INTERVIEW with NICK REIMER – CLIMATE JOURNALIST
by Anna Maxwell
How do you feel about the political efforts of the Federal Government in the last 30 years regarding climate change?
Germany is an announcement world champion. For 30 years, the German government has been setting itself a climate target without attempting to achieve it. The first target was declared in 1990: A 25 percent reduction by 2005 compared to the 1990 emission level. The target was missed. In 2005 only a 20 percent reduction was achieved. However, this did not prevent the government from quickly issuing a new reduction target: minus 40 percent by 2020, but the declared target was not followed by any policy that would have been suitable to even come close to achieve it. In 2020, emissions will be 33, perhaps 35 percent, but not 40 percent below the 1990 level. But that does not stop politicians from formulating the next reduction target: minus 55 percent by 2030. It is foreseeable: with the climate package that has now been set in motion, this goal will again remain fiction.
The climate package resolved at the beginning of October will not enable the Paris climate targets to be achieved. What would have to happen for politicians to finally decide on permanent and far-reaching measures against climate change?
First, politicians should listen to their scientists again. If they did, they would be horrified at their failures over the past few years. Since the 1980s, science has been saying, “Mayday, mayday, we have a problem”. No other human phenomenon is as well researched as global warming. And science also outlines what the solution should look like: We here, in the rich North, must change our energy-intensive way of life.
Second, we need more pressure on politicians, from the street as in democratic processes: Politicians must be empowered to make decisions in the interest of the common good, as well as in the interest of future generations. Third, we need awareness among the voters that we will only be able to save our good life if we change it today.
CO2 is a colourless and odourless gas and therefore easy to ignore. Would it be necessary to invent glasses that make CO2 visible, so we can make the problem understandable for people in industrialised countries and thus the causer?
In a book I once put it this way: “We humans lack the sense organ for CO2. Else we’d run around screaming.” But that’s not quite the right picture. Take the CFCs, the chlorofluorocarbons, an invisible gas that caused the ozone layer to become so thin that in the 1980s and 1990s mankind was on the verge of self-destruction. The ozone layer protects us from cancer. In Australia, it is now so thin that one in two people suffer from skin cancer at least once in their lives. So there are these sensory organs, with which we perceive that non-visible things still harm us. The problem is that these sensory organs only become perceptible to us when it is too late.
Therefore, I appeal to the sense organ, which is the greatest thing in the world, our brain. A brief mental exercise: 500 million years ago, the average temperature on the Earth’s surface was over 70 degrees. A few million years later, the first unicellular organisms formed, which extracted carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through photosynthesis. The CO2 concentration in the atmosphere decreased and with it the surface temperature of the earth. This allowed the development of multicellular organisms, higher plants, the first trees, which extracted carbon dioxide from the atmosphere much more effectively.
So, step by step and several million years later, the global average temperature reached a cosy 15 degrees, just right for the development of a highly sensitive species, namely humans.
The question is where all the carbon dioxide that was removed from the atmosphere has gone. The dead plants have been sedimented, petrified, liquefied in a process that took millions of years, permanently buried in the ground as coal, oil and natural gas. Nature fantastically made it possible for a gas to become a rock – anthracite, coal or peat – or a brew, liquid, gaseous hydrocarbons. And that this stored carbon dioxide has disappeared forever into the ground.
Unfortunately, mankind came up with the idea of digging up these CO2 reservoirs again, to make this process, which existed for millions of years in our favour, reversible. That means burning this stuff again and thus reheating the CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere, at a speed a thousand times faster than nature could ever do the other way around.
If we analyse this process with our sensory organ, the brain, we do not need a CO2 organ or CO2 glasses. Then we would realise that we simply cannot afford this CO2 – intensive life anymore.
Germany was considered a pioneer in climate protection for a long time. Was this picture ever justified?
Absolutely! If this red-green government had not existed with its Renewable Energies Act, I believe that any fight against the climate crisis would be lost today.
If a power plant is built in Iran today, it will not be a coal-fired power station, but a solar power station. Because this renewable energy law, this German law, has ensured that the technology has become so cheap that today it is much cheaper to generate electricity CO2-free from solar energy or wind energy. The original German engineering spirit, driven by clever funding, has ensured that the world has any chance of surviving the climate battle. Without it, this would not have happened.
The costs of this law are often discussed in Germany. But you can also see it differently. “I am proud that with my electricity bill I have ensured that the world has cheap solar power and therefore a chance to survive this climate battle.”
Germany was a pioneer for a long time. Unfortunately, the CDU has never permeated the climate crisis intellectually. The CDU always says it wants to support, not prohibit. But you can’t do without bans on this issue. And, to reawaken the brain or get back to appeal to the brain: What is evolutionary about the fact that 70 kg of human can be driven through the city in 7.2 seconds in a 2.8-ton SUV with an acceleration from 0 to 100? What is sensible, desirable, reasonable about this? This is war against the environment and must, therefore, be prohibited.
Germany will miss its climate protection targets for 2020. What effects will it have on other countries, especially so-called developing countries, which will feel the climate crisis much more strongly?
It will have dramatic consequences. After all, the Federal Republic of Germany set out in 1990 under the motto: “We can do it, we will show the world how climate protection works”. The German engineering spirit still has a good reputation “Made in Germany” is valued, no matter whether it concerns a Siemens turbine or a Mercedes. Many countries are now asking themselves: If Germany can’t make it, who will? Because, of course, the energy revolution requires not only technical solutions but also money that is available for investment.
If you add up the greenhouse gases that Germany has caused since the Industrial Revolution, you get a historic climate debt. This is why we have a duty to develop solutions. Why should China start developing new technologies for climate protection? Anyone who develops new technologies needs a learning curve and this costs money. The German electricity consumers first had to be willing to invest money in such a learning curve at the beginning of the century.
I often hear the argument: Germany is only responsible for two percent of global emissions. That’s true, but we only have one percent of the world’s population. Our emissions are well above the global average, another moral obligation to start protecting the climate.
Over 1.4 million people took part in the worldwide climate strike in Germany, but after that, it became relatively quiet again in the streets and the climate struggle was again left to the pupils of the “Fridays for Future” movement. Where are the students in the fight against climate change? Is there no more time to protest and interfere in politics because of Bologna? Even the working society is hardly committed to climate protection. Is this a symptom of our current society or are the masses simply still too uninformed?
Luisa Neubauer is one of the prominent “Fridays-for- Future” faces, a student. In this respect, it’s not only schoolchildren who go there, but you also meet students on the street. Secondly, we just had an “Extinction Rebellion” in Berlin. For a week, mostly young people came here, often student audiences, and occupied the streets. They say: “No more like this!” I am delighted about a “revival” of the climate movement that already existed in the mid-2000s, at that time the worldwide “Climate Justice” movement. I would like to see us achieve a situation like that in East Germany in 1989, and for the street to create pressure that turns the conditions upside down.
Since 2013 there has been a collapse in the expansion of solar energy in Germany after the then Minister of Environment Peter Altmaier and one year later the Minister of Economics Sigmar Gabriel massively reduced the subsidies for solar power. At present, the annual increase in total renewable energies is 6.6 gigawatts per year. To achieve the climate protection targets, we would need 16.6. How do such paradoxical political decisions come about?
This is not a paradoxical decision. The CDU is a conservative party that stands for capitalism. But the expansion of renewable energies, that is in a way Marxist redistribution. The Renewable Energies Act says: If you want to build a plant on your roof, then we as legislator guarantee that you can sell your product – solar power – for 20 years, in other words, feed it into the grid. Even more: We guarantee you a purchase price so that you are creditworthy to the bank. With this, anyone could build a solar plant on the roof and thus wrest means of production from the energy companies and own them themselves. And “everyone” means everyone, including those who do not have their own roof: Nearly one million Germans are involved in citizen energy cooperatives, which promote the energy revolution.
This has two side effects: Firstly, the Renewable Energy Sources Act has led to democratisation, because anyone who owns solar plants, wind power shares or citizen’s solar shares is naturally interested in how social framework conditions for their production means develop. However, this also mobilised counterforces: the old fossil companies such as RWE, Eon or EnBW have of course not stood idly by and watched their market shares being taken away year after year from those who were previously their paying customers.
The Union still sees itself as the lobby of big business, which is why the laws were changed so that Max Mustermann can no longer build a wind turbine, the communities can no longer build a communal solar plant, the redistribution stops. With the old coal-SPD, this could be done quite well: as long as the fossil fuel companies are still allowed to burn coal, they will not fully adapt to renewable energies. Why should RWE compete against its old amortised coal-fired power plant with a new wind turbine? The coal phase-out is scheduled for 2038.
The climate conference, which was supposed to take place in 2019 in Chile, was canceled because of the ongoing protests. Development Minister Gerd Müller has proposed that the climate conference should only take place every two years. With the statement: “It cannot be appropriate that every year 20,000 people fly halfway around the globe for 14 days”. Are such conferences a waste of resources or are they essential measures to reach the 1.5-degree target?
Counterproposal: The Formula 1 World Championship will only take place every ten years. There are always so many fans flying to the races, that’s a waste of resources, we can’t afford it anymore. Strangely enough, the argument of wasting resources only ever comes up at climate conferences, never at Eurovision Song Contests, Olympic Games or art biennials.
What the Development Minister has proposed is nonsense! Climate conferences are based on the 1992 Framework Convention on Climate Change, which determines climate diplomacy, which must end with a climate conference at the end of a year. Climate conferences usually begin as early as May, and the first working meeting to set the negotiating agenda for the year is held in Bonn, where the UN Climate Change Secretariat is based. This is then processed by the climate diplomats at many meetings around the world. This results in a negotiating text which must then be passed at the end of a year: It must be agreed by every member of the UN.
So the climate conference is there to confirm the work of the climate diplomats at the end of a year. If this were to be done every two years, the treaty texts would be so gigantic and confusing that the politicians would no longer be able to decide anything. If, at the end of a year, politicians already have difficulties in recognising and confirming this progress, how will it be possible after two years?
Climate diplomacy is one of the most successful communication projects that humanity has ever undertaken. The mere fact that all states agreed on how to measure greenhouse gases, how to report their greenhouse gas emissions to the UN, how to make them comparable and controllable by other UN members, can hardly be overestimated. Imagine this in the nuclear program: Iranian inspectors travel to the US to inspect US nuclear facilities. Unthinkable!
But of course, it is also true: the progress generated by the climate conferences is too little to solve the problem! The recent climate summit in Madrid has shown this once again.
Our world will change whether we want it to or not, but the question is whether we shape this change ourselves or just wait. What do you think is the next step to be taken to prevent a global catastrophe?
It is always difficult to ask the global question because it is so complex. Let us stick to the local level, the German level. The first thing we need immediately is a coal phase-out, say by 2025. That is possible, at least for lignite: Germany already exports so much electricity that it could supply the Netherlands and Belgium right away. Secondly, we really must regulate life. Flying from Berlin to Cologne is nonsense, the time saved is out of all proportion to the damage we are imposing on future generations. If politicians do not want to ban such flights, then they must regulate: make them 50 times more expensive and use the money to establish climate-friendly technologies on the market.
We need a solar revolution; the expansion of renewables must be accelerated rather than slowed down: Where, after all, will the green electricity that our electric cars will use in the future come from? Cities must become car-free, public transport free of charge. We need a personal greenhouse gas account, meaning a chip card with a credit balance of 5 tons per year: if you produce more greenhouse gases, you have to pay up. Meat every day? That will no longer be possible!
We must wake up and realise what opportunities, what qualities this new life will have. For this we need role models who show what the beautiful world of tomorrow will look like: On the Danish island of Samsø, a good 3,600 people have been living “climate neutral” for a long time. And if we Germans succeed in doing the same, then Indians, Chinese or Arabs will certainly become curious.
Until 2016, Nick Reimer was editor-in-chief of the online magazine “klimaretter.info”. Together with Toralf Staud, he founded the web portal, for which both received the 2008 Media Award in the category New Media. He works as a freelance journalist and author.
Nick Reimer studied fuel and environmental process engineering, joined a traineeship at the “Berliner Zeitung” and wrote, among other things for the “Zeit” and the “taz”. From 1996 he worked as a reporter of the “Morgenpost” in Saxony and 1998 as a correspondent of the “taz”. Later he became an economic editor there. Together with Toralf Staud he wrote the book “Wir Klimaretter” in 2007 and 2015 “Schlusskonferenz – Geschichte und Zukunft der Klimadiplomatie” was published.