While studying German, I came to believe the first words German children learned were ja, nein, and Umweltverschmutzung. Not a single class discussion went by without umweltverschmutzung making an appearance. The constant use of the term, which means pollution, drove home how concerned Germans were about the environment. I learned basic French as well, but cannot recall any debates about ecology in that class.

Public indicators back up my sense that Germans care more for the environment than French people. The German Green party won 118 Bundestag seats out of 736 in the last federal election in 2021. The French Greens, meanwhile, obtained a mere 16 out of 577 in the 2022 election to the French National Assembly.

Given Germany’s greater attentiveness to environmental causes, one might assume it is comfortably outpacing France in the race against climate change. Yet, the opposite is the case. Last year, France emitted 4.58 metric tonnes per capita of carbon dioxide, the substance most to blame for global warming, while Germany spewed out 8.02 metric tonnes for each of its residents.

The larger carbon footprint can be traced to a single cause: emissions from electricity generation. France produces on average 58 grams of carbon dioxide per kilowatt hour of generated electricity while the figure for Germany is around 350 grams per KWh, an incredible six times higher.

The green paradox

Why is German electricity so much dirtier than French? The cause is, wait for it, the influence of the German Green movement. Greater ecological consciousness has led directly to worse ecological consequences.

This paradox is explained by the negative attitude of the Greens to nuclear energy. They condemned it long before the nuclear power disaster at Fukushima Daiichi in 2011, before even the meltdown of a reactor in Chernobyl in 1986. Their distaste for nuclear power was already present when the oil shock struck in the early 1970s.

The massive rise in oil prices in that era, born of causes too complex to analyse here, was the most consequential energy-related geopolitical crisis in history. Nations poor in fossil fuels scrambled for alternatives, including renewables and greener energy sources.

France, Japan and Sweden were among countries that rapidly expanded nuclear power projects to ensure energy security. Germany also made a similar push, but was hindered by protests at every new reactor site, demonstrations that had widespread public backing.

That has made all the difference to the carbon footprints of the European Union’s two most populous nations. Today, nearly 70% of France’s electricity comes from atomic fission which produces only about 15 grams of carbon dioxide per KWh over a reactor’s lifetime. In Germany, fission’s share of power generation topped out at around 25% and has been in decline for over a decade.

Protesters shout slogans before a meeting on nuclear waste storage facilities at the German Environmental Ministry in Berlin in April 2012. The sign on the right reads: "No nuclear waste storage in Gorleben". Credit: Reuters.

After the German Green party took power as junior partner in a coalition with the Social Democrats in 1998, the SPD Chancellor Gerhard Schröder announced a complete phaseout of nuclear power.

The centre-right opposition under Angela Merkel derided the decision but changed course after the Fukushima disaster of 2011. Merkel, then Chancellor herself, aligned her policies with public opinion and accepted the phase-out.

Having stunted nuclear energy generation before renewables became viable at scale, Germany had to fall back on fossil fuels for electricity. The nation had plenty of coal but that is the dirtiest fuel of them all. Moreover, much of the coal in Germany is lignite, a particularly nasty form of the rock. It was the expansion of a German open-pit lignite mine that led to protests last month at which the Swedish environmental activist Great Thunberg was briefly arrested.

To mitigate thermal plant related Umweltverschmutzung, Germany included natural gas in its power generation mix. Having to import almost all its requirements, it turned to Russia as its main supplier.

The relationship grew so important for both sides that Gerhard Schröder, under whose Chancellorship the decision was taken to shut down Germany’s nuclear industry, became an important lobbyist for the Russia-Germany Nord Stream gas pipeline project after demitting office, and later Chairman of its shareholders’ committee. Schröder also held high ranking positions in the Russian state-owned oil and gas giants Rosneft and Gazprom.

Germany’s dependence on Russian gas induced it to overlook Vladimir Putin’s geopolitical belligerence and nudge the European Union to do the same until the Russian President’s actions became a direct threat to Europe’s security with the full scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24 last year.

Benefit of hindsight

It is impossible to predict how decisions taken in good faith will play out decades in the future. Twenty years ago, with American President George W Bush pushing allies into an unjust war with Iraq, it appeared wise for Germany to distance itself from the United States and strengthen co-operation with a Russia led by a young president, a newcomer to high office who appeared set to steer Russia on a stable, moderate course. By 2014, however, the hardening of Putin’s Greater Russia nationalism and his turn away from democracy were blatant.

The year 2014 was when the war in Ukraine actually began, with Russia taking over the Crimean peninsula and arming rebels in parts of Eastern Ukraine where Russian speakers were in a majority. That was when Germany and the European Union should have begun backing away decisively from Russian energy supplies. But German Chancellor Merkel’s decommissioning of functional nuclear reactors made it virtually impossible to fill a Russia-sized hole in Germany’s energy requirements.

In 2014, I wrote that the nuclear shut-off had “left Germany more dependent on Russian natural gas, and therefore less willing to enforce tough sanctions on that nation. The European response to Russian aggression in Ukraine has been remarkably feeble, despite rebels in Eastern Ukraine using a missile system provided by Russia to shoot down a civilian airliner carrying 211 Europeans.”

A woman during a demonstration on "the real price of Russian gas and oil" to protest against Russia's invasion of Ukraine, in Berlin in April 2022. Credit: Reuters.

To be fair to Germany, it should not shoulder all blame for enabling Putin’s crimes. I remain shocked that the Netherlands, which lost 193 citizens on flight MH-17 that was shot down in July 2014, has not demanded stricter action even as Russia’s role in the airplane downing has grown clearer. To be fair to environmentalists, nuclear fission is not an optimal long-term solution for our clean energy requirements.

That will come from the sun and the wind, once battery storage improves enough to ensure a steady supply of power from renewables. There are good reasons to be wary of nuclear power. Reactors are expensive and take a long time to build. The waste they produce stays dangerous for thousands of years. Risks related to catastrophic failure are difficult to quantify.

Nevertheless, as I pointed out in 2014, much of the opposition to nuclear energy is rooted in irrational fear. Accidents related to nuclear power plants have killed fewer than 5,000 people over the past 60 years while the technology has saved hundreds of thousands of lives.

Those figures are based on a research paper that makes the reasonable presumption that electricity delivered by fission in decades past would instead have been generated primarily by a mix of fossil fuels, all of which cause cancers as a matter of course.

All things considered, nuclear power was and is an excellent medium-term option to generate a good portion of the globe’s power requirements.

Sadly, environmentalists across the world turned their backs on it early in the green movement’s development. One of the unintended consequences of their irrationalism was the emboldening of figures like Putin. Ukraine now bears the consequences.