BERLIN - Germany's air pollution is set to worsen for a second year, the first back-to-back increase since at least the 1980s, after Chancellor Angela Merkel's decision to shut nuclear plants led utilities to burn more coal.
The nation, which is seeking to lead European climate-protection efforts, probably will produce higher greenhouse-gas emissions in 2013 on top of a 1.5 percent gain last year, according to the DIW economic institute, which acts as an adviser to the government.
Utilities led by RWE and EON boosted hard coal imports 25 percent in the first quarter to 10 million metric tons, the nation's Coal Importers Association said. With elections due in September, the move is a blow to Merkel, a former environment minister who helped negotiate the 1997 Kyoto accord curbing carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.
"The trend of rising German CO2 emissions is alarming," said Claudia Kemfert, who heads the energy unit at the Berlin- based DIW. "Climate protection is a key target of the government, and greenhouse gases should fall, not climb."
Coal is the most polluting fossil fuel and is blamed by scientists for contributing to global warming. Merkel opted to shut nuclear power plants after an earthquake in Japan two years ago resulted in meltdowns at reactors owned by Tokyo Electric Power Co.
Merkel's government is seeking to more than triple the share of renewable power consumed in Germany by 2050. Coal has become cheaper than natural gas for power generators, helping the more dirty fuel gain share in the energy mix of Europe's largest economy. The shift has been noticed by environmental campaigners and threatens to fuel the election debate.
"The increase of coal is disastrous for climate policy and a bad signal for progress of Germany's energy switch," said Gerald Neubauer, a campaigner for Greenpeace, which demonstrated against lignite strip-mining at three locations in Berlin and in neighboring Brandenburg on Friday. "The Merkel government doesn't do enough to protect the climate anymore."
The Green Party, Germany's second-biggest opposition group, is against building new coal plants and prefers natural gas.
Merkel herself has expressed concern about the shift, saying at an energy conference in Berlin on June 12 that "it can't be right in the long term" that the market favors coal over cleaner-burning natural gas.
Even so, Germany emitted the equivalent of 931 million metric tons of CO2 equivalents last year, which was up from 917 million tons the year before, the Environment Ministry said in February.