FEATURE-Germany in climate change dilemma ahead of G8
By Erik Kirschbaum
BOXBERG, Germany, June 4 (Reuters) - As Chancellor Angela Merkel seeks to convince world leaders to cut greenhouse gases at a G8 summit this week, one of the biggest brown coal-fired power plants ever built is taking shape in this depressed town.
Hosting the Group of Eight summit in Heiligendamm, Germany may see itself as a guardian of the environment and sometimes wags a green finger at the rest of the world's efforts to tackle global warming.
But residents of this eastern town, where the population has halved since 1990, are delighted by the plant and by a plan to fuel it by re-opening an opencast pit which closed eight years ago.
The plant on the outskirts of Boxberg near the Polish border will emit 4.4 million tonnes of carbon dioxide each year -- as much as 1.5 million cars -- and is is one of 26 coal-burning plants due to be built in Germany.
"Everyone here is in favour of the new power plant," said Boxberg mayor Roland Trunsch. "The town would have died without it. People went out to protest in the streets to get it built. The CO2 doesn't bother any of us. The jobs are more important."
Take a closer look at the building boom for coal-fired plants in Germany -- and the country's refusal to consider motorway speed limits or other pro-environment measures -- and it is hard to see how Europe's largest emitter of CO2 will meet even its own goals.
"It's hypocritical for the German government to preach to others about fighting climate change while they're building so many new coal-fired plants themselves," said Gabriela von Goerne, a climate expert at Greenpeace. "It doesn't add up.
"Anyone doing the math can see that adding coal-fired plants will not lead to more climate protection in Germany. It's a contradiction to say you want to protect the climate yet build so many coal-burning plants. I can't figure out how it'll work."
Germany's own record on the environment shows, at best, a mixed performance. It is the world's sixth biggest emitter of CO2 and its auto-makers are a powerful lobby against climate curbs. At the same time, clean tech and renewable energy are already among Germany's leading export industries.
Merkel, who made the crusade against climate change a centrepiece of Germany's G8 and European Union presidencies, is proud German CO2 output has fallen 17 percent since 1990, and Germany is not far short of its Kyoto Protocol target cut of 21 percent.
But much of the fall had happened by 1995 when most of the heavily polluting east German plants were shut down after reunification. Progress has stalled since 1995 and CO2 emissions in Germany even rose in 2006.
"There's a considerable gap between what the German government says and what it does," said Hermann Ott, head of the Wuppertal Institute's Berlin office. "You have to have credible climate policies at home before you can push them upon others."
Attempts this year by the Greens party to introduce a speed limit on high-speed motorways -- to cut CO2 -- were rejected by Merkel's government. The car industry relies on the image of the Autobahn to sell Porsches, Mercedes and BMWs worldwide.
Emissions from German cars could be cut by 5 percent with a speed limit of 130 kph (80 mph) and up to 15 percent indirectly if more fuel-efficient cars were used. Opinion polls show two-thirds of Germans favour a motorway speed limit.
"The government may be a tick better than others, but it's got a lot of blind spots and the failure to set a speed limit is one of them," said Ott. "It's ridiculous that cars in Germany travel at up to 300 kph. A speed limit would save a lot of CO2."
YOU CAN'T BLAME OUR PLANT
Utility Vattenfall is investing 800 million euros ($1.1 billion) in the new 675-megawatt Boxberg plant, due to go on line in 2010.
It will raise Boxberg's total output to near 2,600 megawatts (and 17 million tonnes CO2, equal to about 5.8 million cars).
Germany needs the extra coal power to compensate for the loss of nuclear power, which now makes up 30 percent of energy production. Nuclear power is being phased out by 2020.
Boxberg's population has shrunk to 1,500 from 3,000 since 1990. There were 4,500 jobs at the Communist East German plant, a black hulk rusting next to the new site, but most workers were laid off when it closed, and few stayed. About 700 work now at the plant where giant clouds of white steam tower over the town.
"We were turning into a ghost town," said Hagan Reinhardt, 43, who once worked in the now decommissioned plant that belched out far more CO2 and toxins than the modern plants.
He since managed to make ends meet by running a small restaurant and tavern, but his children -- and almost everyone under 40 -- left town in search of jobs in western Germany.
"The air is cleaner than it was," he said, noting trees used to be coated with yellowish ash and the town covered with an awful odour. The snow used to quickly turn black. Reinhardt said climate change is unmistakeable -- but also unavoidable.
"We can feel the winters getting warmer and summers getting hotter," he said. "But it's not directly because of us here. You can't blame global warming directly on our power plant."
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