The German coal phase out plan is a curate's egg - in truest sense of the term
What to make of Germany's proposed 2038 coal phase out date?
The late, great parliamentary sketch writer Simon Hoggart had a joke he used to roll out repeatedly whereby he would describe a speech or policy as a curate's egg and then explain that the term is routinely mis-used. It does not refer to something that is half good and half bad, as most people believe. It is in reality an egg that has good parts and bad parts, that is to say it is a wholly bad egg.
The flaws in Germany's new coal phase out plan have already been widely discussed. The country's claim it will take 20 years to move from coal commanding a 40 per cent share of the power mix to being gone from the grid appears woefully unambitious when the UK is working to deliver a similarly demanding phase out in around half the time. Moreover the UK is already well along the road to meeting its 2025 target date, having engineered the shuttering of five major coal plants and pushed the dirtiest fossil fuel down to around five per cent of the power mix in the space of a few years.
More important still, if Europe's largest economy remains reliant on coal well into the 2030s (and some leading energy companies are already arguing the deadline may have to slip) then the continent as a whole will face a huge uphill struggle to deliver the deep decarbonisation necessitated under the Paris Agreement.
On the other hand, there is plenty to cheer in the package put together by the coal phase out commission.
Europe's industrial heartland has just declared it will end the use of the dirtiest fossil fuel within 20 years. A school-leaver entering the workforce today will know that a job in the coal power industry will likely be redundant before they reach mid-career. The long term signal to investors is similarly unequivocal. The promised multi-billion Euro package of support for coal-dependent communities provides a living, working test case for how the 'just transition' can be delivered.
More important still the promise of interim target dates that would see over 12GW of coal capacity retired as early as 2022 with plenty more to follow throughout the 2020s, not to mention a series of scheduled review dates, raises the prospect of the unambitious phase out date being pulled forward. A combination of rising carbon prices, plummeting renewables costs, and smart grid advances could mean coal ends up being marginalised far quicker than the official plan suggests.
And yet, despite these clear upsides, the fact the plan is trying to belatedly end the use of a fuel that is completely incompatible with averting a global climate crisis, combined with the fact clear and affordable alternatives are known to exist, ensures the lack of genuine fast-track ambition means the critics are right. It contains good parts and bad parts, but given what is it stake Germany's coal phase out strategy remains a wholly bad egg.
This post first appeared as part of BusinessGreen's exclusive daily Overnight Briefing, which is available to all subscribers