By Michael Shank and Johann Saathoff

With the German government’s reaffirmation this month of carbon emissions reduction goals of 40 percent by 2020, and its courageous commitment to phase out coal, the country is now leading the world with an aggressive and unparalleled climate action plan. This sets a new bar for nations gathering in Lima, Peru, for climate talks.

Germany’s energy transition, or Energiewende, and its aggressive goal of achieving 100 percent renewable energy by 2050 is a direct result of experiencing, firsthand, the risks that come with dirtier and more dangerous fuels. Germany first targeted nuclear and now it’s targeting coal – and for good reason.

Phasing out nuclear energy was a decision based on two factors Germans found so convincing that they now won’t even accept nuclear power as a bridge technology: the Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe and the question of nuclear waste storage.

The decision to opt-out of nuclear power started with Chernobyl, and the nuclear contamination of Germany 28 years ago, and it ended with the Fukushima disaster. By then, nuclear power had lost all traction with the German public. Additionally, there was no conclusive evidence of how to deal with nuclear waste responsibly. This meant that the true cost of producing a kilowatt-hour of nuclear energy remained unknown, leaving most Germans skeptical.

That nuclear rationale is relevant to Germany’s current response to coal. While coal’s catastrophic risks may not be as immediately visible as Chernobyl or Fukushima, the costs are equally immense. Both nuclear and coal come with an incredibly high capacity to contaminate natural resources. And nuclear and coal pollutants don’t disappear over time. They accumulate and contaminate quickly and the consequences will be borne most heavily by future generations.

On nuclear, disposing radioactive waste in deep rock formations with high radiation density and little geological activity is not a sustainable option. Leaks are likely and already occurring. On coal, a vast quantity of heavy metals, toxins and radioactive substances are emitted by all power plants that use coal for electricity generation. Even the most modern and effective filters do not enable coal-fired power plants to be zero emission.

Coal-fired power plants, in particular, emit large amounts of greenhouse gases that have a direct impact on global warming and the inevitable rise of sea levels, as well as extreme weather events. And coal’s contaminating potential is indiscriminate, transcending boundaries and borders, and equally culpable for catastrophic consequences.

The costs of coal, therefore, have to be calculated in the same way we calculate costs for other energy sources – including the mining, the transport and the disposal of pollutants and greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Only then is it possible to fairly compare the different sources of energy production. For example, neither the energy costs for mining, nor the energy wasted during transport, are reflected in the cost-calculations of coal as an energy resource.

In quantifying the true costs of energy production, one could create a global regulatory measure and impose a tax on pollutants, especially carbon dioxide emissions, requiring energy producers to pay the state or a community of states. One could also create a market mechanism similar to the one the European Union has introduced with its Emissions Trading System.

Both approaches, however, come with hiccups. On the regulatory front, countries are at differing levels of development and it is unlikely that a global carbon tax is achievable, no matter how desirable it might be. On the market-trading front, the Emissions Trading System has not been a success story for the EU. The costs for a ton of carbon dioxide have to be $33 or more in order to have an impact on polluters, yet the current cost is far below that sum. Ultimately, market mechanisms are hard to manage because it’s difficult to convince the market to act responsibly and impose higher costs.

A responsible alternative, then, if carbon taxes and trading mechanisms are unfeasible or fallible, is to ramp up renewable energy investments, as Germany has done with its Energiewende and will continue to do. And why not: The international community has at its disposal more than sufficient renewable resources and the technical capabilities to sustainably harvest these sources. And given the total cost calculations mentioned earlier, we have a moral responsibility to do so. The time for a transition, then, is now. An Energiewende by any other name will still smell as sweet.

•     Michael Shank, Ph.D., is adjunct faculty at George Mason University’s School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution and a senior fellow at the JustJobs Network and the Global Partnership for the Prevention of Armed Conflict.
•     Johann Saathoff is a member of the German Parliament and a member of the Committee for Economy and Energy and the Committee for Agriculture and Food.