Germany’s energy transition is facing troubled times. Increases in electricity prices and the gradual impact of wind turbines, photovoltaic plants and major transmission routes on Germany’s cultivated landscape are placing heavy demands on policy. In addition, there is growing public awareness of the need to ensure an adequate supply of energy in light of Germany’s unprofitable gas power plants and the implications of the Ukraine crisis on Europe as a whole. At the same time, international developments such as efforts by the United States to achieve energy independence, the overall rising global demand for energy (led by newly industrialized countries), and the growth of renewable energies are radically redrawing the world energy policy map.
Germany’s energy transition is part and parcel of these global changes. However, in light of its target to source nearly all of its energy from renewables by 2050, Germany will have to work out where to position itself in the international energy policy debate and how its approach can be applied on a global scale. For this to happen, an intensive exchange with the countries that are shaping global energy policy is essential. International trends in the energy sector clearly demonstrate that, alongside the US and the oil-rich states in the Middle East, it is mainly the newly industrialized countries that are defining the energy-policy map, and they will continue to do so in the future. The BRICS group – consisting of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – will play a particularly important role in this process.
As far back as 2001, observers identified the BRICS – originally known as the BRIC nations before the inclusion of South Africa – as countries with particular growth potential. In addition to their influential role in economic policy, which recently resulted in the establishment of their own development bank, they are also key players in climate and energy policy, both as consumers and suppliers of energy. The BRICS have a high profile as new global powers, particularly in less developed countries, and have achieved rapid economic progress that can serve as an example to these countries. At the same time, the energy supply systems of the BRICS have a major impact on the global climate. China currently has the highest level of carbon emissions worldwide. The BRICS must therefore address the question of how to meet their growing energy needs in the long term. Germany has already established close bilateral ties to the BRICS and could help them respond to this challenge by sharing its experience of switching to renewables.
In light of this situation, the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung commissioned a two-part study to explore the perception of Germany’s energy transition in the BRICS. The study involved conducting qualitative expert interviews with legislators, scientists, civil society organisations, administrative bodies and the private sector in these countries. The results of the interviews provide insight into how Germany’s energy transition is viewed in the BRICS in relation to their own energy supply systems. The qualitative nature of the study also reveals how the experts involved came to form their opinions on energy policy.
Brazil, China and South Africa
The first part of the study focused solely on Brazil, China and South Africa. Experts in these countries believed that Germany’s energy transition was mainly due to its desire to promote environmental and climate protection, boost its competitiveness and enhance the security of its energy supply in the long term. They interpreted Germany’s energy transition as a comprehensive environmental and climate initiative motivated by strategic economic considerations. In the area of economic development, respondents expected further improvements to the conditions for developing and marketing new technologies that bring competitive advantages on a global scale. They believed that this could also spur growth in other economic sectors. Overall, respondents assumed that Germany’s energy transition would have a global knock-on effect and that mature German technology capable of being mass produced at low cost could lead to an even greater transfer of German technology to newly industrialized countries.
On the other hand, respondents also saw negative aspects to Germany’s energy transition. Many of the experts believed that the steep start-up costs resulting from high energy prices and investment in grid expansion could pose a risk to industry, employment and competitiveness in the short term. In addition, they regarded the timetable for implementing the transition as overly ambitious and pointed out that it could conflict with climate targets. Furthermore, some experts highlighted unresolved technological issues such as fluctuations in and storage of renewable energies.
From an overall perspective, the experts surveyed regarded Germany as playing a vanguard role in energy policies that promote the use of renewable energies. They perceived this energy transition as a unique project due to its scope, costs, timetable and unprecedented nature. However, the favourable conditions in Germany, mainly due to its industrial strength, and an urgency caused by growing dependence on electricity imports were also seen as important factors. The decision to pursue the transition was also viewed as part of a global trend towards renewable energies, one that is driven largely by ambitious climate policies in Europe. Thus, according to some of the experts surveyed, Germany was predestined for this pioneering role.
A key part of the survey focused on establishing the extent to which the experts were aware of the impact of the German energy transition on their own countries. Respondents noted a general learning effect, which includes a keen interest not only technological solutions but also in the planning, management and organization of the process of switching to renewables in Germany. Enabling technology transfer through collaborative ventures such as joint production plants was also a clear goal. Furthermore, they hoped that a positive outcome of Germany’s energy transition would have a motivational effect, one that would encourage the elites in the surveyed countries to take further steps toward sustainability. The experts also pointed out that a direct transfer is almost impossible to imagine due to the different situations in each country. They particularly feared that the lack of local expertise and qualified technical staff could create problems. The study showed that from the perspective of the experts surveyed, it makes absolute sense to transfer certain elements of the German energy transition; wholesale copying, however, would be counterproductive.
Russia and India
In the case of India, the findings of the survey are very similar to those of Brazil, China and South Africa. The responses from the Russian survey, however, differ greatly due to Russia’s key geopolitical role as an energy supplier. The experts surveyed in India and Russia mainly view the German energy transition as a program to expand the use of renewable energies and phase out nuclear power. They believe that Germany’s main goals are to become less dependent on energy imports and protect the environment and the climate. Respondents in Russia see the switch to renewables as a logical step towards cutting energy imports in the long term. They also view Germany’s approach as a strategic decision to boost its political and economic independence and point to the dangers posed by a successful energy transition in Germany for Russia: namely, that it would lose an export market in the long term. For respondents in India, however, the energy transition symbolizes an extraordinary move. It is an expression of political resolve and responsiveness to the voice of the majority in German society. Experts from both countries view the high costs and the high short-term risks to the security of energy supply as problematic. Respondents from India and Russia, like those from Brazil, China and South Africa, hope to learn from Germany’s experiences as it makes the switch to renewables and believe that technology transfer in the area of modernization and diversification, among other factors, will play a key role in helping them make this transition. In their opinion, however, it does not make sense to copy the German model. Yet the respondents did believe that Germany’s energy transition could be used as a benchmark for expanding renewable energies and boosting energy efficiency.
From a global perspective, it is evident that Germany should aim to more clearly position its energy transition in terms of international energy security. The fact that Germany may be able to reduce its fossil fuel imports in the long term by expanding its domestic renewable energy sources is a particularly important argument for the BRICS nations. With the exception of Russia, renewable energies have long been an integral part of the energy mix in the BRICS. These countries have, however, diversified their energy sources in order to enhance their energy supply strategy and not as the result of an ambitious climate policy. Hence, it is clear that Germany should not only approach the energy transition from a climate policy perspective, but should also use it as a starting point for a global dialogue on energy security.
From a development policy perspective, it makes sense for Germany to cooperate closely with the BRICS nations on energy matters. The implementation of the energy transition in Germany will play a major role in this process. Germany is currently on a learning curve – with both positive and negative experiences – which can benefit many countries worldwide. The aim here is not for other countries to copy the German energy transition, but rather to spread in-depth knowledge of the regulatory, technological and political solutions Germany has already put into place to facilitate its energy transition. If the BRICS manage to integrate parts of these solutions into their own energy policies, this may also enable them to find sustainable ways to address their rapidly growing energy needs from a climate perspective. This will not only have a positive impact on the global climate, but will also help build bridges to less developed countries that model themselves on the BRICS.
Dr. Christian Hübner has been the head of the BRICS-report’s project team. Starting in 2015 he will run the Konrad Adenauer Foundation’s (KAF) regional program of energy security and climate change in Latin America.