German coal, French air pollution and energy disharmony

After well over a week of heavy air pollution across most of the country, France on Monday brought in a rarely used measure to limit traffic, allowing only vehicles with number plates ending in odd numbers on the roads on pain of a 22-euro fine. By midday Airparif, the body charged with monitoring the capital’s air quality, said that pollution levels were sharply down. 

After well over a week of heavy air pollution across most of the country, France on Monday brought in a rarely used measure to limit traffic, allowing only vehicles with number plates ending in odd numbers on the roads on pain of a 22-euro fine. By midday Airparif, the body charged with monitoring the capital’s air quality, said that pollution levels were sharply down. 

But what if the blanket of pollution were not due to the country’s predilection for diesel cars but to Germany burning more coal in its power stations since it decided to phase out nuclear energy?

That is the theory argued by Didier Julienne, a commodities and energy consultant (for transparency, he is also a personal friend) on his blog for Le Cercle des Echos. “For the past two weeks we have had an initiation into the atmosphere that could be ours over the next few years. A bit like in China,” he says.

Television has shown maps on which three-quarters of France is shown in red, denoting air pollution by fine particles that news reports told us was due to the high proportion of diesel-fuelled vehicles in France. This time, they said, under an unseasonal sun and with little wind, it had reached a level of nine on a scale of ten. But Didier Julienne argues that this cannot be the true cause.

He points out that there is not more diesel traffic in France now than in the past, and that older, more polluting vehicles are gradually being replaced by those that burn up the fine particles. Also, the past year has seen a real debut for electric vehicles in the country, particularly in Paris.

But his most persuasive argument is this. The red on those maps included the swathes of sparsely populated, beautiful countryside that make France a top tourist destination.

“Does this mean that the forests between Le Mans and Caen, those south of Reims, in Lorraine, the Vosges, Morvan, Brittany or Sologne have without exception been crossed by cohorts of diesel vehicles in the past fortnight? But those same cohorts avoided the forests and countryside across southern France, as they are not on red alert?” he writes.

Instead, he looks to the EU’s maps of air pollution across Europe, which last week showed winds turning in a clockwise direction bringing particle pollution from the areas where Germany’s coal-fired power stations are situated, near its borders with France, Belgium and the Netherlands.

“That is why, although limiting traffic in France is doubtless useful, it would be more productive to put pressure on Germany to close its coal and lignite power stations. Why is no one demanding that?” he concludes.

Is his a lone voice on this issue? It is certainly true that Germany’s decision to pull out of nuclear energy increases its use of coal, although the ostensible aim of the policy shift is to move to renewable energies for environmental reasons. Last year the country’s brown coal electricity production rose to its highest level since 1990, according to ft.com. Nuclear’s share of German electricity production fell from 25% in 2011 to 16% in 2012, but in 2012 coal’s share was 45% and renewables accounted for 22%.

Germany, the world’s seventh largest coal producer, now imports half the coal it uses and has embarked on a vast programme to build more coal-fired power plants. Those that are coming online from 2011 to 2015 will produce as much electricity as the country’s existing solar panels and wind turbines combined, according to The Energy Collective, which adds: “At best you could call the recent developments in Germany's electricity sector contradictory.” 

The International Energy Agency’s 2013 review of Germany calls this building programme “one of the biggest investment waves into domestic coal capacities since the post-war reconstruction” and notes the plants have a life-span running until 2050 and “are likely to remain a cornerstone of Germany’s electricity production well into the medium term.”

Yet out of five recommendations focussing on transmission, distribution and cost, the agency only has this to say about the energy mix and increased use of coal: Germany should “ensure that the short-term boom in coal use by the electricity sector does not crowd out investment in flexible gas-fired capacity”.

Environmentalists also seem ambivalent. In the wake of the nuclear disaster at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi power plant in 2011, when Germany decided to speed up its exit from nuclear energy, German environmental activists said global warming from increased coal burning was preferable to the threat of nuclear disasters. But just last month, Greenpeace lobbied German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande, saying both coal and nuclear energies needed to be phased out.

According to Didier Julienne in a previous blog, the conundrum for Germany’s energy transition to renewables is that when climate-based sources produce large amounts of electricity, for instance during winter storms or sunny summers, there is no way to adjust production from other sources. Since electricity cannot be stored in large quantities, the excess is either exported at rock-bottom prices or wasted, and this increases overall costs, making the country’s electricity production expensive.

So it would seem there is still quite a large gap between what technology can offer and both economic and environmental needs on the energy front. Meanwhile, people in France are coughing – perhaps not as much as those in Beijing or Delhi yet – while in Japan the human cost of Fukushima is still being counted.

Perhaps some researchers without an axe to grind in favour of either coal or nuclear power (or shale gas) could provide a clear analysis of the environmental perils of each. Because until we can find the widespread energy savings and reliable renewable energy sources to reconcile our various needs, the world certainly needs policy makers to make more informed energy choices and not simply replace one peril with another.

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