Fritz Vahrenholt was a mastermind of Germany’s ecological movement, Senator for the environment and wind manager. Today he questions Germany’s costly climate policy.
Hamburg. Fritz Vahrenholt has shaped the environmental debate in Germany like hardly anyone else: His book “Seveso ist überall” (1976) denounced the conditions in the chemical industry, his atlas “Die Lage der Nation” (1983) assessed the environmental policy in the country.
In 1984, he joined the Hamburg environmental authority as a state councillor, and was the Senator for Environment from 1991 to 1997. The social democrat and SPD politician then moved into the business world and, from 2001, built up the wind energy manufacturer Repower. From 2008 to 2012, Vahrenholt worked as managing director of the newly founded RWE Innogy GmbH.
In recent years, the doctor of chemistry has become one of the sharpest critics of German climate protection policy. Since being fired from the Wildlife Foundation because of his views, he has made the topic his “main activity”, as he says. In his new book Unerwünschte Wahrheiten (Unwanted Truths) and on his blog, the 71-year-old deals with climate development and the consequences of climate policy.
Hamburger Abendblatt: Do you actually like arguing, Mr. Vahrenholt?
Fritz Vahrenholt No, not really. What makes you think so?
HA: In your new book “Unwanted Truths” you are taking on the entire climate science…
FV: Do I? I am not denying the need for action or climate change itself – I am just coming to different conclusions about the scale or pace of it. I believe that it is not only humans who are responsible for climate change, but that natural factors are also at work. So we have more time than is often said.
HA: How did you come up with that?
FV: There is one aspect in the climate debate that I find far too brief. Our reference value is always the year 1850, the beginning of the industrial age. But what hardly anyone knows is that the Little Ice Age, the coldest period in the last 2000 years, ended then. The average value of the last 2000 years alone is about 0.4 degrees higher than in 1850 – completely without the greenhouse effect.
HA: You represent a minority position …
FV: Maybe, but that doesn’t mean it has to be wrong. Compare that with the subject of dying forests. At the beginning of the 1980s there was a consensus that the German forest would disappear because of acid rain. I suspected as much. Almost forty years later we know that the science was wrong. Science must be open to question. But that is no longer possible because of the intertwining of science and politics.
HA: Now it can be argued that because of the horrifying forecasts, political action was taken and the forest was saved.
FV: It is quite possible to believe, as many climate scientists do, that a little exaggeration would help. This it is acceptable, within limits, to shake up a society. It was similar with my book “Seveso ist überall” – we have ¬achieved a lot in the chemical ¬industry. But we must not send society into disaster by taking incorrect or exaggerated measures. Today we live in a climate of fear.
HA: Where do you think the debate has been distorted?
FV: Take the Greenland ice sheet, for example: many people believe that it will thaw out in the near future. Even with the continuing temperatures, it will continue to exist for thousands of years. By the way, 8000 years ago there was a period of about 3000 years warmer than today. Even then the ice sheet survived. And the Sahara was green. That is the positive news even now: the earth is becoming greener.
HA: This does not apply to all regions – in many places people fear drought.
FV: In the last 100 years, neither the frequency of droughts nor heavy precipitation has increased globally. However, due to warming and increasing CO2, the area of foliage worldwide is growing by the size of the Federal Republic of Germany every year. Over the past 50 years, plant biomass has increased by 30 percent. And because of the increase in CO2, the yields of wheat, rice and other fruits have grown by 15 percent, and the world’s food situation has been significantly improved. I do not want to trivialise CO2, it is a greenhouse gas. But it is also not desirable to return to pre-1850 levels.
HA: We are far from returning there. The Paris Climate Change Agreement has set itself the goal of limiting global warming to a maximum of two degrees. Is that wrong?
FV: No. But the Paris Agreement has structural shortcomings. It has stipulated that China, as a developing country, may still emit 50% more CO2 in coming years. If we halve our emissions in Germany from 0.8 billion to 0.4 billion tonnes, than that is equivalent to China’s annual increase. There, 245 coal-fired power plants will still be connected to the grid, and there are 1600 coal-fired power plants worldwide, most of them with Chinese assistance. India is happy because 56 coal mines have been opened there and now every village is supplied with electricity.
HA: That can’t be an argument for doing nothing here!
FV: Of course not, but it shows the relation. We are not making a difference with our phase-out, and nobody will follow us if we phase out coal and nuclear power within ten years, which will mean a dramatic loss of prosperity in Germany. We cannot sustain a highly developed industrial society with wind and sun. We are threatened with deindustrialisation and loss of prosperity. We discuss hysterically: it is claimed that if we do not phase out diesel and petrol engines now, the climate will tip over. What that means for hundreds of thousands of jobs is of no further interest. We must stop the sorcerer’s apprentices: Fear is a bad advisor.
HA: These are also horror scenarios …
FV: No. Our energy system transformation has a structural flaw: we are concentrating what three energy sources have done so far – natural gas for heating, oil for transport and electricity for industry and households – into a single energy source: electricity. The Academy of Engineering Sciences expects electricity demand to double. I think it will triple. The generation capacities of wind and sun will never be sufficient for this. Moreover, the problem of the dark lull remains – there are many days and weeks without sun and wind. So where will our electricity come from? From pumped storage? There are calculations according to which we would have to fill all valleys from Norway to Austria with pumped storage lakes in order to store it. That is absurd.
HA: You underestimate the possibilities offered by technological progress. Green hydrogen, for example, could be used to store energy.
HA: Two thirds of the energy is lost in the wind-hydrogen-electricity generation chain. That is physics. The energy is lost during electrolysis, storage and conversion into electricity. So we would have to build more plants to compensate for this loss. The cost of electricity would multiply.
HA: We have just seen what efficiency gains are possible with solar cells.
FV: That’s true of solar energy, when I think back to my first solar cells at Shell. We can produce electricity for just a few cents at sunny locations, but the cost decline is not as significant when it comes to wind. But that doesn’t solve the problem of intermediate storage, which becomes unaffordable given the amount of electricity to be stored.