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Engagement with Germany

5 December 2014

Because of my academic background and fluent German I often find myself on brief visits to Germany, at the invitation of a university or other organisation related to higher education. It’s another opportunity to get Cardiff’s name out there and to pick up ideas from others as well as contribute on what I’ve learned from my experience here. I’m a member of the International Council of the Free University of Berlin for example, and at the annual meeting in November 2014 we discussed their strategy of becoming an ‘international network university’ which is similar to our aim of acquiring two close international partners (of which Leuven is the first). It’s always helpful to calibrate what we do against other highly-ranked universities.

In the first week of December I gave a lecture at the University of Rostock before attending the Excellence Initiative Council of the University of Bremen. While I was there the big economic story was the break-up of the German energy company Eon into two new companies: ‘Eon Future’ will focus on renewables, the national grid and consumers, while ‘Eon Classic’ will deal with nuclear energy, coal-fired generating stations, gas and energy trading. This is a result of the so-called ‘Energiewende’ in Germany, the ‘energy shift’ in which the government is strongly encouraging a move to renewables through annual subsidies of around €23bn which have made the generation of energy by ‘traditional’ means uneconomic. Green critics fear that ‘Eon Classic’ will become a ‘bad bank’ of the energy system, with the taxpayer ultimately picking up the costs of decommissioning this huge amount of nuclear, coal and gas generating capacity. The issue is complicated by the fact that there are prominent environmental commentators – in this country George Monbiot among them – who argue strongly that nuclear has a vital role to play in that the real threat is carbon emissions, so we should be focussing on replacing fossil fuels with nuclear where possible. In Germany that’s politically impossible because of the history of anti-nuclear protest, but it then leaves open the question of how to keep the lights on in a consistent and reliable way.  In the absence of nuclear energy there is no answer to that at present. Though we may dislike the fact, fossil fuels are here to stay for the foreseeable future. Our reliance on them at the moment is enormous; the great bulk of energy generation comes from that source and there is no rapid solution even though we are committed to reducing carbon emissions over time if there is to be any hope of arresting the rate of climate change. Nobody can divorce themselves from that reliance; the moment you switch on a light or get on a bus you are becoming the end user of a process involving carbon emissions even though it may be preferable to making the journey by car, and though you may have switched off all the other lights in the house. The German writer Uwe Johnson, on whom I wrote my PhD thesis and who knew Rostock well, coined a neat phrase for the difficulty of trying to remain ethically untainted in an interwoven world: ‘there is no moral Switzerland that we can emigrate to’. The answer to this must be to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels as much as we can and to take all steps we reasonably can both as individuals and as an organisation to achieve this. Trying to disinvest in fossil fuels will not make them go away, and although the separation of Eon would at least in that particular case make it a practical prospect, in many other cases the practical issues are formidable and the potential for losses considerable.

Universities should be places where we face up to the genuine complexity of issues such as this and don’t deceive ourselves that there is an easy ethical stance. I’ve driven a hybrid car since 2007 but there’s no use pretending that this will obviate the use of fossil fuels; its electric motor certainly helps reduce emissions at the point of use but over the whole life-cycle of the vehicle the case is less convincing. The German government is introducing a whole new package of measures to reduce carbon emissions, including more walking and cycling and more use of public transport. In our case, I hope that the new estates Masterplan for Cardiff University, due to be considered by Council before Christmas, and the Cardiff Capital Region project, which will include a comprehensive transport plan, will help us to moderate carbon and particulate emissions. Reducing energy use as far as possible, combatting waste and improving insulation will all play a big role.  By investing in the fabric of the University and adapting our personal habits still further we can make a real contribution to tackling the problem. Climate change is real, and the future threat a serious one; let’s ensure we take meaningful measures to combat it.