Carbon Haven

German lignite is fuelling electricity exports
Germany is often portrayed as a global leader in the fight against climate change – however, its recent record on domestic action is poor. By the government’s own admission, Germany is set to miss its 2020 emissions reduction goals by at least 5%. An internal environment ministry paper and analysis from Agora Energiewende – the German think tank – agree that even this is far too optimistic: they expect a business-as-usual Germany to miss the target by closer to 10%.


What is the key driver of this spectacular failure? Germany’s addiction to coal – specifically brown coal (or lignite) – the most polluting of all the fossil fuels.


On the campaign trail Angela Merkel promised voters that Germany would find ways to meet the 2020 target. The only feasible method for doing so in such a short time-frame would be to immediately shut Germany’s dirtiest lignite power stations. This position is strongly supported by the Green Party in the current coalition negotiations to form the next German government.


However, with Germany currently winding down its nuclear plants, there are concerns (most loudly voiced by the coal industry) that Germany’s security of supply could be threatened if some lignite stations are also forced to close.


In this brief analysis, we detail how surplus German lignite production is powering its neighbours’ electricity grids and driving its own CO2 emissions higher.

Published 15th November 2017

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Key Findings

  • In 2016, Germany exported excess electricity equivalent to the average annual output from 7GW of lignite capacity.
  • This represents 59 million tonnes of avoidable CO2 – similar to Hungary’s total annual greenhouse gas emissions.
  • With a CO2 reduction of this magnitude, Germany would be more than halfway to meeting the shortfall in its 2020 climate change target.


Germany is an immense exporter of electricity. Power exports have averaged 47TWh over the past two years.

Exports have continued at a pace in 2017; as of the end of October, German net exports are up 4% year-on-year.

Germany is also Europe’s largest producer of electricity from lignite – the most polluting of all the fossil fuels. Total operational lignite capacity in Germany stands at 22GW – producing 130TWh of electricity in 2016. Lignite generation shows no sign of abatement in 2017, as of the end of October it was up 1% year-on-year.

Over the examined period (from January 2015), lignite generation exceeded German net electricity exports by a considerable margin in every month. It logically follows that current lignite generation is surplus to German requirements.

Examining the data on an hourly basis, we find that 98% of German export volume would be covered by German lignite generation. In 2016 this exported excess lignite generation amounted to 49TWh.

This is equivalent to the average annual output from 7GW of lignite capacity. [2]

Using the average CO2 emission performance of the German lignite fleet of ~ 1200gCO2/KWh we can calculate the annual avoidable CO2 emissions associated with German lignite exports. In 2016 this amounted to 59 million tonnes of CO2a similar amount to Hungary’s annual greenhouse gas emissions from all sources.[3]

2020 Emissions Forecast

Germany aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40% by 2020 vs. a 1990 baseline. It is currently set to miss this target. The published government forecast says it expects to miss the target by at least 5%. An internal environment ministry paper states that “without further action, Germany’s CO2 emissions will only be 31.7% to 32.5% below 1990 levels”.


Using our calculated 2016 figure, an additional 59m tonnes of avoided CO2 emissions would lead to a further 4.7% reduction vs. 1990 levels. While the government would still miss its target under both the published and internal projections, it would do so by a much smaller margin.


Germany's 2020 GHG reduction target

Four out of the five top emitters in the European Union are German lignite plants. Only Poland’s monstrous Bełchatów plant emits more. These German plants are profiled below.
Factfile: Neurath

Neurath Lignite Power Station / Kraftwerk Braunkohle

2016 CO2 emissions:
31.3Mt (Second largest emitter in the EU)


Nameplate capacity:
4,211 MW


Lignite mined from:
Garzweiler and Hambach

Factfile: Jaenschwalde
Hanno Böck and if necessary link to my web page at

Jaenschwalde Lignite Power Plant / Kraftwerk Braunkohle

2016 CO2 emissions:
23.3Mt (Fourth largest emitter in the EU)


Nameplate capacity:
3,000 MW

Average annual electricity generation:


Factfile: Niederaussem

Niederaussem Lignite Power Station / Kraftwerk Braunkohle

2016 CO2 emissions:
24.8Mt (Third largest emitter in the EU)


Nameplate capacity:
3,390 MW

Average annual electricity generation:


Factfile: Weisweiler

Weisweiler Lignite Power Station / Kraftwerk Braunkohle

2016 CO2 emissions:
18.7Mt (Fifth largest emitter in the EU)


Nameplate capacity:

Average annual electricity generation:



Germany is becoming a “carbon haven”. Electricity generation from the country’s filthy lignite fleet powers its European neighbours and prevents Germany reaching its climate goals. European coal phase-out momentum is gaining pace after announcements from Italy (2025) and the Netherlands (2030) in recent weeks, with neighbours looking to fill a generation gap, lignite exports risk becoming entrenched without further action.

Germany must tackle its lignite problem head-on: this report shows that Germany’s immense exports alone currently provide scope for a reduction in lignite output equivalent to 7GW of annual production.

While we appreciate that this generation must be replaced outside German borders, and this may well be with other idle fossil fuel assets, such are the immense emissions from lignite that even if hard coal stations pick up the slack, it would represent a sizeable net reduction in European CO2 emissions.

COP23 in Bonn is the perfect stage for an announcement on real German action to tackle lignite, and meet its 2020 climate target.

  1. Generation & cross border flow data from the Entsoe transparency platform capacity data from the beyond coal database 
  2. Assumes a load factor of 75%.
  3. European Environment Agency –
  5. Coal power plant factfile data from Sandbag, RWE, and LEAG
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