Two carbon-reduction paths diverge in the European policy wood: United Kingdom takes less traveled, more interesting one

Germany’s much-touted and -admired route to carbon dioxide (CO2) reductions has, predictably, proved to be an embarrassing and expensive failure. The bubble chart represents electricity data from 2010. As you can see, German electricity was, kilowatt-hour for kilowatt-hour, the second-dirtiest of the 10 jurisdictions shown on the chart. Only British electricity contained more carbon (two grams more per kWh). The data on which the chart was based is shown in a table at the bottom of this article.

The five jurisdictions in Quadrant IV all have significant amounts of nuclear in their electricity systems. The UK is heading toward Quadrant IV. Germany, up in Quadrant II, is phasing out nuclear. It will remain in Quadrant II. Click to enlarge.

The five jurisdictions in Quadrant IV all have significant amounts of nuclear in their electricity systems. The UK is heading toward Quadrant IV. Germany, up in Quadrant II, is phasing out nuclear. It will remain in Quadrant II. Click to enlarge.

At the same time, German households paid 31.8 cents per kWh for electricity, nearly twice as much as British households (which paid 18.3 cents). Do the arithmetic, and you see that German householders paid a “tax” of less than one cent for every gram of electricity-related carbon dioxide (CO2). Put another way, the carbon “tax” on German electricity represented about 2.2 percent of the total price. Which begs the question: what exactly did German households get for paying nearly the highest price for electricity in the EU? It sure wasn’t low-carbon electricity.

Germany’s 468 grams of CO2 per kWh is bad enough when you compare it with the jurisdictions down and to the left. Its position in Quadrant II, the upper-right region of the chart, says that Germany has dirty, expensive electricity. France, by contrast, is in Quadrant IV: it has clean (77 grams per kWh), cheap (16.5 cents per kWh) electricity.

In terms of the proportion of the French electricity price that pays the carbon “tax,” it is actually higher than it is in the case of Germany. Whereas only 2.2 percent of the total price of German electricity goes to pay the carbon tax, nearly 2.6 percent of the French price pays for it.

Given the enormous difference in France’s position on the Carbon-Price Matrix (deep inside Quadrant IV, where everybody wants to be) versus that of Germany (deep inside Quadrant II, where nobody wants to be), it is clear that the French walk the walk on carbon. Germany only talks the talk.

But what do those 468 grams per kWh of German grid electricity actually mean for the global environment? It meant, in 2010, that German power plants dumped more than 327 million metric tons of CO2 into our air. Even through Germany has rushed to build the most wind turbines in Europe, German power plants dump, every single hour, enough CO2 into the air to fill up Toronto’s Rogers Centre more than 12 times

Germany is expanding its use of CO2-emitting coal-fired electricity generation because it needs to replace the output of the nuclear generating plants it is shutting down. Sadly, the wind turbines for which Germany is famous simply cannot do that job. They cannot do it today, have never been able to, and never will be able to. That is why Germany is in Quadrant II of the Carbon-Price Matrix.

And it is going to get worse. German politicians, who have lectured the world for decades on the urgent necessity of cutting CO2 emissions, are now in full expectation-management mode: telling their citizens not to demonize coal.

Yes, you read that right—coal. And why would the same politicians who have waxed long and passionate about the necessity of cutting CO2 emissions be suddenly extolling coal, which is among the most CO2-intensive power generation fuels? For four reasons.

  1. Germany needs electricity. See “Germany and the Iron Rule of Power Generation.”
  2. That electricity must be cheap.
  3. Coal-generated electricity is cheap.
  4. Germany is phasing out nuclear power, which makes cheap electricity with no CO2 emissions

To repeat, Germany is expanding its use of CO2-emitting coal-fired electricity generation because it needs to replace the output of the nuclear generating plants it is shutting down. Sadly, the wind turbines for which Germany is famous simply cannot do that job. They cannot do it today, have never been able to, and never will be able to.

That is why Germany is in Quadrant II of the Carbon-Price Matrix.

Meanwhile, across the English Channel, the British are gearing up to build a fleet of new nuclear plants. This is because the UK does not just profess to be concerned about climate change and anthropogenic CO2 emissions. It is because the UK clearly is concerned about cutting CO2.

Have a look at the bubble chart again. The UK and Germany were in 2010 about equal in terms of their CIPK (i.e., the carbon content) of grid electricity. But the UK, with its nuclear plans, will move down in the C-P Matrix, toward Quadrant IV, where Finland, France, Switzerland, and Sweden live. All these countries have electricity that is far cleaner and far cheaper than Germany.

What is the CIPK, and how is it calculated?
CIPK stands for CO2 Intensity Per Kilowatt-hour. It is a measure of the carbon content of a kilowatt hour of grid electricity.

The CIPK of a given grid is simply the amount of CO2 emitted by the generating plants within the jurisdiction responsible for that grid, divided by the total amount of electricity fed into that grid over a given hour. Of course, in order to calculate CIPK you have to know both of these figures.

So here is how to calculate Ontario’s grid CIPK. You need to refer to Table 1, in the upper left-hand sidebar on this page. Table 1 gives the current Ontario grid generation mix (it draws from data published at www.ieso.ca), and the CO2 emissions associated with the emitting fuel types.

  1. Go to the Total row in Table 1.
  2. Take the figure from the CO2, tons column.
  3. While still in the Total row, now take the figure in the MWh column.
  4. Divide the CO2, tons figure by the MWh figure.
  5. Multiply that result by 1,000. This converts tons-per-megawatt-hour into grams per kilowatt-hour.

Try it!

Germany will move further up and to the right, i.e. it will remain firmly in Quadrant II. So will Denmark (another country highly praised for its “green” electricity, which in reality is almost as bad as Germany). Spain and Italy, currently in Quadrant I, will likely stay there. Three out of those four have ruled out nuclear as a solution to CO2 emissions from electricity generation.

In other words, of the five countries that lie above the 280 gram mark on the chart, only one—the United Kingdom—has any hope of moving below that mark. What did Robert Frost say about the less-traveled path? He said it was the most interesting. I would add, it is also by far the most effective, if you really care for the planet.

And Ontario? As you can see, Ontario was in 2010 a member of the clean, cheap power club. Things have changed since 2010. The good news is, Ontario power is cleaner than it was in 2010. But the bad news is, it is much more expensive.

CO2 content versus price of electricity, selected jurisdictions, 2010

JurisdictionCIPK, gramsPrice, U.S. ¢ per kWh
Sweden2221.8
Switzerland2717.9
France7716.5
Ontario11320
Finland19917.5
Spain28724.7
Denmark38535.6
Italy42326.3
Germany46831.9
United Kingdom47018.3
Sources: OECD Electricity Information 2013, p. III.58;
EIA CO2 emissions from fuel combustion, p. 111;
Ontario estimate from IESO and EmissionTrak™

1 comment for “Two carbon-reduction paths diverge in the European policy wood: United Kingdom takes less traveled, more interesting one

  1. January 29, 2014 at 05:05

    To be specific, the UK is starting along the only SUCCESSFUL path to de-carbonization; the other one has made a remarkable lack of progress at it.

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