The prospects for achievement of a sustainable and climate friendly electricity supply in Germany by 2050..
Transitioning towards a low carbon power sector is currently at the centre of the polical debate and is also a key issue for the German Advisory Council on the Environment (Sachverständigenrat für Umweltfragen, SRU). The only way to reduce Germany’s overall carbon emissions over the long term is to completely decarbonize our country’s electricity supply system. The low carbon technologies needed to do this are already available, or will be in the foreseeable future; these technologies include renewable energy such as wind, 3solar, biomass and geothermal energy, nuclear power, and fossil fuel power generation using carbon capture and storage technology.
That said, energy policymakers should be basing their technology decisions not just on how climate friendly a particular technology happens to be, but also on the overall statutory framework for environmental sustainability at the international level (Rio Declaration, UNFCCC), EU level, and national level (article 20a of the German Constitution; the German government’s sustainability strategy). The main sustainability factors that come into play in this regard are as follows: compliance with the absolute sustainability and input limits of natural systems; taking steps to ensure intergenerational and global justice (instituting equal per-capita usage levels for common-pool resources). The Earth’s climate system and biodiversity are natural systems whose ecological input limits have already been exceeded and that are urgently in need of protection. Needless to say, in order to meet the aforementioned sustainability criteria in particular (maintaining the sustainability of natural systems; achieving generational equality), it will be necessary to minimize the risk of irreversible or catastrophic events.
In view of the fact all energy generation technologies affect the ecobalance in one way or another, there is simply no such thing as 100 percent environmentally neutral energy generation. That said, the comparative sustainability assessment that we carried out shows that renewables constitute the only sustainable energy option. The main goal that we need to be aiming at – fully decarbonized electricity generation – cannot be reached either through more efficient conventional coal fired power plants or carbon capture and storage (CSS) technology. Moreover, the use of coal fired power plants entails large-scale raw material extraction operations which despite improved air purity efforts result in significant air quality problems. As for CCS, its use is limited by the available storage capacity and competition from other potential uses of this capacity. Although greenhouse gas emissions from nuclear power plants are far lower than for coal fired power plants, the use of nuclear power entails the risk of accidents – an eventuality that cannot be completely ruled out and that could have consequences for large areas and for extended periods of time; plus no viable solution has been found for long term storage of nuclear waste. In our view, this is a high price to pay; and what’s more, nuclear power may not be a sustainable solution in view of the limited supply of uranium. Hence in our view neither coal fired power plants nor nuclear power can be qualified as sustainable energy resources.
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