many matters. They can be grouped into a few categories. The first has to do with the safety of different forms of energy and the ethics questions associated with their use. The second has to do with the question of how quickly one can phase out the use of nuclear energy without causing serious disruption to the economy that could threaten economic stability and jobs. The third had to do with the question of what alternatives to nuclear energy exist and whether nuclear energy can be phased out without resulting in a rise in greenhouse gas emissions. I will elaborate below on some of the discussions we had in relation to each of these areas.

1) Energy Safety and Ethical Questions

  All energy forms carry with them some dangers. Some are more dangerous than others. Many people die each year, for example, in coal mines. But nuclear energy has levels of risk associated with it that no other energy form has. Although there have been very few deaths associated with nuclear energy, in the case of a catastrophic accident, the consequences take on not only local, but regional and potentially global consequences. Radioactive pollution can spread far and wide. Radioactive exposure can influence human health years or decades after exposure. And, radioactive pollution can also impact future generations.
 
  The nuclear waste question remains unanswered. There is no good solution to safe disposal of nuclear waste for centuries or longer. In order to enjoy a good life today, we are leaving our waste problems to future generations. This can bring with it unknown dangers and costs. This is a serious inter-generational ethics question.
 
  Even the best of safety standards cannot prevent unforeseen and unforeseeable accidents. The human mind is not capable of imagining all possible risks. When nuclear power plants were originally built and safety standards established, no one anticipated airplanes that are as large as those that exist today. No one had imagined something like the terrorist attacks against the World Trade towers. In the case of Japan, even very rigorous safety standards to ensure the security of nuclear power plants against major earthquakes and tsunamis had failed to prevent an accident that seemed unimaginable. The committee had little concern that Germany could be hit by a tsunami, but it did discuss other kinds of events that could trigger a serious accident.
 
  Nuclear energy cannot be delinked from nuclear proliferation concerns. The examples of the industrialised countries are often followed by developing countries. Thus, if Germany makes a decision to phase out nuclear energy, it sends a strong positive message to other countries suggesting that other means for securing energy are possible.

2) The Speed of a Nuclear Phase-Out
  The committee basically agreed that a nuclear phase-out was demanded by German society. There were different views, however, on how quickly that phase-out should occur.
 
  We discussed the need for more governmental support for the rapid build-up of renewable energy and energy efficiency measures. So we talked about off-shore wind parks, on-shore wind parks, photovoltaics and concentrated solar thermal, smart grid technologies, geothermal, and high voltage electric grid systems. We felt it very important that the government provide an environment favourable for research, development and deployment of these technologies, and not close the door to new technological possibilities.
 
  In terms of the remaining nuclear power plants, we argued for as rapid a shutdown as possible, but taking no longer than a decade. We felt that the speed of the phase-out should be balanced with making sure a stable energy supply could be guaranteed.

3) Nuclear Energy Alternatives
  The committee spent the most time talking about alternative energy futures and their meaning for the German energy supply and Germany’s long-term economic competitivenessr.
 
  We discussed the need for more governmental support for the rapid build-up of renewable energy and energy efficiency measures. So we talked about off-shore wind parks, on-shore wind parks, photovoltaics and concentrated solar thermal, smart grid technologies, geothermal, and high voltage electric grid systems. We felt it very important that the government provide an environment favourable for research, development and deployment of these technologies, and not close the door to new technological possibilities.
 
  We discussed the need to make sure that the phase-out of nuclear energy would not lead to greater greenhouse gas emissions through the building of more coal-fired power plants. There was some controversy regarding the question of whether, for a short time, some increase in greenhouse gas emissions could be justified if in the long-term it meant a more rapid development of renewable energy that would also help drive down their prices and make them more available to other countries as well.

GHG Reduction Without Nuclear Energy

--- How does Germany try to manage GHG reduction without depending on nuclear energy? Have you changed any GHG reduction targets due to the accelerated move towards a no-nuclear power policy?

Schreurs:
Germany has not changed its greenhouse gas emission targets. They remain among the most ambitious targets globally. Germany is well beyond its initial targets for greenhouse gas emission reductions. Some within the committee even felt that the nuclear phase-out could help Germany meet its long-term climate change goals as it will speed the development of energy efficiency improvements and renewable energy technologies. Today, greenhouse gas emissions are about one-fifth to one-fourth less than they were in 1990. At the beginning of the 1990s there was much skepticism that Germany would be able to reduce its emissions by such relatively large amounts or to expand its renewables substantially. But in both areas, the targets that were set were too low. Germany has over-achieved. After the introduction of feed-in-tariffs in Germany, wind and photovoltaics expanded enormously, and helped to make Germany a technology leader in this area. It is now estimated that Germany is achieving about 20% of its electricity from renewable energy.

The climate change targets for Germany did not change as a result of the nuclear phase-out decision. They are set at -40% relative to 1990 levels by 2020, -55% for 2030, -70% for 2040, and -80-95% for 2050. Parallel to this there are goals for energy efficiency improvements and renewable energy development. The plan is to obtain 35% of electricity from renewables by 2020, 50% by 2030, 65% by 2040, and 80% by 2050.

What is important to realise is that there is a strong belief in Germany that government leadership can steer an energy revolution towards a low-carbon, non-nuclear economy. There is also a strong sense that while this will mean added costs in the early years as new high voltage electricity lines, energy storage systems and renewable energy facilities are built, the long term impacts will be positive. It is a bit like an investment in a college education for a child. The up-front cost is large, but it is an investment in the future. Germany will become more energy independent, will develop new technologies and processes, and will have a safer and cleaner energy system that will reduce other costs.


(The second of this two part series is published in December.)



About "Monthly Asian Focus: Observations on Sustainability"

Until 2010, IGES has released “Top News on the Environment in Asia” on a yearly basis. For over 12 years since its establishment of IGES in 1998, “Top News” has collected and organised information about environmental issues and policy trends in the region.

In January 2011, IGES launched the new web-based series "Monthly Asian Focus: Observations on Sustainability" in which leading environmental experts deliver their take on latest trends of sustainable Asia.

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