Germany’s energy crisis has led the coalition government to toy with ideas that have long been seen as politically taboo, such as extending the life of unpopular nuclear power plants and – perhaps even more divisive – imposing a speed limit on the autobahn in the hope it will reduce fuel usage.
As the country braces for a winter of uncertainty amid fears that Russian gas could be cut off completely and electricity may be in short supply, the three-way coalition of the Social Democrats, the Greens and the pro-business FDP are looking for ways to ease the situation.
Central to the debate is also how Germany hopes to maintain its climate goals, particularly after a recent decision – backed by the Green economics minister – to reignite highly polluting coal-fired power plants for a limited time.
The proposal gaining ever more traction and making its mark in newspaper editorials and late-night television debates is for the country’s remaining three nuclear power plants, which are due to close at the end of the year, to be kept running, a move staunchly opposed by the Green party since it came into existence in the 1980s.
Meanwhile, the FDP has not publicly signalled that it is ready to give up its enduring opposition to a speed limit on the autobahns, but the opposition Christian Democrats, under pressure from their close allies, have hinted they may be prepared to consider backing a temporary limit.
Germany’s last three remaining nuclear power stations generate enough electricity to heat about 7m homes, or to cover just under 6% of the country’s electricity needs. Talk of keeping them open remains speculative, but comments from both sides of the debate suggest they might move towards a compromise.
The Greens’ co-leader, Ricarda Lang, said on Sunday that it was not the right time to think of prolonging the life of the plants, but she said that owing to the energy crisis and the impact it was having on lower-income families, her party had to be ready to consider all options.
“At every moment in this crisis we need to react according to the current situation and to examine every measure. That’s what we’ve done in the past … and that’s what we’ll continue to do,” she said on German television.
She said the Greens’ main concern was the impact of higher energy bills. “We have to prevent a wave of poverty,” she said.
In response, Jens Spahn, a parliamentary deputy of the Christian Democrats, which along with the FDP has long opposed a speed limit, said: “If the Greens said they would let nuclear power run for another half a year, then I believe we should also be ready to talk about the speed limit.” He told Germany’s breakfast TV programme Morgenmagazin that at a time of national emergency, “everyone has to be prepared to jump over their own shadows”.
Experts have said the flippant way in which the two issues are being discussed does not reflect the complexities behind them. The two issues are said to be to Germans the equivalent of what gun ownership is to Americans.
The phase-out of nuclear power plants in Germany was triggered by the Fukishima accident in Japan in 2011, but the Russian invasion of Ukraine has led to renewed debate.
A government report concluded that prolonging their use was not advisable as it would “only make a small contribution to energy security” and would “increase costs elsewhere”. It said the challenge of refuelling them would mean they would not deliver electricity until autumn 2023, and they would have to run between three and five years longer in order to make investments in staff and infrastructure pay off.
It also said security measures to protect the plants, including from air attack, meant it was not feasible to consider them as a short-term solution. And all that is before any likely legal challenges are taken into account.
Introducing a speed limit on the parts of the motorway that have none would be easier, in theory. Advocates say it would increase safety and reduce emissions. A 130 km/h (80 mph) limit could decrease CO2 emissions by 1.9m tonnes a year, according to the German environment agency.
Opponents argue it would not make the roads safer – most deaths occur on country roads, not motorways – and insist the freedom to speed has to be clung to as it is one of the few areas of German life which remain relatively unregulated.
FDP voters are among the strongest supporters of no speed limit and keeping nuclear power, while Green voters are almost equally in favour of a speed limit and ditching nuclear power. And just as the Greens argue that a speed limit would reduce emissions, FDP members are liable to argue that keeping open the three nuclear plants would save about 30m tonnes of CO2 annually.
ADAC, which represents about 21 million German drivers, has said about 50% of its members are in favour of the introduction of a limit and 45% are against.