A Tale of Two Decarbonizations

How the Path of Least Political Resistance Influenced Climate Action in Germany and the United Kingdom

In history lies all the secrets of climate action. Germany and the United Kingdom have often been taken as lessons in how — and how not — to decarbonize an electricity sector. But the real lesson from these contrasting case studies is in what they have in common. In both, the groundwork for their future decarbonizations was laid when climate change was only of mild importance. The historical political battles taking place in each nation shaped and influenced their energy futures and the success of their modern climate efforts.

This summer, Britain, the first nation to burn coal for electricity, went two months without using any of the fuel, symbolic of its success in reducing its power sector emissions 63% since 1990. This is roughly triple the reductions of its German neighbor, whose expansion of renewables didn’t prevent the opening of a new coal plant recently. While both are among the fastest emission reductions achieved, the UK has clearly been more successful. Why?

At the heart of their divergent paths was the UK’s vendetta against coal and Germany’s against nuclear, but both reflected non-climate priorities of the conservative governments of the 1980s and 90s, initiating energy transitions that later clean energy policy regimes would accelerate. Germany’s support for renewables or the UK “measuring what matters” do not explain the divergence, both produce around 35% of their electricity from renewables and have directly referenced carbon emissions levels in their climate strategies. Their different priorities on what they wanted to take out of the energy system, not bring in, best explains the UK’s success.

Coal and nuclear were targeted in post-2000 climate plans, not merely because of their climate impacts, but because they represented the path of least political resistance — energy sources that were already deeply unpopular or uneconomic. While the UK was replacing carbon and pollution heavy coal, Germany had to juggle offlining its largest source of clean energy and try to reduce its emissions.

In each nation’s story lies an important lesson for future climate efforts.

How the United Kingdom broke the coal sector

The UK set the stage for a reduction in coal by breaking the power of coal unions, privatizing and liberalizing the coal sector and power markets generally, and investing heavily in natural gas.

The UK of the 1980s and 90s was defined by a sustained effort of privatization and anti-union ideology from Conservative Prime Ministers Margaret Thatcher and John Major. Thatcher’s government prioritized these goals after widespread union strikes in the Winter of Discontent drove voters to support Conservatives in national elections. Successfully beating back the coal miner strikes of 1984 and 1985 empowered the government to introduce more legal barriers to unions and striking, greatly weakening the broader UK labor movement.

The strikes were highly publicized and looked down on by the British public, making coal unpopular both in the public’s eyes and the government’s. The coal unions had previously been protecting the entire sector, but the government’s efforts went beyond economics. The coal sector became a political symbol, an effigy for the Thatcher and Major governments to burn. The unfavorable economics of the coal sector made it even easier for the government to demonize and voraciously attack coal and, in the process, warn all who dared to attempt to resist their crusade for deregulation and free markets.

At the same time, the European power market was also liberalizing, opening UK coal to market forces. No longer having powerful unions to preserve their demand, privatization of the domestic coal sector 1989 and the EU lifting the ban on natural gas electricity in 1991 made coal even less competitive. Seeking to take advantage of rich natural gas supplies in the North Sea, the UK’s “Dash for Gas” increased electricity generation from gas by 2800% in a decade (from 5TWh to 148TWh) while cutting coal electricity nearly in half over the same period. The high interest rates of the 1990s made further investment in new, capital intensive coal plants a poor investment, particularly when considering the availability of cheap domestic gas resources.

All this occurred before the first sustained UK climate efforts. Entering the 2000s, climate concern had grown, and the left-leaning Labour party gained control, which shared its predecessors’ interest in further reducing coal but for different reasons. Their efforts snowballed into various white papers and climate-friendly legislation instituting carbon pricing, energy efficiency, and support for clean energy, accelerating coal’s decline. But, ironically, it was the small-c conservative policy positions — namely privatization, anti-union policy, and market deregulation — that began coal’s decline.

Why nuclear power became Germany’s political target

Germany’s decision to draw down nuclear energy was driven by potent Chernobyl-related anti-nuclear sentiment, unintended effects of German reunification, and energy policy decisions that strengthened the political and economic standing of non-nuclear resources.

Chernobyl allowed the German environmental movement to unify and formalize opposition to nuclear energy. Pre-1980, environmental activists were loosely organized, marginally influential, and split on primarily targeting coal or nuclear. Beyond organizing into the Green Party in 1980 and disrupting a few nuclear energy projects, their efforts bore little fruit. The Greens would not come to power until 1998, and antinuclearism did not win the majority support of Germans pre-1986. But, the movement was organized and had time to develop policy positions in preparation for a political window.

Chernobyl drastically shifted public and elite opinion against nuclear energy across the political spectrum. In 1986, East Germany was still under the hegemony of the Soviet Union, and its citizens were subject to propaganda denying any danger from the accident, and the West German public received inconsistent information and underwent temporary lockdowns, leaving many too scared to leave their homes. The governing center-right Christian Democratic Union government created an environmental ministry charged with strictly regulating nuclear energy in response to Chernobyl, and the liberal Social Democratic Party took an official stance in opposition to nuclear.

Simultaneously, the major parties also aligned politically in support of both coal and renewables. Already, Germany’s coal and lignite sector was a political favorite due to rich domestic supplies and was a source of national pride. Whereas UK coal evoked memories of strikes and shutdowns, German coal was a symbol of independence and industrial heritage. Many members of the German labor unions also worked in the coal sector and supported the Social Democratic Party, and nuclear closures in favor of sustained coal use became party policy post-Chernobyl.

Renewables, by contrast, were a minor player in the late 1980s and early 1990s, had no direct political opposition, and general, if limited, support. Though the Green and Social Democrat parties already supported expanding renewables, even the conservative Kohl government began implementing limited pro-renewable energy policies, which would kick off experiential learning-related cost reductions of renewables.

In the 1990s, coal’s position was further strengthened by the German reunification, which led to the immediate closure of all Soviet-era nuclear plants and old, uneconomic, coal plants in East Germany. Almost exclusively filling the gap was a newer, higher performing, generation of coal plants better suited to pair with higher variable renewable energy shares and compete with more expensive natural gas.

In 1998, the new red-green government (Social Democrat and Green coalition) opened the door to sweeping anti-nuclear policy and was now partly driven by climate concern. A permanent nuclear phaseout plan was finalized in 2000, and climate concern translated into the coalition continuing and strengthening the pro-renewables policy in the Renewable Energy Act.

Angela Merkel’s center-right government after 2005 would double down on these decisions and the Energiewende would take shape. Targeting nuclear energy now represented the path of least resistance, unlikely to be retrenched in future energy policy decisions — no matter the clean energy benefits.

Learning the lessons of Germany and the UK

By the time climate action became paramount for Germany and the UK in the 2000s, and deliberate plans to reduce power sector emissions were drawn up, German nuclear and UK coal were irrelevant and weak. Any energy policy decisions were likely to involve continuing to phase out nuclear and coal, no matter the ultimate emissions-reducing mechanisms or targets chosen.

This all is not to say that Germany and the UK were insincere in reducing emissions, or that the conservative governments of the 80s and 90s deserve all or even most of the credit. However, when considering the Energiewende or the UK energy strategy, ignoring the long-term impacts of non-climate energy policy decisions of these governments on their success oversimplifies how and why climate action happens.

While the trajectories of each nation offer many lessons in reducing power sector emissions, Germany and the UK demonstrate that reducing emissions will rarely be the sole priority of climate action. It will and should be wrapped in and impacted by other priorities, from energy costs to equity.

This insight can be leveraged. When political priorities and the path of least resistance aligns with support for clean energy and targeting dirty energy, decarbonization happens quicker and steadier. This might be the most important lesson from Germany and the United Kingdom. We must learn it well — any chance of successfully limiting warming requires it.