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Essay by RWE Executive: On Green Technology, Germany Is the Envy of the World

Danish statistician Bjørn Lomborg argued in SPIEGEL last week that efforts to halt global warming should be postponed. Fritz Vahrenholt, head of the renewable energy operations at German energy company RWE, disagrees. Never before has there been a better chance for a global climate deal, he says.

An offshore wind turbine near Rostock. Germany plays a leading role in green technology. Zoom
dpa

An offshore wind turbine near Rostock. Germany plays a leading role in green technology.

The most important climate conference of the last decade can no longer fail. Even before the negotiations at the global summit in Copenhagen end, it's already clear that the meeting is a huge success for the human race: There is virtually no country left that seriously doubts the goal of limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius. The prospects for climate protection measures are better now than they've ever been. Almost all countries have announced plans to curb emissions in some form -- apart from the oil-producing nations which would be the main beneficiaries if Copenhagen were to fail.

Admittedly, there's a lot of trickery and deception going on in the wrangling over how the burden should be distributed. The 17 percent emission cut pledged by the US by 2020 using 2005 as the baseline turns into a piddling 2 percent if the 1990 baseline year used by the Europeans is applied. China's figures too are only impressive at first glance: a 40 percent reduction, but only based on the fictional gross national product of 2020. In reality, the Chinese are announcing a massive increase in emissions. And Russia's promise of a 30 percent cut requires virtually no effort because they already saved much more than that in the course of their economic restructuring following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Nevertheless, states now feel they have to name minimum targets. That alone is a big step forward. Copenhagen will increase the international pressure and force countries to start speaking the same language on climate change. Germany in particular is leading by example. Its pledge to cut CO2 emissions by 40 percent by 2020 relative to 1990 could serve as a model for other countries. In addition, Germany is one of the few countries that actually adhered to the Kyoto climate agreement -- even if we did profit significantly in this respect from dismantling the industries of the formerly communist east.

German CO2 Cuts Alone Will Have Negligible Impact on Climate

Whatever Germany does to save CO2 will have virtually no impact on global warming. It makes no difference if Germany churns out 100 million tons of CO2 more or less in 2020 because China alone will be producing four billion tons more by then. China will also overtake Germany in terms of per capita CO2 emissions by 2020.

Germany's main contribution to solving the climate problem will be in the form of technological innovation. Our country already leads the way in developing machines and products that consume less energy, in carbon capture systems, in highly efficient wind turbines and ever-improving storage techniques. Apart from Danish firms, German companies are currently the only ones capable of building systems for large offshore wind farms. The Americans, Chinese and British can't do that.

The Danish stastician Bjørn Lomborg is wrong to claim that the age of renewable energies is still far off. The changeover to a new power technology takes around 30 years. That was true of nuclear energy and it's also true of alternative sources of energy. In the last 15 years, wind power has advanced to such a degree that we expect it will be able to compete directly with coal, gas and nuclear power in the coming years, without subsidies. If engineers develop new storage methods to balance out the weather-related output swings, wind power alone will enable us to reach our national emissions targets.

Minimizing CO2 Emissions is the Primary Goal

Biomass is also close to being competitive with convential sources of energy. The decisive factor is what happens to the price of fossil fuels. Biomass won't need subsidies if oil prices exceed $150. Its potential is only limited by the amount of land available to grow the crops necessary to produce it. In Germany, fuel, electricity and biogas from our fields will soon account for f5 to 10 percent of our energy output. By contrast, the use of solar power will focus on solar heating in the coming years.

Inventions developed by German engineers are the envy of the world. But all the great inventions won't have an effect without an international emissions trading system. Only global emissions will lay the foundations for low-emission technologies to establish themselves everywhere on this planet. It is essential for our survival that we find the most effective and affordable way to reduce CO2. That's the only way we'll manage to halve CO2 emissions by 2050.

Hasty, expensive and showy measures such as light bulb bans, photovoltaic roofs in foggy Germany or hydrogen cars won't help to slow global warming. By contrast, an emissions trading system covering all sectors and regions would automatically encourage economies to take the most efficient steps to prevent CO2 -- insulating buildings, modernizing gas and coal-fired power stations, and the widespread installation of heat pumps.

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Fritz Vahrenholt
DPA
Fritz Vahrenholt, 60, a professor of chemistry, is the chief executive of RWE Innogy, a subsidiary of energy group RWE that operates wind farms and biogas plants. The member of the opposition center-left Social Democrats was the environment minister of the city of Hamburg from 1991 to 1997. After that he was the head of the German operations of Shell and then of wind turbine producer REpower.
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