Blog from Berlin – Part Zwei: Why Culture and Institutions Matter in Low Carbon Transformations
Caroline Kuzemko, IGov Team, 11th September, 2014
Here at IGov we are starting to conduct some comparative analyses between UK governance for sustainable energy innovations and governance in Germany, Denmark, California and Texas. We are doing this partly in order to understand more about governing for transformation, but also to try and draw some lessons for the UK. We do, however, seek to draw lessons in a manner that is sensitive to the notion that energy and climate governance takes place within distinct national social, political and economic contexts. As such an approach or policy that works in one country may need to be altered to find acceptance and success in a different national context.
Earlier this summer, as a first attempt at building some comparative understandings, I spent some time in Berlin meeting with policy analysts and government advisors. Much of the recent discussion about German energy and climate policy has focussed on pull-backs in the EEG (the German FiT) and growing coal usage given the demise of nuclear. What my time in Berlin, however, revealed is that there are other interesting things still going on and one is the continued appetite and support for distributed energy generation, distribution and supply. Distributed renewable energy production and supply is one aspect of Germany’s energy transition that sets it apart from what has been happening in the UK. For example, the Big 4 national electricity and gas companies only own 5% of renewable capacity. It is also a part of what makes Germany so interesting to those analysts that think that distributed energy is an integral part of a sustainable energy system.
There is little disagreement that the EEG and priority access together created supportive conditions for the distributed energy generation boom. But I believe that there is more to the local energy story than these innovative policies and this became more and more apparent as I listened to answers given, but also the language used, during interviews. Put simply the German language has a lexicon of commonly understood words that refer to community, locality and energy – not least ‘bürgerenergie’ (citizen energy) and ‘rekommunalisierung’ (make communal again). This vocabulary hints at the extent to which concepts of working together as a community and energy are discussed and accepted and a level of awareness not yet visible in the UK. One further important cultural difference is the degree to which German communities support and believe in protecting the environment. This has manifested itself in a more influential Green Party than that seen in most other countries, cross party support for climate change mitigation – if not perhaps agreement now about how mitigation should be achieved – and a strong anti-nuclear movement.
Another important argument in understanding why Germany has been so much more successful than the UK at distributed energy has to do with its political system. Germany, in that it is a Federal state split into Länder, has a different system of authority – more of which is distributed locally than in the UK. As such Länder have more capabilities than English counties but there is also a deeper sense of belonging locally and against centralised power. This strong sense of local community also manifests itself in negative sentiments about the Big 4 national energy companies – so much so that some citizens are prepared to pay over the odds to be self-sufficient and/or free of reliance on them. It is, however, easier in Germany to avoid the ‘Big 4’ as there are 72 different suppliers for households to chose from – the vast majority of them are local or regional rather than national.
What is also clear, however, is that different Länder have different energy interests and cultures – in addition to locally set climate mitigation targets. North Rhine-Westphalia and Saxony have longer coal mining histories as well as active coalmines and support here for sustainable transition is tempered considerably by questions of support for coal and local industry. Berlin is more deeply engaged in questions of how to support social and municipal aspects of sustainable transition – or rekommunalisierung. Furthermore as more renewable energy (especially from wind) is produced in the North of Germany, where benefits are accruing locally, the ‘energy hungry’ South is facing the shut down of nuclear plants and a real insufficiency of supply despite growth in solar farms. As such, although we often refer to the German energy transition there are multiple smaller scale but heavily inter-dependent transitions going on within Germany.
The final observation here about institutional differences that have supported greater German distributed energy has to do with learning by doing. There seems little doubt that as local companies and municipal groups in Germany have become more involved in renewables so too has their knowledge about distributed energy systems grown. At 800,000 the size of the industry that has built up around servicing new efficiency and renewable technologies is indeed impressive. Much as some UK politicians seem to think that it will be possible to piggy-back on German innovations to facilitate UK transition it appears to me that the depth of experience within Germany places them at an advantage. They are, arguably, already in a position where they can plan ahead for the next phase in technology development and deployment leaving the UK to continue to catch up. Less practical experience in processes of sustainable change means less ability to learn from mistakes.
These comparative observations about how Germany’s transition is progressing in relation to the UK supports some observations made already by IGov that culture, institutions and knowledge are important in understanding motivations and capabilities for sustainable change. This is not least because they are part of the context within which change happens and that colours what types of change occur in response to recognition of the need to mitigate for climate change.