The writer is Germany’s minister of finance
German industry and society are once again proving much more resilient and adaptable than certain people feared. Horror scenarios of a dangerous energy rationing or a massive slump in our economy have often been bandied about. But we are nowhere near that. With a challenging year just behind us, this is good news — not only for Germany, but also for Europe.
Companies and households reacted swiftly to the sharp increases in energy prices. They installed more efficient heating or production facilities, switched to alternatives and imported intermediate products. The results are encouraging: German households and businesses have reduced gas consumption significantly, despite recent cold weather. From the start of the war in Ukraine to mid-December industrial gas consumption in Germany was (temperature-adjusted) around 20 per cent lower than the average level for the preceding three years. Even if some firms have cut back production, especially in energy-intensive sectors, industrial output as a whole has only fallen by about 1 per cent since the start of 2022. Added to this, in a survey released by the Ifo institute in November, over a third of German companies saw the potential to reduce gas consumption further without endangering output.
Instead of imposing excessive laws and regulations, we have relied on price signals and the prudence of market participants to create the right incentives and reduce gas consumption.
We will follow this approach in coming months, when energy savings will remain important. Our latest relief measures will not distort price signals. To this end, the Bundestag approved gas and electricity price brakes in its final session in 2022. They are designed to function without any intervention in markets or prices. This system will pay out a fixed amount relative to previous years’ consumption and the current difference to a reference price — regardless of current consumption.
Energy price brakes are the main component of Germany’s “protective shield”, which makes up to €200bn available for measures in 2022 to 2024. Seen in relation to the German economy’s size, its past heavy reliance on Russian energy imports and the fact that the measures will expire in 2024, these are balanced and expedient mechanisms. In contrast to instruments used in other countries, our new arrangements will not affect the price formation process driven by supply and demand, or on incentives to save gas. Companies and households will continue to save the full market price when they reduce consumption by a unit of gas or electricity. In this way, the price brakes also avoid the creation of additional demand for gas at the expense of consumers in other European countries. No one need fear that competition will be distorted or that gas will be bought up. Indeed, a recent IMF working paper on cushioning the impact of high energy prices on households explicitly praises the German energy price brakes.
Current developments confirm the effectiveness of a market-based approach — and show that we should also rely on price signals when it comes to reducing CO₂ emissions. Last year, households and companies had only a few weeks to adapt, yet we have already seen a strong response. The effect of CO₂ prices can be even stronger, as adaptation is possible over a much longer time and they additionally affect expectations and long-term decisions. Regulatory interventions and subsidy schemes, even if well targeted, cannot compete with market co-ordination and incentives that support individual decision-making and promote innovation.
Europe and Germany can weather this crisis without a collapse in industrial production. We also have an opportunity to deal efficiently with the move to climate neutrality. In both cases, we should have confidence in price signals as well as in the power of people and business to innovate and adapt.