ideas: Professor Kemfert, you head the Energy, Transport and Environment department at the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW Berlin) and are a professor at Leuphana University for Energy Economics and Energy Policy. A topic that faded into the background during the height of the corona pandemic, but has been more present than ever since Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine. Has the government rested on the status quo for too long when it comes to energy supply and closed its eyes to potential risks?
    Prof. Dr. Claudia Kemfert:
    Definitely yes. Unfortunately, through our own fault, we have become too dependent on Russia’s fossil fuels. We pay the price today. The price of the delayed energy transition is enormous, not only economically, but also politically, geostrategically and, above all, democratically. It’s a drama. We had all the good ingredients in hand. 20 years ago we started promoting renewable energies. After a good start, we then unfortunately slowed down the successful energy transition and thus lost a valuable technological advantage, flourishing companies and industrial jobs. Instead, Germany blindly trusted Russia, increasing dependencies and making us extremely vulnerable. A gigantic mistake.

    Alternatives to Russian gas are currently being sought in Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Are we going from bad to worse with this?
    In principle, fossil energies rarely come from »flawless democracies«, but mostly from autocratic systems that need revenue from fossil energies to stay in power. In order to break this vicious circle, it is necessary to say goodbye to fossil energies with all determination and to switch to renewable energies and energy saving. To stay with the metaphor: from rain to sun, in the truest sense of the word.

    In your opinion, what are real alternatives to natural gas imports?
    Energy saving and renewable energy. The less energy we use, the less we have to import. And the more domestic energies we use, the more resilient and less dependent we are on autocratic regimes. Natural gas is used to a large extent for heating in buildings and in the industrial sector. We must therefore do everything we can to better insulate the buildings and turn them into “prosumers”, i.e. produce and store the electricity ourselves. There is also enormous untapped energy-saving potential in the industrial sector, for example industrial waste heat is often not used. Highly industrial heat pumps can also be used, along with more renewable energies such as solar, sustainable biomass, geothermal energy or wind energy.

    With the Green Deal, the European Union has laid the foundation for more sustainability in investments in order to be climate-neutral in the EU by 2050. However, it also classifies new gas and nuclear power plants as sustainable under certain conditions. Do you think this fits together?
    No, this does not match. Nuclear energy is not sustainable, and it is also enormously expensive. The mining of fossil natural gas produces large amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas that is very harmful to the climate. Burning natural gas increases the carbon footprint. That too is anything but sustainable. It is fatal that both non-sustainable energies are classified as sustainable, since they produce »stranded investments«. This is not only ecologically inefficient, but above all economically inefficient.

    So, in the long term, renewable energy is essential, both from an environmental and geopolitical perspective. Where do we stand here in Germany – also in comparison to our European neighbors, both in terms of technical development and availability?
    Even in the short term, we cannot do without renewables. The short-term unused potential of renewable energies is also great: 10 gigawatts of wind energy alone are waiting for their approval, they could be connected to the grid quickly if there was a serious will. Just like solar energy as well as sustainable biomass systems that could be exploited to a greater extent. Currently, 50 percent of the electricity in Germany is generated from renewable energies, we could be at a share of 80 percent if we hadn’t slowed down the energy transition. In the industrial sector, too little renewable potential is used, just like in the building sector. Other EU countries such as Scandinavia or Austria are much further along. Spain and Italy are also catching up. Unfortunately, Germany lost its lead, slowed down the energy transition and lost more than 100,000 valuable industrial jobs. That wasn’t wise.

    Could the current energy crisis be a catalyst for the energy transition? Similar to the effect of Corona on digitization?
    The current energy crisis is certainly a wake-up call. However, as in previous crises, it can also backfire if too much is invested in fossil fuels and infrastructure. Whether it’s oil or gas drilling in the North Sea, the potential revival of fracking, or the construction of liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals, it’s all going in the wrong direction. Unfortunately, when oil and gas prices are high, fossil energy processes that were already believed to be dead are also worthwhile. It would be much better and wiser to see this as a wake-up call for the energy transition and not to waste the money on fossil fuels, but to invest it in the rapid expansion of renewable energies, digitization and energy saving. That would not only remedy the situation in the short term, but also make us fit for the future in the medium to long term.

    On the other hand, do you also see the danger, if Germany maneuvers through the winter better than expected, that necessary changes in terms of climate protection will lose their explosiveness?
    Climate protection never loses explosiveness, but gains more and more, as climate change progresses further and faster with the continued existence of fossil energies. The old reflex »Climate protection has to take a back seat« is a result of an old misunderstanding that climate protection is only something for good days, a kind of luxury that we don’t have time for right now. This is fundamentally wrong for two reasons: First, climate protection means moving away from fossil fuels. If we had implemented the energy turnaround, and thus also pursued active climate protection, we would not be in this energy crisis today. Secondly, climate change is progressing incessantly, we cannot and must not ignore it because everything is only going to get worse. Now it is important not to repeat past mistakes and finally to change course with courage. Climate protection with the energy transition not only strengthens the resilience of the entire economy because fossil dependencies are avoided, but also creates peace, freedom and strengthens democracy. More win-win-win is not possible.

    Thank you for the interview.
    The interview was conducted by Anja Schneider.

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