It has been more than sixteen years since the famous and infamous Kyoto Protocol. In signing Kyoto, 37 countries and the EU committed to reducing emissions of man-made carbon dioxide (CO2), the principal greenhouse gas pollutant. In those sixteen years, many countries, especially Germany, took the Protocol seriously—so seriously that they led efforts to reduce their national carbon footprints. How have those efforts paid off?
Let’s find out. Let’s look at the power generation sector: it gets most of the attention when it comes to reducing carbon pollution. This is because power plants are large non-moving combustion engines that produce electricity, and electricity is a major public issue. For this reason, it is a natural low-hanging fruit. Approached properly, addressing power generation CO2 could yield enormous reductions in emissions of the man-made gas.
So: how effective have been the efforts to cut power plant CO2? There are two pieces of information you need in order to judge this. These are:
- The price of electricity.
- The carbon content of that electricity.
Ideally, you would want electricity to be low-carbon and cheap. Actually, low carbon and cheap is the only viable option. If electricity is high carbon (i.e., dirty) and cheap, well that is why there was a Kyoto Protocol to begin with. The dirtiest but cheapest electricity there is comes from coal-fired power plants. Coal was the fuel that drove the Industrial Revolution, but it is not outdated as some claim. It remains even today the unchallenged King of Power Generation in most of the world’s major economies.
Those economies include the enthusiastically pro-Kyoto Germany. Germany, in spite of all the Kyoto talk, still gets a big chunk of its electricity from coal-fired plants. The OECD estimates that in 2012, Germany made 43 percent of its 617 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity using coal (see Electricity Information 2013, p. IV.323). This contributed to a CIPK of around 570 grams per kilowatt-hour for German grid electricity.
There is an unavoidable consequence to Germany’s massive use of fossil-fired and especially coal-fired power generation. That consequence is, Germany’s grid electricity comes with a very high CIPK: I estimate about 570 grams in 2012. Ontario’s CIPK is typically less than 100 grams—see Table 1 in the left-hand sidebar for last hour’s CIPK of Ontario grid electricity.
And what price are Germans paying for that dirty electricity? In electric power generation, there are four combinations of carbon content and price. Here’s a matrix that summarizes these combinations:
The ideal, as mentioned above, is to have electricity that is low-carbon and cheap. That happy situation is represented in Quadrant IV in the Carbon-Price Matrix, highlighted in yellow.
The absolute worst outcome is to be sitting in Quadrant II: to have electricity that is high-carbon (dirty) and expensive.
Germany is, unfortunately for it and the planet, sitting squarely in Quadrant II of the Carbon-Price Matrix. Its grid electricity was in 2010 the fifth most carbon-heavy in a list of 25 OECD Europe countries (see “IEA Statistics: CO2 Emissions from Fuel Combustion, 2012”, p. 111). I predict the CIPK of German grid electricity has risen far above 500 grams since 2011, and that it could go as high as 600 grams in 2013.
And German household prices for electricity are the second-most expensive in the EU (see the OECD’s Electricity Information 2013, p. III.58).
German households are paying top dollar for dirty electricity.
Meanwhile, next door in France it is the exact opposite. According to the same EIA and OECD data, French grid power comes with an extremely low CIPK: 79 grams in 2010. French households pay half for electricity what German households pay. See article.
The reason for this difference is nuclear power. France gets most of its electricity from nuclear fission, which emits zero CO2. Because of the extreme efficiency with which nuclear plants make electricity, nuclear generated electricity is cheap.
For this reason, France sits happily in Quadrant IV of the Carbon-Price Matrix.