Back to “Self-Inflicted Genocide”: Roger Hallam & the Holocaust

My original plan was to follow up on last week’s blog and look into the recurring complexities of the California fires. In light of the major power outages, some residents have gone so far as to claim that California has lost its capability to support human activity. As happens so often, however, I realigned my priorities based on more recent news. In this case, it was a New York Times article about climate change activist Roger Hallam diminishing the horrors of the Holocaust that brought me up short:

LONDON — A founder of the climate activism group Extinction Rebellion apologized on Thursday for the “crass words” he used to describe the Holocaust as “an almost normal event” and just another ugly episode in human history.

The founder, Roger Hallam, said in an interview with the German weekly Die Zeit that among various genocides that had occurred in previous centuries, the Holocaust, in which the Nazis killed millions of Jews during World War II, was not that unusual.

“The fact is that in our history, millions of people have been regularly killed under dire circumstances,” Mr. Hallam, who is British, said in excerpts published online on Wednesday. “To be honest, you could say: This is an almost normal event.”

Mr. Hallam’s remarks were made ahead of the German publication of his book, “Common Sense for the 21st Century.” In the book, which was published in Britain in September, he draws parallels between the Holocaust and the threats posed by the climate crisis.

Luisa Neubauer, a German climate activist with the group Fridays for Future, told the German newspaper Bild that such words were “insane.” She said in a phone interview on Thursday, “No matter who says those words, it is doing harm to our democracy, to our understanding of the past and the incredible crimes that have been committed.”

Heiko Maas, the German foreign minister, wrote on Twitter using the hashtag #ExtinctionRebellion, “The Holocaust is more than millions of dead and horrific torture methods.” He added, “We must always be aware of that so we can be certain: never again!”

After I read the piece, I looked at my wife and told her to prepare for somebody using my activities on this blog as a reason to fire me from my job. Among other things, I teach students about climate change and specifically describe the future prospects of business as usual climate change as a “self-inflicted genocide.” She looked at me with a smile and assured me she would support me. Furthermore, she said, there was a big distinction between my teaching and Mr. Hallam’s statements, so it was unlikely my job was in jeopardy. For starters, I don’t belittle the Holocaust. Rather, I warn about the ever-worsening impacts of business as usual practices on climate change and their ultimate conclusion without coordinated global mitigation efforts. I thanked her for her encouragement but nevertheless found it necessary to compare myself to Mr. Hallam.

Self-Inflicted Genocide

In my first blog (April 22, 2012), I tried to establish the connections between my own experiences in the Holocaust and my work on climate change. I concluded with the following paragraph:

Arnold Toynbee wrote that civilizations die from suicides, not murder. Even if the predicted consequences of “business as usual” environmental scenarios over the next 70 years turn out to be wrong in some details and even slightly wrong in timing, it’s clear that once we pass a critical point in the ability of the planet to adapt to the accumulation of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere, the consequences amount to global suicide – a self-inflicted genocide. We know what we must do to mitigate this possible future genocide, but we need our collective will to do so. We can’t allow the deniers to win again.

 The last two sentences in that paragraph weren’t the start of my attempt to associate possible future consequences of unmitigated climate change with the Holocaust. It is a theme I have been discussing for over ten years. I have covered it in almost every talk that I have given on both topics and included it in the last chapter of the 2011 book that I wrote about climate change (Climate Change: The Fork at the End of Now – Momentum Press). I started this blog more than 7 years ago as another platform to broaden the reach of my warning. I strongly believe that my background provides me with the responsibility to spread this message.

The first blog provoked 82 responses, which I encourage you to revisit. The sizeable reaction forced me to follow up with more details. The two blogs that followed (May 7 and May 14, 2012) received 63 and 61 responses, respectively.

Today, a search on this blog for the term, “self-inflicted genocide” will yield 23 entries.

Three years ago, a group of students from the University of Pennsylvania who were trying to convince the university’s trustees to stop investing in fossil fuels read some of my material and invited me to take part in a panel about the topic. I joined them on December 1, 2016 to address the theme: Is Fossil Fuel Use A Moral Evil? Following the talk, Chris Doyle, one of the organizers of the event, summarized the arguments in a local paper. I am including some excerpts here:

The use and manufacture of fossil fuels is often criticized as irresponsible and destructive — but rarely is it compared to genocide.

Student activist group Fossil Free Penn hosted a discussion focused on the validity of this harrowing comparison Thursday, following the Trustee’s September decision not to divest from fossil fuels. In a letter written to Fossil Free Penn on the day of the decision, Chairman of the Trustees David L. Cohen said the activities of fossil fuel companies do not constitute a “moral evil” that is “on par with apartheid or genocide.”

The night’s featured speakers were Penn German professor Simon Richter and physical chemistry Ph.D. and Holocaust survivor, Micha Tomkiewicz.

An active promoter of climate change awareness and researcher of alternative energy, Tomkiewicz said the comparison between fossil fuel and genocide is not entirely apt. He said making such a comparison would require proof of mal-intent, which he said cannot be found in either fossil fuel producers or consumers.

Further, he warned that the exaggerated references to events like the Holocaust weaken the anti-fossil fuel campaign.

“Using this comparison usually means you lost the argument,” Tomkiewicz said.

Tomkiewicz explained that if fossil fuel consumption continues at its current rate, it could eventually meet the definition of a moral evil. According to his analysis, current greenhouse gas emissions threaten the human race with profound disaster and could mean the end for different peoples and cultures around the globe.

Continuing to neglect the issue of climate change would qualify as implicit intent, tantamount to “self-inflicted genocide,” he said.

“The fact that everybody knows about it, yet still chooses politically to continue, and not care what will happen sixty to seventy years from now, to me, constitutes intent,” Tomkiewicz said. “So for all practical purposes, not right now [fossil fuel use] constitutes a genocide, but [it will] if we continue with business as usual.”


As you can see from the roughly 200 combined comments my first three blogs garnered, this line of comparisons has plenty of proponents and opponents. Nor were the comments and responses confined to the comments section or academic presentations.

I also received copies of three anti-Semitic caricatures in my mailbox at the University. I am including one here to illustrate the depth of Holocaust denial and hatred of Jews.

Anti-Semitic Cartoon

Figure 1 – An anti-Semitic cartoon denying the Holocaust

It is important to note that, as the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) explains:

…Holocaust denial is not simply a gross distortion of the facts, but is also a pernicious form of anti-Semitic hate speech that serves no other purpose than to attack Jews…

…We are talking here about a conspiracy theory which argues that Jews around the world knowingly fabricated evidence of their own genocide in order to extract reparations money from Germany, gain world sympathy and facilitate the theft of Palestinian land for the creation of Israel. It is founded on the belief that Jews are able to force governments, Hollywood, the media and academia to promote a lie at the expense of non-Jews.

My experiences with the consequences of comparing the Holocaust to climate change are different from those that Mr. Hallam is currently facing. I am not in as public or prominent of a position, so I didn’t get the attention of the foreign minister of a major country or cancellations of previous commitments to publish my work. Granted, I also didn’t try to make the comparison based on the actual number of victims. My use of the term self-inflicted genocide refers to the relatively distant future, while the Holocaust refers to a confirmed past event.

That said, any connection between the Holocaust and climate change invokes strong reactions. I am not alone in linking the two—the concluding chapter of Timothy Snyder’s 2015 book, Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning also warns of climate change—but I was one of the first to do so. I also have significant “credentials” with regard to both the Holocaust and climate change.

Tymothy Snyder's book

Figure 2 – Timothy Snyder’s book

International Holocaust Remembrance Day

Two months from now, on January 27, 2020, we will mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day:

International Holocaust Remembrance Day, is an international memorial day on 27 January commemorating the victims of the Holocaust. It commemorates the genocide that resulted in the death of an estimated 6 million Jewish people, 2 million Romani people, 250,000 mentally and physically disabled people, and 9,000 homosexual men by the Nazi regime and its collaborators. It was designated by the United Nations General Assembly resolution 60/7 on 1 November 2005 during the 42nd plenary session.[1] The resolution came after a special session was held earlier that year on 24 January 2005 during which the United Nations General Assembly marked the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps and the end of the Holocaust.[2]

On 27 January 1945, Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest Nazi concentration and death camp, was liberated by the Red Army.

Resolution 60/7 establishing 27 January as International Holocaust Remembrance Day urges every member nation of the U.N. to honor the memory of Holocaust victims, and encourages the development of educational programs about Holocaust history to help prevent future acts of genocide. It rejects any denial of the Holocaust as an event and condemns all manifestations of religious intolerance, incitement, harassment or violence against persons or communities based on ethnic origin or religious belief. It also calls for actively preserving the Holocaust sites that served as Nazi death camps, concentration camps, forced labor camps and prisons, as well as for establishing a U.N. programme of outreach and mobilization of society for Holocaust remembrance and education.

As we think about the tragedies of the past, let’s also start planning for ways to prevent those of the future.

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Extreme Weather: Fires and Floods

I have been busy analyzing global data about the ongoing energy transition to a more sustainable world. In addition to reflecting on my whirlwind (and worldwide) trip (September 4, 2019 blog), I wanted to look into global indicators with my two climate classes at Brooklyn College. I was also scheduled to give a talk on the role of game theory in the energy transition and decided to survey the current conditions.

Last week’s blog was the last in that series. Since then, a virtual avalanche of climate-related extreme weather events has taken place.

To start with, it’s fire season in California:

Utility companies have been taking steps to avoid the blame they experienced last year by preemptively cutting power. Below, Wikipedia summarizes:

The 2019 wildfire season is the current-running fire season in California. So far, over 6,402 fires have been recorded according to Cal Fire and the US Forest Service, totaling an estimated of 250,349 acres (101,313 ha) of burned land as of November 3.[1] Although the 2019 fire season had been relatively quiet in California through mid-September as compared to past years,[3] October through December is still expected to have the greatest fire potential as the Diablo winds and the Santa Ana winds pick up.[4]

In late October, the Kincade Fire became the largest fire of the year, burning 77,758 acres (31,468 ha) in Sonoma County by November 6.

Massive preemptive public safety power shutoff (PSPS) events have been controversial. PG&E and other power utilities have preemptively shut off power to over one million residents due to perceived risk of wildfires starting in high winds due to high-voltage power lines. While large areas have been without power for days, people in fire danger areas had trouble getting updates and critical life support equipment would not work without backup power.[5]

The Amazon rainforest in Brazil is also facing raging fires:

Three paragraphs from a Nature Conservancy article published on August 30, 2019 explain:

Farmers have been using fire, illegally in many cases, to convert rainforest into ranchland and crop farms for decades, a process known as deforestation. There have been more total fires than 2019’s fires five times since 2004. But deforestation and habitat fragmentation from these other years of fires have led to hotter and drier conditions that make it easier for fire here to spread. Coupled with a lack of oversight, these fires have reached an unprecedented and reckless scale.

Fire has shaped the diversity of life on the planet. Many landscapes depend on fires set by lightning strikes or humans (Indigenous peoples have managed forests sustainably for thousands of years) to keep them healthy and reduce the amount of fuel that can cause a catastrophic mega-fire. Australia’s grasslands and Oregon’s Ponderosa pine forests are examples of fire-adapted landscapes.

The Amazon Rainforest, however, is not a landscape where fire plays a natural role. The humidity and moisture of the rainforest do not lead lightning strikes to often cause fires here, and the plant and animal residents here are not adapted for it. These fires pose direct threats to the rainforest’s biodiversity and its Indigenous peoples, and also can harm the air quality of people throughout South America.

Australia too has fires:

Nature Conservancy also mentions fires in Australia: Australian authorities urge evacuations ahead of ‘catastrophic’ fire threat.

I have discussed many of these types of recurring extreme weather phenomena here before. For example, I looked at the Australian fire season in the February 12, 2019 blog.

Indonesia has both fires and floods:

Indonesia is not only dealing with similarly devastating fires, it is also sinking into the ground. Parts of Jakarta are expected to be completely underwater within thirty years.

NYT: JAKARTA, Indonesia — Nearly 2,000 wildfires are burning across Indonesia, turning the sky blood red over central Sumatra and creating dense clouds of smoke that have caused respiratory problems for nearly a million people.

The blazes, which tore through sensitive rain forests where dozens of endangered species live, have drawn comparisons to the wildfires in the Amazon basin that have destroyed more than 2 million acres. This year’s fires are the worst in Indonesia since 2015. Officials estimate that the fires have burned more than 800,000 acres.

TIME: The Indonesian capital of Jakarta is home to 10 million people but it is also one of the fastest-sinking cities in the world. If this goes unchecked, parts of the megacity could be entirely submerged by 2050, say researchers. Is it too late?

It sits on swampy land, the Java Sea lapping against it, and 13 rivers running through it. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that flooding is frequent in Jakarta and, according to experts, it is getting worse. But it’s not just about freak floods, this massive city is literally disappearing into the ground.

India is yo-yoing between floods and drought:

Throughout India, the number of days with very heavy rains has increased over the last century. At the same time, the dry spells between storms have gotten longer. Showers that reliably penetrate the soil are less common.

Venice is Sinking:

Likewise, the “City of Water” is more than living up to its moniker, facing the disaster of global sea level rise.

“Venice is like a canary in a coal mine,” said Sergio Fagherazzi, a coastal geomorphologist at Boston University, who also grew up in the northern Italian city. “It’s possible to apply the same concept in the U.S., and it’s very relevant now for any low-lying area.”

As climate change causes sea levels in Venice — and across the planet — to steadily inch higher, scientists say catastrophic floods could become more severe and more frequent, with some parts of the city being inundated on a daily basis.

This week’s flooding stemmed from unusually high tides exacerbated by the gravitational effects of the full moon and strong, 62-mph winds that whipped up a higher-than-expected storm surge. On Tuesday, water levels reached 6 feet 2 inches — the highest in 53 years and just 2 inches shy of matching the record of 6 feet 4 inches that was set in November 1966.

In a bit of tragic irony that reflects the denier mindset, Venice’s regional council rejected a plan to combat climate change on November 12th and the city subsequently flooded:

Sharing pictures of the room as water entered, Andrea Zanoni, the Democratic party’s deputy chairman of the council’s environment committee, wrote on Facebook: “Ironically, the chamber was flooded two minutes after the majority parties rejected our proposals to tackle climate change.”

Are there common climate factors in these extreme weather events?

Very much so, say the scientists.“The overall climate signal is that if you have it warmer, it is easier to burn; if you have higher seas, it is easier to flood,” said Prof Gabi Hegerl. “And if you have more moisture in the atmosphere, the same rainfall systems rain harder – that is something we see globally and that has a human greenhouse gas signal in it.”In extreme events, that’s where climate change bites us.”

The very scientific sounding Clausius-Clapeyron equation is one key element. Clausius and Clapeyron are the surnames of the German and French meteorologists who discovered that a warmer atmosphere holds more moisture. For every 1 degree C increase in temperature, the air can hold about 7% extra water vapor.

When you get the sorts of storms that generate rapid cooling, you get heavier rain falling rapidly out of the clouds, as happened in parts of England last week.

“As temperatures are warmer we get more intense rain, which by itself brings more floods, even if the number of storms hitting our shores don’t change,” said Prof Piers Forster from the University of Leeds.

“When coupled to warmer, wetter winters generally, as expected from climate change, the ground becomes more saturated so any rainfall will give a greater chance of flooding.”

“Stronger winds, again associated with more energy in the climate system, add to the fire risk and make them more intense and faster moving.”

There are multiple factors in all of these events. Humans play an important role—whether directly or indirectly—by way of their contributions to climate change. President Obama’s Science Advisor, John Holdren, testified before the US Senate regarding some of these direct connections (April 1, 2014 blog).

I had planned to delve into California’s recent strategy of disconnecting more than a million customers from the power grid as a precautionary step to prevent fire ignition next week but changed my mind when I read an article in the NYT. Instead, I will return to my continuous struggle to connect climate change with my Holocaust experience.

Meanwhile, to my American readers: have a happy Thanksgiving!

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Electricity in Developing Countries: Biomass and Availability

I have been following a set of fifteen countries over the past month (starting on October 15th). Together, they make up approximately 65% of the global population. I split them into three groups, based on income. The largest of these (in terms of population), which includes India, Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nigeria, constitutes about 29% of the global population. I have used all fifteen countries in my analysis of the global energy transition and use of electricity but there are fundamental differences that relate directly to the countries’ wealth.

Electricity use in the high- and middle-income countries is universal. Electricity availability in the low-income countries is not. Figure 1 shows this metric:

electricity, available, availability, India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Indonesia, Nigeria

Figure 1 – Electricity availability in the low-income countries, as a function of population

The shift to electricity in these countries did not come from environmental considerations or the discovery of new technologies. They simply realized that in the modern world, many things that we take for granted in a developed country are impossible without electricity.

More than ten years ago, I worked with a group of friends to film a society in a developing country as it transitioned from a mainly hunter-gatherer existence to an electricity-driven, modern civilization. The result was a series of short documentaries: “Quest for Light,” “Quest for Energy,” and “Beyond the Grid.” I wrote about these efforts in earlier blogs.

Here are some excerpts from my April 29, 2014 blog, which I also cited on February 25, 2015:

I was able to interest a colleague of mine, Prof. Vinit Parmar from our film department, and we went exploring. We went to a region of India called the Sundarbans, which is part of the West Bengal State, near the city of Kolkata (Calcutta). The region is shared by India and Bangladesh and is the home of one of the world’s largest deltas, formed by the outlets of the Ganges, the Brahmaphutra and the Meghna rivers into the Bay of Bengal. About 4 million people live on the Indian side of the border. The land’s topography has made it difficult to extend the Indian electrical grid, and until 1995 most of the inhabitants lived a Hunter-Gatherer way of life: “hunting” fish and gathering honey in the Mangrove forest. Around 1995, the Indian government (with some help from the US government) decided to do something about it and try to deliver electricity to the region. They decided to do it by skipping the coal stage, instead delivering the electricity in the most sustainable way that the budget would allow.

We tried to monitor this process through a documentary film; to accomplish this we needed some help but the result, along with the full list of contributors, can be seen in the short film, “Quest for Energy.”

The film illustrates the initial delivery of electricity in the small town of Gosaba. This delivery comes by way of a micro-grid that runs through some of the main streets in town. Here, the micro-grid doesn’t function as an additional, supplemental aspect of the main grid. In fact, since in this case, the micro-grid is the only grid, in a sense, it resembles the main grid in the US more than 100 years ago. The proliferation of micro-grids in rich countries is a boon to developing countries like India because it promotes further exploration and improvement of such technology. Hopefully these innovations will continue to be applicable not only in rich countries, where the micro-grids function mostly as a form of adaptation, but also in poor countries where in many regions they are the only game in town.

The most recent of these documentaries is “Beyond the Grid,” which came out in 2017.

Figure 2 – The movie poster

The area of the Sundarbans went through a rapid transition with the introduction of electricity, even though the mini-grid they created only covered the main streets of the town. The primary source of energy used to power the generators was wood, cut from the mangrove trees that grow in the forest nearby that bridges India and Bangladesh. The forest serves as a home to the few Bengal tigers that still exist in the area.

Fortunately, the local government was fully aware of the danger climate change poses to the region and how cutting these trees could accelerate climate change. I found it refreshing that the area’s politicians didn’t resort to the argument that I often hear in high-income countries—that they are just a small area with a negligible impact on the global climate. In an effort to make the practice more sustainable, the locals started weighing the wood before they burned it and planting new trees to replace those being used to make the electricity.

In technical terms, the wood is a traditional biomass. Traditional biomasses are especially important sources of energy in low-income countries because they tend to be cheaper and easier to gather than resources such as coal, natural gas, and oil. This particular use can be sustainable if the plants are annuals because they can use the carbon dioxide released to grow (powered by the photosynthetic process). Within a year, burning one plant releases the same amount of carbon dioxide that another can then absorb. Meanwhile, it produces energy, whose uses include cooking, heating or powering an electric generator. With forests, there can be a similar balance between capturing the carbon dioxide and releasing it through burning, but the cycle is longer and typically lasts closer to 20 years.

*It is important to note that this traditional setup is only sustainable if the plants grow in a fast enough cycle (in less than one generation) to capture all the carbon the burning produces.

Meanwhile, some developing countries are using a different cycle. Cows eat grass that grows photo-synthetically via the capture of carbon dioxide (the process of photosynthesis). Their digestion then releases whatever carbon the animal does not need for its own nutrition. From there, people have the option to convert the cow dung into gas (mostly methane), which can then be distributed for various uses such as cooking.

Figure 3, taken from a 2004 publication from the International Conference for Renewable Energies in Bonn, shows the global use of traditional biomasses as a function of the percentage of each country’s population that lives on a budget below $2US/day. Table 1, taken from the same source, shows the changes in the regional use of this type of biomass from 1971 to 2001. These changes reflect the countries’ economic development.

Figure 3

We can see that populations with lower incomes (in the right half of the graph) tend toward higher consumption of traditional biomasses.

Table 1

With the exception of broader groupings of the OECD and Non-OECD Europe, the regions shown above have significantly lowered their reliance on biomasses as a primary energy source. This is indicative of their economic progress because it means that they now have the resources to seek out alternatives, whether those are fossil fuels or renewables.

This blog concludes my attempt to analyze the current situation and prospects of the global energy transition. I will return to my routine of writing on climate-related events that capture my interest.

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Carbon Footprints and Carbon Intensity: a Summary

Last week I strayed a bit from my series about the markers of our global energy transition, in which I have examined 15 populous countries in three income groups. When possible, I have used data from the World Bank. This particular dataset spans from the year 2000 to 2014, the last year for which I was able to find all the required data for all 15 countries.

Today, I am returning to my original format to examine carbon footprints over the same period and summarize what we found in the last few blogs. Again, the data are from the World Bank and are shown in Figures 1-4. All four graphs present the data in terms of the ratio between carbon footprints (in kg of carbon dioxide) and primary energy (in kg of oil equivalent). I labeled this ratio carbon intensity.

Figure 1 shows global carbon intensity. It rises through 2011, with a dip between 2008 and 2010, and falls again starting in 2012. The overall rise is a modest 6%, as compared to a global GDP growth of 40% in constant US$ (2010 value) over the same period of time.

Figure 1

This last decline in global carbon intensity coincided with a 6% rise in global GDP in constant US$ from 2012 to 2014. In short: less CO2 output along with higher GDP. That means that globally we are making progress.

Figure 2

Figure 3

Figure 4

To summarize the last few blogs (from October 15th), two main indicators for the energy transition have emerged: electricity intensity (kWh/kg oil equivalent) and primary energy use. Both have major impacts on the carbon footprints of the three income groups that we see here.

Electricity intensity (October 15th blog) in the high-income category, grew by about 15% while the primary energy use (October 22nd blog) declined over this period. In the United Kingdom, it declined by 25%; in Japan and the US, it was by 15%.

In the middle-income category, we saw a sharp rise in electricity intensity in China (64%) and a smaller rise in Turkey (29%). The other three countries in this category showed approximately flat trends. However, these countries showed major increases in the use of primary energy, with China at the top (+150%) and the four other countries in the category increasing by lesser amounts.

We saw a sharp rise (67%) in the electricity intensity of low-income countries India, Bangladesh, and Indonesia, while Nigeria and Pakistan show a flat trend. In terms of primary energy use, India and Bangladesh showed increases of up to 50%. Meanwhile, Indonesia has risen by around 20%. Nigeria and Pakistan have also risen, albeit by considerably smaller numbers.

Electricity access in the low-income group of countries is far from universal; most of the changes in electricity use in these countries has very little to do with environmental considerations. Instead, it reflects an increase in GDP, which gives them the resources to extend electrical access. I’ll talk about this issue separately next week.

In the meantime, last Monday the US gave a formal notice to the UN of its intention to withdraw from the 2015 Paris agreement. The withdrawal will be finalized a year after this notification, on November 4, 2020—one day after the 2020 presidential election. By that time, the US will be the only country in the world not to participate. Under the agreement, the US had committed to reduce its carbon footprint by 26-28% by 2025, compared to its 2005 output. In 2014, the US had already reduced its carbon footprint by 16%, using the same metrics. The US also promised in the agreement that it would contribute 3 billion US$ to the Green Climate Fund (see the June 20, 2017 blog), an entity that was designed to facilitate climate mitigation and adaptation in developing countries. Two days before President Obama left office, he was able to transfer $500 million as the second installment of the contribution, leaving the US 2 billion US$ short of its commitment. Meanwhile, in addition to quitting the agreement, President Trump is trying to get that one billion US$ back.

Stay tuned!

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Renewable Energy Use – Is Zero Carbon Achievable by 2050?

If you’ve been following my latest series detailing the indicators for the global energy transition (starting October 15th), you’ll agree that it’s time to ask the most important question: how are we doing? We can estimate the answer by examining how well our society has embraced renewable, non-carbon-based energy. One of the main challenges that I want to address today is whether, based on current trends, we can actually achieve zero carbon energy input by 2050. As I have mentioned repeatedly, this is the most optimistic and ambitious goal among scientists.

Renewable Energy

I was trying to continue my methodology from the last three blogs, using the same 15 countries that I selected to represent low-, medium-, and high-income countries around the world. But looking at the data from the World Bank database depressed me, which I hate because depression can leave us paralyzed and unwilling to go forward in a productive way.

One thing that got me down was that the World Bank includes nuclear energy in the renewable category since it is a non-carbon-based energy source. But nuclear energy has had a mixed past and different countries have had varied reactions. Japan’s 2011 Fukushima disaster motivated some countries, headed by Germany, to remove nuclear plants from their energy mix. France, meanwhile, decided quite a while ago to use nuclear power to drive most of its electricity output but the system is now running into some serious difficulties. The other reason for my pessimism has to do with progress in renewable energy contributions to the global energy transition. Excluding nuclear energy, most of the 15 countries we are studying contribute very little in terms of renewable energy. This made me especially depressed.

So I shifted gears and looked instead at the BP site. I found the two graphs below and the following list of renewable energy sources:

Hydroelectricity, wind and wave power, solar and geothermal energy and combustible renewables and renewable waste (landfill gas, waste incineration, solid biomass and liquid biofuels).

First, we need to clarify some issues. The two graphs below use different sets of energy units: Figure 1 is given in million tons of oil equivalent, a metric that is principally used to describe energy as it relates to heat (creating heat, using it as a primary energy source for electricity production, and other applications). Figure 2 is given in terawatt-hours, a standard measurement of electricity consumption. One terawatt is equal to a trillion watts (10 billion 100 watt light bulbs). The two units relate to each other as follows:

1 million tons of oil equivalent = 4.4 terawatt-hours.

You can verify this relation by multiplying the scale in Figure 1 by 4.4; your answers will be approximately the same as that in Figure 2.

Figure 1 – Renewable energy consumption by region from 1998-2018 (in million tons of oil equivalent)

Figure 2 – Renewable energy consumption by source from 1998-2018 (in terawatt-hours)

The rapid growth of renewable power generation continued in 2018, with an increase of 14%. In volume terms, the largest increase was in China, accounting by almost 50% of the total increase at a global level.

Renewable power consumption grew by 14% in 2018, providing 9% of the world’s electricity.

The rapid growth of non-hydro renewable power generation continued in 2018. Global growth was 14%, the 15th successive year of double-digit growth. Renewables accounted for around a third of the growth in global power generation and contributed for one fifth of world primary energy growth.

The OECD remains the main source of renewable power generation (59% of world total) in 2018. Nevertheless, non-OECD growth is larger and accounts for almost 2/3 of the total increase in renewable energy.

The share of renewable power in global power generation reached nearly 8.4% in 2017, almost doubling in five years from 4.6% in 2012. Renewables accounted for 12% of OECD power generation in 2017, compared to 6% in the non-OECD. While the aggregate shares remain low, for some individual countries renewables now contribute a significant share of power. Countries where renewables contribute more than 20% of the power generated include: Germany, Spain, UK, Italy, Portugal, Denmark, Finland, Ireland and New Zealand.

 So why am I using two different scales? The reason is that if we produce our electricity with thermal sources, such as burning fossil fuel or using nuclear energy, we cannot do so with 100% efficiency (see the October 22nd blog). I usually count the “typical” efficiency at 33%. The BP site uses 38% for a modern power plant. The maximum efficiency of such conversions directly relates to the temperature of the heat that is produced by the primary energy source.

Almost none of the alternative energies that are shown in Figures 1 and 2 go through a heat stage. The exceptions are combustible renewables and renewable waste, which I will discuss in the future; they are especially important for low-income countries. In Figures 1 and 2, these energy sources are minor components as compared to solar and wind, which are powered either directly (solar) or indirectly (wind). Most of the “other” in Figure 2 is hydroelectric (waterfalls), powered by gravity.

We should pay special attention to the first paragraph in the cited BP section above. It states that the rapid growth in the use of renewables in 2018 is continuing and now amounts to 14%. The largest increase is attributed to China, which now accounts for about 50% of the global growth in the use of renewals. To put this into context, we should remember from last week that China also accounts for 50% of global coal use.

Zero Carbon

Let me now try to evaluate the feasibility of the world reaching zero carbon by 2050. If we continue, globally, to increase our use of renewables at the same rate as we did in 2018 (14%) the doubling time for the availability of renewables will be 5 years. To find this number, we use something called the Rule of 70 for calculating exponential growth.

The Rule of 70 gives quick estimates of the doubling time of an exponentially growing quantity. If R% is the annual growth rate of the quantity, then the Rule of 70 says that:

Doubling time in years =(aprox) 70/R

For example, at a 10% annual growth rate, doubling time is 70/10 = 7 years.

In our case, R=14% so 70/14 = 5 years

From Figure 1, we see that in 2018 we had used approximately 550 million tons of oil equivalent of renewable energy globally to power our electrical grid. If we were to replace the new renewable energy sources with thermal energy derived from burning fossil fuels, we would have to use three times more or 1,650 million more tons of oil equivalent (or gas or coal). The total primary energy that we used globally in 2018 was 13,865 tons of oil equivalent. The ratio between the thermal replacement rate of fossil fuels by renewable energy and the total primary energy comes out to 0.1 or 10%.

From the October 22nd blog we see that primary energy use in the high-income countries is actually decreasing. In the medium-income countries it is approximately flat (again, except for China). Globally over this period of time, the use of primary energy has remained approximately constant. With this information we can construct a small table that will show us when, assuming the same replacement rate of fossil fuels by renewables, we can get to a zero carbon world.

Ratio of renewable to primary energy, globally (%)

Time (years from now)


Now (2018)








20 (2040)

In other words, the answer to the big question above is yes, if we continue at the same replacement rate, we can easily meet the goal of zero carbon by 2050.

Meanwhile, in the news:

The good news: As I finished writing this blog, new information came out about our use of wind energy: current US wind capacity is now 500 GW.

The bad news: “The Trump administration formally notified the United Nations on Monday that it would withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement on climate change.”

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Coal Intensity & Coal Consumption

Today I am continuing my series (which started October 15th) examining the early signs of the global energy transition. In the previous two blogs my emphasis was on use of primary energy and electricity. This week, I’m looking at coal use. I am still using the same 15 countries, which represent three income levels and together comprise 75% of the global population.

I was utilizing data from the World Bank but this week I have shifted to the British Petroleum (BP) database because the World Bank doesn’t list coal as a separate indicator. As with the previous blogs, I am focusing on changes in coal use from the year 2000 through the most recent data available. In the World Bank database that was for 2014; BP had data through 2018. For the primary energy I used the same World Bank numbers as before, supplementing them with more recent data from BP.

Here I am using the concept of coal intensity, which is defined as the ratio of energy derived from burning coal to the total use of primary energy.

Coal use has become a key issue among those advocating the urgency of an energy transition from fossil fuels to sustainable, zero emissions energy sources.

My October 8th blog covered Germany’s declaration that it will shut down all of its coal power plants within 19 years (by 2038). I mentioned that in almost all cases of commitment to net carbon zero by 2050, the first hurdle is removing coal as an energy source in electrical power delivery. Among the 15 countries that I am analyzing in this series of blogs, only the UK and France belong to the group that has made this commitment. The issue is under discussion in both the European Union in general and Germany in particular.

Most of the countries that have already announced commitments to end their use of coal don’t really rely on it for their electricity production. France is a good example (more than 70% of its electricity comes from nuclear energy). Germany is certainly a large exception to this trend and the October 8th blog summarizes the steps that the country is taking to follow up on its decision.

If one country can claim the “throne” for coal use in its energy policy, it’s China. It now claims more than half of the coal used globally for that purpose. Figure 1 illustrates this trend. The graph shows China’s use of coal as slightly shy of that used by the rest of the world but it ends in 2017. Slightly more updated data from BP shows the country passing the 50% mark.

coal, production, China, global

Figure 1 World coal production

Figures 2-4 show the trend in coal intensity of the three income groups as normalized to global coal intensity.

coal intensity, low income, India, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Nigeria, Pakistan

Figure 2 – Coal intensity in low-income countries

coal intensity, Brazil, China, Mexico, Russia, Turkey, medium income

Figure 3 – Coal intensity in middle-income countries

coal intensity, France, Germany, Japan, UK, US

Figure 4 – Coal intensity in high-income countries

Figure 5 shows the changes in world coal intensity over that period.

world coal intensity, primary energy

Figure 5 – World coal intensity

Figure 5 demonstrates that the global coal intensity remains approximately constant at around 25% over this period. One can also see that four of the five rich countries, with the exception of Japan, are reducing their coal use (as a fraction of their energy use). Meanwhile, India and China in the other income groups clearly exceed the average global use.

In the next few blogs I will focus on the use of renewable energy and carbon footprints in the same time period and group of countries.

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Primary Energy: What Fraction Do We Use for Electricity Production?

Last week I looked at changes in electricity use (from 2000-2014), as a fraction of primary energy use, specifically as an early indicator of the energy transition to a more sustainable mix. I paid special attention to a group of 15 highly populous countries that fell into in three different wealth groups. Together, they comprise about 75% of the world’s population.

Here is a good explanation of the distinction between primary and secondary energy:

Primary energy consists of unconverted or original fuels. Secondary energy includes resources that have been converted or stored. For example, primary energy sources include petroleum, natural gas, coal, biomass, flowing water, wind, and solar radiation. Those are the fuels that can be mined, reaped, extracted, harvested, or harnessed directly. Secondary energy cannot be harnessed directly from nature; rather, secondary energy is energy that has already been converted. For example, electricity cannot be mined or harvested, though it is available in quick bursts on occasion from lightning. It is generated as a secondary form from primary fuels, like natural gas.

Figure 1, taken from the same source, shows the distinction in pictorial form.

primary energy, secondary energy, oil, coal, natural gas, nuclear, electricity, heat, wind, solar, renewable

Figure 1

We found that in almost all cases over this period, electricity became a much larger application of energy use. One of the questions that immediately came to mind was how the total primary energy use has changed, over the same period of time, in these countries. This blog addresses both situations. The three graphs below use data from the World Bank to summarize changes in primary energy use over this time period, while the corresponding tables show the ratio of electricity/energy use as well as the primary energy use.

Burning primary energies such as oil, coal or natural gas, produces heat. We use this heat to drive turbines that produce electricity (secondary energy source). The 2nd law of thermodynamics in Physics prohibits this conversion process from running at 100% efficiency. The maximum efficiency of this process depends on the temperature of the heat. A commonly cited number is about 33%. (You can look at the different prices you pay for heating a room with electricity or natural gas, using the same amount of energy).

As a result, in order to calculate how much of our primary energy we use to produce electricity, we have to multiply the numbers in the second column of the three tables by a factor of 3. This is the main reason that, in most cases, the amount of primary energy that we use to produce our electricity by far outpaces our other uses. If, as in many cases, fossil fuels make up the majority of our primary energy sources, most of our greenhouse gas emissions (mainly carbon dioxide) originate in our electricity usage.

primary energy, low income, India, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Nigeria, PakistanFigure 2 – Use of primary energy in low-income countries, as % of year 2000 value

Table 1 – Fraction of primary energy used to produce electricity in low-income countries vs. increase in total primary energy

Country Change in use of electricity/energy in 2014 (in % relative to year 2000) Change in use of primary energy in 2014 for production of electricity (in % relative to year 2000)
India 34 53
Bangladesh 92 60
Indonesia 74 20
Nigeria 73 8
Pakistan 20 2


primary energy, middle income, Brazil, China, Mexico, Russia, TurkeyFigure 3 – Use of primary energy in middle-income countries, as % of year 2000 value

Table 2 – Fraction of primary energy used to produce electricity in middle-income countries vs. change in total primary energy

Country Change in use of electricity/energy in 2014 (in % relative to year 2000) Change in use of primary energy in 2014 for production of electricity (in % relative to year 2000)
Brazil 1 40
China 60 149
Mexico 51 3
Russia 9 17
Turkey 31 31


high income, primary energy, France, Germany, US, UK, JapanFigure 4 – Use of primary energy in high-income countries, as % of year 2000 value

Table 3 – Fraction of primary energy used to produce electricity in high-income countries vs. change in total primary energy

Country Change in use of electricity/energy in 2014 (in % relative to year 2000) Change in use of primary energy for production of electricity in 2014 (in % relative to year 2000)
France 9 -13
Germany 15 -8
Japan 11 -15
UK 14 -27
USA 10 -17

In the next few blogs I will provide similar analyses regarding the use of coal and renewable energy sources. I will end this series by identifying the consequence of this transition, in terms of changes to the countries’ carbon footprints.

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The Shift to Electricity: Mitigation and Adaptation on a Country Level

My last series of blogs concentrated on Germany’s energy transition. Since the country’s reunification in 1990, there has been a major increase in electricity and decrease in primary energy use, which paralleled a similar growth in sustainable energy sources such as wind and solar (photovoltaic). Additionally, Germany decided to stop using nuclear energy following the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011. More recently, the country also decided to stop the use of coal. All these steps are contributing to a major reduction in Germany’s carbon footprint. As always, there are winners and losers in this transition. As we have seen in France, if the losers are not compensated, they may cause trouble (see my blogs on the Gilets Jaunes).

This week I will start to expand this kind of analysis globally.

There are 193 sovereign countries in the world that are members of the United Nations, as well as two observer states (the Holy See and Palestine). These include countries of all sizes and economic statuses. Some choose their governments through general election processes; others are ruled by autocratic leaders. To make analysis feasible I will focus this series on 15 countries, divided into three groups based on the World Bank’s low-, median-, and high-income classifications. In each group, I have selected the five most populous countries. Together, these 15 countries constitute 75% of the world’s population.

When I discussed the German situation in previous blogs, I based the analysis on German reporting. My global analysis will use World Bank data, as I have done here repeatedly. The World Bank gets its data from individual countries, and then subjects them to intense scrutiny. This takes a long time. As a result, its data are often less up-to-date than the countries’ original reporting. Therefore, the latest data available for all 15 countries is from 2000-2014.

These are the important indicators in this study:

  • Electricity intensity = Electricity use/Primary energy

  • Coal intensity (part of the IPAT relation): Ratio of coal to full mix of primary energy sources

  • Renewal intensity: Ratio of renewable or sustainable sources in primary energy and in electricity production

  • Carbon production

  • Energy intensity = Ratio of energy/GDP

  • Carbon intensity = ratio of Carbon/GDP and ratio of Carbon/Primary energy

I have discussed some of these indicators in earlier blogs in somewhat different contexts and will surely return to them later. Other indicators are new here.

Unfortunately, the data for most of these indicators are not directly available for these countries within the given time frame. I cannot just cut and paste them. I would have to calculate them directly from the World Bank database.

Let’s start with electric power consumption.

Here, I’m following the electricity intensity indicator, which is defined as the ratio of electricity use/primary energy use. I have discussed similar indicators here before, such as carbon intensity and energy intensity. When we associate an indicator with the word intensity, it can indicate different things. For instance, carbon intensity can be used in either the context of carbon dioxide emissions divided by GDP or those same emissions divided by energy use. I have previously taken a closer look at the version of carbon intensity that relates to GDP.

Electricity intensity can signify electricity use per employeeper GDP, per volume of data transmission, the ratio of retail electricity sales to commercial sector income or, probably the oldest definition, from physics:

Electric intensity is the strength of electric field at a point. Electric intensity at a point is defined as the force experienced per unit positive charge at a point placed in the electric field”.

Going back to our definition of electricity intensity, it invokes electricity use per unit of primary energy use. Both functions in the definition are extensive and depend on population, so their ratio becomes an intensive function, independent of population. This means we can directly compare countries of different sizes.

Figures 1 – 3 show the changes in electricity intensity for the three groups of countries.

  Figure 1 – Low-income countries
               Figure 2 – Medium-income countries

Figure 3 – High-income countries

The units in the three graphs are kwh/kg oil equivalent, which is standard in the World Bank database. Conversion to more common units will not change the trends.

In almost all cases we see consistent increase in the electricity intensity, matching the trends we saw in the blogs regarding Germany. Figure 3 shows Germany’s changes are roughly equivalent to those of the other large rich countries; Japan is the only outlier, with a higher baseline but a similar growth pattern.

We need to remember, however, that a consistent increase in electricity intensity does not necessarily mean a lower carbon footprint. In Germany, we saw that the increase in electricity intensity came with decreased use of primary energy and more sustainable energy sources such as wind and solar that replenish the electrical grid. While this is a positive incidence, it is not necessarily the norm. The most recent data from the World Bank show that access to electricity in low-income countries stands around 70% for urban settings and 28% for rural settings. Any wealth increase will be reflected in changes to electricity intensity and low-income countries tend to want low cost energy sources—for now, those are still fossil fuels. I will, of course, cover these issues in future blogs.

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Wisdom from Germany: How to Transition Away From Coal

This is the end of my series about my summer trip and the lessons I learned when I visited Germany. In last week’s blog, I promised to finish up my examination by comparing Germany’s energy transition efforts with those of the rest of the world. I am fulfilling this promise here by focusing on the country’s efforts to remove coal from its energy mixture, as part of its ultimate goal to convert its economy to carbon neutral.

Figure 1 shows a global map highlighting specific regions, countries, and cities that have committed to net zero carbon by 2050 or before. Germany is not part of this esteemed group. However, it is marked—as part of the European Union and on its own—as exploring the resolution.

net zero, global energy transition, legislation, Germany, Netherlands, Ireland, US, NYC, New York City, legislation, target, goalFigure 1

In almost all cases of commitment to net carbon zero by 2050, the first hurdle is removing coal as an energy source in electrical power delivery. Figure 2 demonstrates the state of this decision among European countries. Again Germany is one of those that are discussing such a phase-out (as opposed to Spain, Poland, and many other countries that are not).

Europe, coal, net zero, electricity mix, energy mix

Figure 2

Figure 3 (reposted from last week’s blog) shows the detailed evolution of the spectrum of energy sources powering the German electrical grid from 2002 to 2018.

Germany, power, electricity, generation, capacity, coal, biomass, winnd, solar, mineral oil, natural gas, coal, lignite, nuclear powerFigure 3

Table 1 shows the quantitative evolution of the various energy sources from 2002 to the present. As can we see in Figure 3, the capacity of electric power in Germany over this period expanded by 79%. Figure 3 and Table 1 give the power capacity in gigawatts (billion watts).

Table 1 – Comparison of Germany’s energy sources powering its electrical grid in 2002 and 2018 (GW)

Table 2 shows that almost all of the increase in the use of electricity came from the newly installed sustainable energy in solar and wind (wind also falls within the category of solar). Germany’s energy transition began with a massive shift to electricity use powered by sustainable wind and solar sources, rather than leading with an end to coal use.

Table 2 – Data from Table 1, translated into broader categories

Over this period, the German population stood around 81 million people and didn’t increase (partially due to a relatively low fertility rate). The real GDP/person in chained euros stood at 600 million in 2002 and increased to 747 million in 2018. The chained euros method (or chained volume series) is a relatively new approach to illustrating the “real” value of a currency. It involves adjusting the value of the currency to reflect inflation over time, making it easier to compare figures from different years.

By this account, the real GDP value increased by less than 25% over this period. So the shift to electrical power is an energy transition driven by neither population nor changes to the GDP.

After the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011 in Japan, Germany announced that it would stop using nuclear energy. However, Tables 1 and 2 both show that nuclear energy already constituted a relatively small percentage of Germany’s power sources, and the change didn’t have a particularly large impact on the country’s electricity production. Meanwhile, Figure 3 shows the sharp change in nuclear energy use in 2011, from 20.4-17.1GM.

That brings me to coal.

Germany is using two main kinds of coal: lignite (brown coal) and hard coal. Lignite is the lowest-quality coal, usually formed from compressed peat (60-70% carbon content and 10-20 million Joules/kg of heat content). It is also the lowest-cost coal, often found in shallow deposits close to power sources. Hard coal, such as anthracite (92-98% carbon content and 26-33 million Joules/kg of heat content), comes exclusively from deep mines in just a few countries in the world, which makes it significantly more expensive. We can see from Table 2 that as of 2018, the installed capacities—that is, the maximum output of electricity that a generator can produce under ideal conditions—of lignite and hard coal in Germany’s power generation were similar. However, an announcement came from Berlin earlier this year that:

Germany, one of the world’s biggest consumers of coal, will shut down all 84 of its coal-fired power plants over the next 19 years to meet its international commitments in the fight against climate change, a government commission said Saturday.

Shortly after this announcement, Chancellor Angela Merkel made a follow-up statement about the timeline for this undertaking:

TOKYO (Reuters) – German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Tuesday that her country would withdraw from coal-fired power production by 2038, showing her support for the deadline recommended by a government-appointed commission.

The so-called coal commission said last month that Germany should shut down all of its coal-fired power plants by 2038 at the latest and proposed at least 40 billion euros ($45.7 billion) in aid to coal-mining states affected by the phase-out.

Chancellor Merkel was voicing the decisions of a power commission that reflected the transition’s various stakeholders. Below are some of the details of this commission:

4.2 June 2018: the Coal Commission is set up

In June 2018, the federal government moved to set up the Commission for Growth, Structural Change and Employment (Kommission Wachstum, Strukturwandel und Beschäftigung, KWSB). In principle, this is the round table with representatives of environmental associations, trade unions, business and energy associations, the affected regions and scientists that Agora Energiewende had advocated two and a half years earlier.

The Coal Commission was given a mandate to develop a plan to gradually reduce and shut down coal-fired power generation, including a completion date and the necessary accompanying legal, economic, social, renaturalization and structural measures. The plan was to be completed prior to the UN climate conference in Katowice in early December 2018. This timing was intentional: Federal Environment Minister Svenja Schulze was to take the international stage to announce that Germany, the world champion lignite user, is setting a rational course to address climate change. Everyone knows that Germany has been diligently expanding renewable energies and shutting down dangerous nuclear energy. However, everyone also knows that coal is largely responsible for Germany’s failure to meet its climate targets and the stagnation of its transition to renewable energy.

1.2 Funding for coal mining regions

The Coal Commission made recommendations on how to organize structural change in the coal mining regions in terms of industrial and employment policy. The central theme of the Coal Commission on the policy side was to cushion the impact of structural change.

The prime ministers of the coal states have demanded billions of euros for the structural change and will probably get them. The Coal Commission proposes a law to secure €1.3 billion annually over 20 years, distributed to all four coal mining regions. In addition, €0.7 billion per year are to be made available by the federal government independently of the budget. Together, this amounts to the €40 billion over 20 years that are currently being cited again and again in the media. It is not yet clear which region will get how much. An allocation formula still has to be found. A colorful bouquet of proposals for structural development in the coal mining regions – around 180 pages – was appended to the report. The projects can be broadly categorized in five main areas of action:

  • Promotion of infrastructure expansion and acceleration (e.g. research on the supply of liquefied gas)

  • Promotion of public service measures (e.g. provision of a railway link from the rural district of Helmstedt to the regional center of Wolfsburg)

  • Economic promotion and development (e.g. Green Battery Park Euskirchen)

  • Promotion of R&D, science and innovation (e.g. establishment of a mobility research center at the Kerpen autobahn intersection)

  • Labor market policy, development of skilled workers (e.g. postgraduate studies in Intelligent Manufacturing at the Bautzen University of Cooperative Education)

As it turns out, while coal removal was not Germany’s first step, it remains a very important component in the energy transition. As I have mentioned several times on this blog, every step in the energy transition, no matter where or when it takes place, involves winners and losers. If the “losers” of such a transition are not consulted and compensated, they will do everything in their power to block any progress (see the Yellow Vest demonstrations in France (December 18 and 26, 2018 blogs). I will continue to follow up on how Germany contends with these issues.

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Renewable Energy in Germany: Windmills

One of the main stops on my extensive summer trip (September 4th blog) was Germany. I have talked about that throughout September (with the exception of my September 10th blog, when I focused on Dubai). This blog will be the last in the series. Specifically, I want to look at why Germany is (or is portrayed as) failing in its attempts to combat climate change via an energy transition away from fossil fuels (September 17th). My wife and I were fortunate enough to have friends drive us through Germany from Holland. We first visited the Magdeburg area, the place where the American army liberated me, my family and 2,500 other prisoners of the Nazis. I am part of a group that includes a local school, trying to erect a monument near the liberation site to celebrate survivors and liberators and memorialize the event. Following an event co-organized by that school, a local family drove us to Berlin.

We drove through about 60% of Germany, seeing the vast mid-country landscape (the shortest distance between Berlin and the Polish border is 247 miles or 398 km); from the Netherlands to the Polish border is 590 miles (950km). Windmills dominated our view as we drove (and this isn’t even the densest area of windmills in Germany; that’s farther north, toward Denmark and the Atlantic Ocean). We took photographs wherever we could. I am including two of them below as Figures 1 and 2. They demonstrate the two main arrangements: one is a densely packed windmill farm owned by a utility company that also oversees power distribution; the other is a more limited number of windmills on the field of a local farm.

windmills, Germany, farm, renewable, energy transition

Figure 1 – Windmill farm

windmill, Germany, farm, renewable, energy transition

Figure 2 – Farm with windmills

I asked around about how much farmers can get for agreeing to host windmills on their land. The response I heard was roughly 200,000 Euros/year. For that kind of money it is no wonder that the landscape is full of these devices. Once I started to investigate the issue in Germany as a whole, I found that the numbers overall look a bit different. There is a great, detailed paper about this, published in Energies (2019, 12, 1587): “Wind Turbines on German Farms—An Economic Analysis.”

Figures 3 and 4 show the full picture in terms of Germany’s use of renewable energy, using data from the German Federal Ministry of Economics and Energy.

The start of the timeline in Figure 3 coincides with the unification of Germany (1990). The inverse trend between GDP and carbon emissions is impressive and certainly worth emulating.

Germany, GDP, economy, energy consumption, emissions, GHGFigure 3

Figure 4 starts 12 years later and looks at the growth in generation capacity among clean energy sources.

Figure 4

Figure 5 shows the ambitious commitments that Germany made in 2010. 2020 will be the first milestone when the country’s progress in the energy transition (see the December 9, 2014 blog for more details) will be evaluated.

power consumption, energy consumption, power, energy, energy transition, greenhouse gases, GHG, renewables, Germany, target, climateFigure 5 Government-approved objectives of the German energy transition (2010)

Chancellor Angela Merkel commented about the present status of the German energy transition. She did not sound particularly optimistic:

ANGELA MERKEL has admitted the dire state of Germany’s automotive industry means the country will fail to achieve it previously set goals. The Chancellor said achieving the goal of 65 percent green electricity by 2023 is “questionable” in light of the industry’s decline. Merkel made the comments during a speech at the International Motor Show in Frankfurt this week where the number of participating companies fell by a quarter from last year, in a sign of the industry’s failings. Some large manufacturers such as Toyota or Fiat did not attend.

Indeed, more recently, after some haggling, Germany decided to spend some 60 billion Euros to get back on track. For many in Germany it was too little, for others it was too much. In any case, it all reflects the country’s efforts to satisfy commitments that the German government made in 2010, under different economic conditions.

In the next blog I will try to compare Germany’s efforts with those of the rest of the world.

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