A Tale of Two Energy Policies: Germany vs. UK

Some people have recently pointed out that one of the many adverse effects of Brexit is the fact that it makes it much harder for the European Union to hit its carbon emissions target. The reason is that the United Kingdom has the lowest per-capita emissions of carbon dioxide in the EU. So if the UK falls out of the EU statistics and the target doesn’t get adjusted, other EU countries will have to step up their emission reduction efforts.

This is, of course, more a problem of political symbolism than a substantial one: If member states thought that their pre-Brexit climate policies balanced the cost and benefits of emission reduction, then why should Brexit make a difference? What matters for the greenhouse effect, after all, are global emissions.

But one might ask: how come the UK is the “green poster child” of Europe? What are they doing differently? Here I find it instructive to compare the UK to Germany.

As is well-known, Germany has embarked on an ambitious policy of “energy transition” (Energiewende) which consists of a combination of subsidies for renewables and legally mandated targets for fossil energy production. (For reasons that don’t really make sense except to those living in the bubble of German public opinion, they also see their shutting down nuclear power plants as a part of the green energy transition.) The question of how fast the government should shut down coal plants, and other aspects of the energy transition, are hotly debated issues in Germany.

The UK has taken a different approach. Rather than trying to regulate the energy mix directly, the British government decided to use the price mechanism: they implemented a special tax to create a price floor for EU emission certificates which British energy producers need to buy. The price floor increases every year according to a fixed formula, ensuring that the cost to energy producers of emitting carbon dioxide in the UK has been substantially higher than in the rest of the EU throughout the last decade.

OK. So how did the UK do compared to Germany?

Pretty impressive. True, the UK’s per-capita emissions were lower than Germany’s to begin with. But Germany has cut their emissions by 12% over the last decade, while the UK cut theirs by 33%!

What about the energy mix?

The UK started from a renewable share of only 1.6% in 2007. Now it’s 11%. By contrast, during the same time, Germany went from about 10% to 16.5%. That, too, is a pretty impressive difference.

But didn’t the UK policy lead to much higher energy prices for consumers?

Nope. In fact, energy is considerably cheaper in the UK than in Germany. One kilowatt-hour of energy costs only about 18 euro cents in the UK (accounting for purchasing power differences and including all taxes) compared to 29 euro cents in Germany.

I call this a big win for Pigou taxes as opposed to direct regulation.

(Ceterum censeo: I still think the demand side is the wrong side. Effective climate policy must restrict the supply of fossil fuel!)

Addendum: Patrick Mellacher wants me to include the size of the industrial sector in my comparison. I’m happy to oblige him. Of course, the industrial sector is smaller in the UK compared to Germany. But that only explains why the level of emissions per capita is lower in the UK, not why the decrease in emissions was larger. It doesn’t seem like the industrial sector has changed in size (compared to the economy as a whole):

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