Germany shows contradictions on climate change
BERLIN (Reuters) - Germany is the world's sixth largest emitter of greenhouses gases, builds some of the fastest and most polluting cars on the road, rejects speed limits to cut CO2 and is replacing its nuclear power with coal-burning plants.
Yet the world's third largest industrial nation nevertheless enjoys an improbable reputation as a leader in the fight against climate change -- and will be a key, if controversial, player at the U.N. Climate Conference in Bali starting on Monday.
Despite the contradictions, Germany's pioneering renewable energy laws have been widely copied and more half the world's solar power is produced in the northern European country of 82 million even though it is often covered by thick clouds.
So is Germany doing enough to fight climate change?
"No, in face of the threat, it's clear you can never really be doing enough to fight climate change," Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said in an interview with Reuters.
"But political leaders have to come up with a realistic implementation plan to protect the environment and cut CO2 -- and not just stand back and paint horror scenarios. I think in Germany we are still quite ambitious about that."
Chancellor Angela Merkel and Steinmeier, now Vice Chancellor, made climate change a focal point of Germany's G8 presidency in 2007. They strongly back efforts in Bali to agree a successor to the Kyoto Protocol to combat global warming.
At Germany's prodding at a G8 summit in Heiligendamm, the United States and other industrial allies agreed on the need for "substantial" cuts in emissions as a step towards slowing global warming after the United States blocked European hopes of agreeing a target of 50 percent cuts from 1990 to 2050.
"Time is running short...everyone has to make a contribution," Merkel said in a weekly podcast on Saturday.
"It's up to each country to take action," added Merkel, sometimes called the "Klimakanzerlin" (Climate Chancellor) in German media. "In Germany, we want to set a good example."
NO SPEED LIMIT
German environmental groups, however, have their doubts.
They note the government refuses to consider speed restrictions on the 6,000 km (3,700 miles) of motorway where there is no top limit. The country's influential car lobby firmly opposes any change.
Nobel laureate Al Gore also asked a Berlin audience after a speech in October why there is no general motorway speed limit.
"German motorists would answer that we have too many speed limits," said Steinmeier. "We might not have a formal limit but on nearly every motorway there are limits of 120 km/h or 130 km/h. It's not the case that everyone's speeding everywhere."
Environmentalists argue speed limits could cut CO2 output in Germany overnight and more in the long term as carmakers stop producing heavy and powerful cars for the high-speed Autobahns.
While trumpeting its climate credentials and urging other countries to do more, Merkel's government has also quietly given its blessings for some 20 coal-burning factories -- needed to fill the void created by the phasing out of nuclear plants.
Greenpeace in Germany said that if the 24 planned are all built -- six are currently under construction -- there is no way the country can meet its target of cutting CO2 by 40 percent.
Germany vows to cut CO2 output by 40 percent from 1990 to 2020.
But despite pushing others to do more, Germany's CO2 reduction has stagnated since the mid-90s. Most of its 17 percent cut since 1990 is due to the collapse of the polluting industry of the former communist East Germany which disappeared after unification.
"We have been anything but inactive," said Steinmeier. "We know the de-industrialisation of eastern Germany played a considerable role.
"We knew back in 1998 that the de-industrialisation process would not continue to drop windfall (CO2) profits in our laps. That's why we started the expansion of renewable energy in 1998 and brought that to a very high level."
Steinmeier, who plans to install a photovoltaic system on the roof of his own home, noted with pride that about 40 other countries have adopted Germany's renewable energy law that helps private households refinance renewable energy investments.
"Beyond the technology, we also wanted to export the regulation framework for the development of renewable energy," Steinmeier said. "I see in countries in Africa and Asia that people are fascinated by wind turbines and photovoltaic.
"But a model on how to refinance the investment is also needed and we're trying to export that too."
(Editing by Matthew Tostevin)