Why Germany is still into coal: The discursive carbon lock-in and the German energy transition

A. Oels, Pia Buschmann

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaperAcademic


The German Energiewende is a leading example of an attempt to transition the energy system of an industrialised country from centralised fossil and nuclear fuels to decentralised renewables. In recent years, the Energiewende has come under significant pressure. The fast growth of renewables owned by decentralised actors posed an existential economic threat to the large energy utilities, whose profits and share values crashed. The changes made in the Renewable Energy Act in 2014 and 2016 sought to slow the growth of renewables and have concentrated subsidies on large utilities. Meanwhile, Germany is still clearing space for new open-cut lignite mines. Why is Germany still into coal?
In this paper, we analyse the German Energiewende as a contested socio-technical process. We argue that path dependence and carbon lock-in are hindering and slowing the energy transition. The literature has identified technological, institutional, and behavioural carbon lock-ins. In our paper, we add to this the concept of discursive carbon lock-in. Based on a Foucaultian understanding of power, we argue that discourse is a crucial dimension of lock-in. This implies that we need to carefully investigate the dominant discourses that constitute and justify the very technologies, institutions and behaviours of the status quo. Looking back over the last 30 years, our literature review of discourse studies on the German energy transition reveals that both fossil fuels and more recently renewable energies have become discursively locked in. The role of coal and gas has been reiterated by the ‘energy mix’ discourse that highlighted the need for fossils as a bridging technology in the energy transition. We show that Germany is nowhere near to phasing out coal in the short term. We conclude that discursive carbon lock-in is an important (though by no means the only) factor that explains why coal remains an established part of the German energy mix.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 23 Aug 2018
EventEuropean Consortium for Political Research: General conference - University of Hamburg, Hamburg, Germany
Duration: 22 Aug 201825 Aug 2018


ConferenceEuropean Consortium for Political Research
Abbreviated titleECPR


  • coal
  • Germany
  • energy mix


Dive into the research topics of 'Why Germany is still into coal: The discursive carbon lock-in and the German energy transition'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this