Ukraine and the energy crisis: a perspective from Germany

Johannes Wagner discusses green energy transitions, Germany’s support for Ukraine and how Common Futures Conversations helped prepare him for a life in politics.

Interview
Published 16 December 2022 4 minute READ

Katie McCann

Former Consultant, Common Futures Conversations

Johannes Wagner

Member, Bundestag, Germany

Could you tell us a little about your journey to becoming an MP, and what role Common Futures Conversations played in your political development?

I have been engaged in politics on different levels for many years now. I started after finishing high school when I took part in a volunteer programme in Ecuador, specifically working on a social project involving indigenous young people. The year I spent there had a big influence on me. I learnt how people live in other parts of the world and how social inequalities affect their chances to develop and have a good life. 

If you grow up poor, it is difficult to access education, for instance. I also worked with doctors from the United States delivering health services to those in need. My role was to help the medical professionals by translating from English to Spanish. It became clear to me that working as a doctor overseas was the path I wanted to take. 

Because I am a young physician who connected the issues of climate change with health, I believe I made for a very interesting profile for voters.

On my return to Germany, I studied medicine and engaged in different political projects with refugees and youth networks. Common Futures Conversations (CFC) touched on many of my interests: global youth exchange, sustainable development and looking at how Africa and Europe can collaborate to build a better future together. I applied and became a founding member. The work that CFC is doing is excellent and I had a great time in the programme.

When the German elections came up, I took the chance to run to be an MP. If not for the pandemic, I’m not sure if I would have been elected. But because I am a young physician who connected the issues of climate change with health, I believe I made for a very interesting profile for voters.

What has been the easiest aspect of life as an MP to adjust to, and what has been more challenging?

Two of the positive aspects of being an MP are that I get to meet so many interesting people every day, and that I have a great team around me. Those two things have made it far easier to adjust to my new job. 

The real challenge has been adapting to the shocking behavior of Alternativ für Deutschland (AFD), the far-right party in the German Bundestag. During parliamentary debates they continually disturb and disrupt my colleagues’ speeches, and never bring forward any constructive, problem-solving ideas of their own. Their only goal is to destroy trust in democracy.

The Green Party campaigned on an environmentally focused platform. But more recently it has found itself as a leading voice in Germany calling for arming Ukraine and finding alternative gas supplies in the Gulf. How does that square with your green agenda? Is the Green Party’s core mission at risk from its newfound power?

I don’t believe so but it’s very complicated. In the past, Germany failed to invest in renewable energies at a sufficient scale. The Green Party saw the problem of fossil fuel dependence on Russia coming. 

As a Green MP, I am absolutely for peace, but I’m also for international law.

Russian aggression is not a new issue. In 2014, Russia  attacked Ukraine in Crimea. Now illegally and without justification, Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022. It was right to send them weapons to protect themselves. Ukraine, as a country with a democratically elected president, has the right to defend itself. 

We are not talking about attacking Russia in revenge; we want to give the Ukrainians the capacity to defend themselves. In the past, they gave away their nuclear weapons with the assumption that international treaties would guarantee peace. Nevertheless, Russia still attacked.

As a Green member and Green MP, I am absolutely for peace, but I’m also for international law. If a peaceful country is attacked for no reason, they have the right to defend themselves. To help Ukraine with weapons, energy, education and other forms of support, we need a functioning economy. This war will go on for months or even years, and we have to be strong enough to withstand the effects of the sanctions we put on Russia. 

I wish the old coalition had built more renewable energy sources years ago, but they didn’t. Germany is still so dependent on fossil fuel energy that we can’t expect to become independent from Russian fossil fuels in only a few months. It was very hard for us to countenance approaching countries like Qatar or the Scandinavian states to make new deals for fossil fuels. However, Germany cannot destroy its economy, because we must still be able to help the Ukrainians. 

Germany is reliant on Russia for 40 per cent of its gas imports. Do you think that Russia’s weaponization of oil and gas will accelerate a green energy transition, or will it increase dependence on other fossil fuels such as coal?

It is very difficult to foresee what will happen, but in my view the current weaponization of oil and gas should increase the pressure to accelerate the transition. As Greens we support – and have always supported – every effort to quickly become independent from fossil fuels.

In hindsight, given the geopolitical situation, was it wise for Germany to abandon its nuclear energy programme?

The current weaponization of oil and gas should increase the pressure to accelerate the green energy transition.

It is, and was, absolutely right to get out of nuclear energy. We have no solution for atomic waste, and the recent catastrophes in the former Czech Republic and Japan show that the risk of nuclear meltdown is real even if you have the best reactor technology. Moreover, uranium is also largely imported from Russia, so it wouldn’t solve our dependency problem. 

Renewables are much cheaper than atomic energy if we take into account the whole life cycle of atomic energy use. If we build more renewable energy power sources like solar panels or wind farms, we will not need any nuclear power and will use much less fossil fuel energy. 

The German government has committed to spend an additional 100bn euros on its military. How do the Greens weigh the climate impact of a much bigger military with the need for security? 

This is a huge dilemma. The war has put us in an unimaginable situation. Usually, I would oppose investing more money in the military when prices are going up for daily products, social inequalities are rising, and the climate crisis is still such a massive challenge. But we didn’t choose this war and now that it’s with us we cannot do nothing. So yes, we have to help Ukraine and they need weapons because Putin is acting without regard for civilians or international law. 

But our own situation is very unsatisfying. We have to see how Europe as a continent, as the European Union, which sadly the UK is no longer part of, can be more efficient. Rather than buying weapons and equipment individually, we could build a strong European army together. Pooling resources could help mitigate some of the environmental effects. For example, the fuel needed for tanks. This is important because war does not help the climate crisis, it makes it worse.  

Is that something you would support? A European army?

Speaking as an individual, this is something I support. While I don’t want to speak for the entirety of my party, I think many Greens are of the same view. 

What signs do you see that encourage you that the Green Party agenda is making political progress beyond Germany?

There have been a lot of positive developments around the world. I think even if the Green party itself is not winning electoral victories, the green agenda is making political progress. 

I think even if the Green party itself is not winning electoral victories, the green agenda is making political progress.

We have seen momentum for the green agenda build in France and Australia’s new prime minister was elected this year on a commitment to act against climate change.

While China continues to invest in coal plants, they recognize the effects the climate crisis is having on their population and are increasing spending on renewables every year. In the United States, while Biden is perhaps not as progressive as other Democrats, he is still setting a much better precedent than Donald Trump.

Wagner interview conclusion

The wider debate about the climate crisis, and how to phase out fossil fuels, is growing in prominence all the time. Of course, there are leaders who don’t care, and we in the Western world should do more to support poorer countries who can’t afford renewables and infrastructure development, but increasingly climate action is being recognized as our duty – there’s no way around it.