“Skip out-dated technologies”

Renewable energies have gained more international reputation in recent years. They offer several advantages beyond climate protection. Nonetheless, change is proving difficult. Imme Scholz of the German Development Institute (DIE/GDI) assessed matters in an interview with Hans Dembowski.
Smog in Beijing, China. picture-alliance/dpa Smog in Beijing, China.

Why do the governments of developing countries take rather little interest in alternatives to fossil fuels?
Your statement is far too general. When the international Renewables conference was held in Bonn ten years ago, many experts from the developing world still considered wind and solar power a kind of second-class technology for the poor. If at all, they were interested in large dams and hydro-power schemes. Things have changed in the meantime, because people know that the advanced nations themselves want to make massive use of renewable energy sources. The governments of China and India have set ambitious renewable goals for their countries. They are investing billions of dollars in related infrastructure.

Among the governments of smaller developing countries, scepticism remains huge however.
Yes, and that is related to their desire to get solutions they know they can rely on. In a way, the debate has turned up-side-down. In the past, developing countries felt that the rich world wanted to lure them onto a path towards second-class technology. Now, however, they think the alternative options are so tricky and demand so much knowledge that only the rich world can afford them. And they have a point. It is indeed a complex challenge to design and run a decentralised energy-supply system that is based on renewables. Such systems require diligent management and a lot of data processing. Moreover, a lot of geographical and meteorological information is needed. Otherwise one can neither choose the best locations for solar panels and wind mills, nor link them properly to a grid. An energy minister in an African country is likely to consider it more attractive to build a large conventional power station in the hope of solving energy supply problems in a specific region.

A centralised policy probably enhances the status of the minister himself.
Well, that’s what it may look like at first glance. The implication, however, is that the minister is responsible for all failures too. And as a decentralised supply system, it must obviously be managed well. There certainly is a long-term role for national governments in steering and incentivising technological and systemic change. It is a serious challenge, however, that the political systems and economies of many countries are very centralised, so they have no strong administrative bodies and technological capacities at the regional and local levels. If a national government cannot find competent partners at subnational levels, however, it will be very difficult to implement decentralised strategies, and the same is true for companies investing in decentralised renewable solutions.

The transition away from fossil fuels tends to be regarded as a cumbersome duty. What opportunities are overlooked?
Renewables actually have a lot of advantages that are not linked to climate protection, but of course, climate protection is important and indispensable in itself. But there is more to renewables:

  • To the extent that a country relies on them, it does not depend on oil imports, with positive implications for its trade balance. Moreover, government spending can be reduced in all countries that subsidise fossil fuels. Both aspects matter very much in view of high oil prices.
  • Conflicts relating to resource extraction are eased. Many countries exploit coal deposits, but mining tends to trigger serious disputes over land. It also causes environmental damage. Another cause of trouble is that labour conditions are normally quite tough in mining.
  • It does not make sense to invest a lot of money in the infrastructure that is needed for using fossil fuels. We know that this is not the technology of the future. It may look easier to simply copy the development model of the rich nations than to take innovative approaches. However, in the long term, leap-frogging will prove cheaper. Skipping out-dated technologies is smarter than investing in them massively.
  • Decentralised power-supply systems are labour intensive. They can be set up fast in areas that have been neglected so far. Markets for solar devices are growing bottom-up in many countries, and they are already providing many people with attractive new livelihoods. This is particularly so in regions that have never been connected to a national grid or that are suffering unreliable supply.
  • Conventional power stations cause air pollution. Apart from climate change, this is an important reason for China and India to take interest in alternative approaches. Both governments know that the people who live in their urban agglomerations are exposed to health hazards, and that the people affected are aware of those hazards. Moreover, the leaders are unhappy with Beijing and Delhi having acquired an international reputation for smog.

What other concerns are driving the governments of China and India in regard to renewables?
Well, they obviously understand all the points I just listed. They also know that they must bear a special responsibility for climate protection in view of their countries’ huge carbon emissions. At the same time, they know that the impacts of global warming will severely hurt their countries. At world summits, both governments emphasise the responsibility of the advanced nations, and for historical, financial and technological reasons, that isn’t wrong. It isn’t the whole picture, however, and both governments know that. Blaming the rich world certainly does not help them in debates with their Asian neighbours.

Both China and India want to keep on digging coal.
Yes, that’s right. Both countries’ energy demand is huge, and domestic coal is comparatively cheap. The essential thing, however, is that both governments are not only interested in alternative solutions in the long run – they are investing in making them happen.

Germany is working on a fundamental transition. Is our “Energiewende” becoming an international model?
Well, it certainly impresses our partners all over the world that we aspire to phase out nuclear power and decarbonise our economy at the same time. They are interested in our experience, and they want to benefit from our know-how. Nonetheless, I believe Germany could do more to be perceived as model in regard to energy policy.

What are you thinking of?
Jennifer Morgan of the World Resources Institute says that, if the USA embarked on a transition of the scale of Germany’s Energiewende, Washington would be sending out energy ambassadors to 100 countries in order to explain the policy. Our Federal Government is not doing that ...

…  and it is even struggling to convince EU partners.
Unfortunately, that is true, and one of the reason is that the policy is not defined clearly enough. The goals of phasing out nuclear power and moving on to renewables are not the same, and the priority is not clear. Many different players are involved in the process – utility companies, the governments of the Länder, municipal authorities – and they all have different priorities. It would help if the goals and targets were defined more precisely, allowing the various players to plan. More clarity would also make it easier to explain German policy to our partners.

I have the impression that balancing the budget has become the top priority for our Federal Government, even in terms of foreign affairs. The German public seems to appreciate the idea. Many newspapers claim that the international community is admiring Germany for being so close to a balanced budget.
That may be so, but our partners also think that a nation in such a strong financial position should be doing more to safeguard global public goods. They noticed, of course, that Chancellor Angela Merkel did not attend the UN’s special summit on climate change in New York in September, in spite of her reputation for being a leader on this matter. Let me repeat, I think Germany could make better use of the Energiewende in terms of stimulating international policymaking on energy and climate matters. The EU could do more too. Germany and Europe used to be the vanguard, and they should act decisively to maintain that status.

Why is nuclear power no alternative to fossil fuels?
There are many reasons. The three most important are:

  • Fukushima proved that even a highly-developed nation with a strong safety culture such as Japan cannot control this technology. Accidents with terrible consequences are not just possible in theory, they actually happen eventually.
  • Nuclear waste must be stored safely for thousands of years. To date, no country has a reliable disposal system for nuclear waste.
  • Nuclear power is expensive and depends on subsidies. If a utility has to manage the waste, it will be unable to break even. Governments must cover other risks as well, because private-sector insurance companies will not do so. The potential costs are far too high.

You are the convening advisor for the topic of “the environmental dimension of sustainability” in the context of the Charta for the Future that Germany’s Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development is preparing. The Ministry has been involving the public in the process. How does the German public regard the Energiewende?
Most of the feedback, so far, is from people and organisations that are active in environmental or developmental affairs. Most of them want change to happen faster and more stringently. On the other hand, the associations of industries or local governments also understand that change is necessary and that carbon emissions must be reduced. I certainly do not see any great scepticism.

Does humankind have the adequate technology for agreeing on a meaningful global agreement at the UN climate summit in Paris next year?
The real issue isn’t technology, nor funding, by the way. The real issue is political will. Various studies have found that private-sector investments will be made once the right regulatory framework is in place. Solutions will be knowledge-intensive however. We need data on what works, what approaches are sustainable, how to manage complex systems and so on. To set the right policy framework internationally and to speed up learning, international cooperation is essential. This is all the more so as decarbonisation will not affect only the energy sector. All economic sectors are concerned: transport, agriculture, housing ... Vast systems must be redesigned. Jobs will be lost in some sectors, but other sectors will generate new jobs. The recently published study, “Better growth, better climate: the new climate economy”, indicates how international cooperation can contribute to achieving the goals. The research was commissioned jointly by Colombia, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Norway, Sweden and Britain. This list of countries proves that climate and energy affairs now attract global attention that transcends conventional north-south patterns.

Questions by Hans Dembowski.


Imme Scholz is the deputy director of the German Development Institute (GDI/DIE) and a member of the German Federal Government's Council on Sustainable Development (Rat für Nachhaltige Entwicklung). In the context of the Charter for the Future, which Germany’s Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development is preparing, she is the convening advisor on the “environmental dimension of sustainability”.

Global Commission on the Economy and Climate:
Better growth, better climate: the new climate economy.

Related Articles