SPIEGEL Interview with BASF CEO Jürgen Hambrecht 'I Have a Problem with the Term Climate Change'

Jürgen Hambrecht is CEO of the largest chemical company in the world, BASF. SPIEGEL spoke with him about German environmental policy, what to do about global warming, and how the 12th century wasn't all that bad.


Climate change is a major concern in Europe. But should environmental measures be allowed to harm the economy?
BASF

Climate change is a major concern in Europe. But should environmental measures be allowed to harm the economy?

SPIEGEL: Mr. Hambrecht, to reduce the effects of climate change Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel is calling for the "fundamental transformation of industrial society." Have you already embarked on this transformation at BASF, the world's largest chemical corporation?

Hambrecht: A corporation that competes internationally must change constantly, but in three dimensions, only one of which is environmental protection. Economic efficiency and social sustainability are also part of the mix. After all, I am responsible for 95,000 employees and their families.

SPIEGEL: There are, of course, conflicts among these three dimensions.

Hambrecht: Yes, but one thing is clear: I cannot reach the other objectives without economic success.

SPIEGEL: Is Gabriel's demand too one-sided, in your opinion?

Hambrecht: Mr. Gabriel is like a whirlwind. He chases the cloud across the land, but he doesn't really care where the wind is coming from, just that it blows strongly. What Mr. Gabriel is asking for is a pipe dream. I would like to know whether he even supports Germany as a site for industrial production. What does he want? The transformation of industry into a service economy? Then he should say so.

SPIEGEL: Will you give voice to this criticism at the next energy summit on July 3, when you and other corporate leaders will meet with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other government officials?

Hambrecht: Of course. We cannot continue along the current trajectory. Everything is currently determined by environmental policy, but an energy policy worth its salt doesn't exist. Where do we stand on nuclear power? Will coal have a future in Germany? These are questions we must urgently discuss. Instead, politicians are constantly setting new, unrealistic goals.

SPIEGEL: Such as?

Hambrecht: Mr. Gabriel wants to increase annual growth in energy productivity from one to three percent.

SPIEGEL: What's wrong with that?

Hambrecht: Energy productivity must indeed be increased, but three percent is a completely unrealistic target.

SPIEGEL: How does the government arrive at three percent?

Hambrecht: By simple arithematic. The coalition agreement calls for doubling energy productivity in Germany from 1990 to 2020. In reality, however, it has only grown by 0.9 percent per year in recent years. This means that we would need three percent to reach the target, which is completely unrealistic. We're already on the cutting edge when it comes to efficiency, together with Japan.

SPIEGEL: Gabriel has presented an eight-point plain with which he claims the three percent goal is achievable.

Hambrecht: The plan is outrageous. For example, it calls for an "an increase in efficiency in transportation and an increase in the share of biofuels to 17 percent." The minister doesn't seem to know what he's talking about. A share of only 10 percent would require the use of up to a third of current agricultural acreage in Germany.

BASF is the world's biggest chemical company.
DER SPIEGEL

BASF is the world's biggest chemical company.

SPIEGEL: Brazil plans to grow plants for biodiesel on a large scale.

Hambrecht: None of this is as easy as it seems, and certainly not on a global scale. Growing plants to produce biofuels competes with food production and also requires a lot of energy and water. Either way, it won't be feasible without genetic engineering and genetically modified crops.

SPIEGEL: The use of biofuels is only one of eight points in Gabriel's program.

Hambrecht: The next one gets me even more fired up: "Reduction of emissions of other greenhouse gases, such as methane." Methane! Who produces methane? Cows, sheep and goats. If we could break Germany's entire livestock population of the habit of eating and digesting, we would save only 18 million tons, instead of the 40 million Mr. Gabriel wants. We shouldn't be dreaming. We need more candor!

SPIEGEL: You are considered one of Merkel's key advisors. What does she say about your allegations?

Hambrecht: We must help the chancellor at the energy summit. But more reasonable views are gradually taking hold -- finally. New scenarios are being calculated.

SPIEGEL: The chancellor portrays herself on the international stage as someone anxious to protect the climate. Shouldn't Germany be setting an example in this respect?

Hambrecht: Ambitious goals are a good thing, but we must be realistic. I am opposed to our going it alone as a country, which would be detrimental to our competitiveness.

SPIEGEL: The energy summit planned for the beginning of July is already expected to issue recommendations. What do you expect?

BASF CEO Jürgen Hambrecht is skeptical about Germany's energy productivity goals as laid out by Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel.
DPA

BASF CEO Jürgen Hambrecht is skeptical about Germany's energy productivity goals as laid out by Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel.

Hambrecht: All discrepancies must be discussed openly, and then we must agree on which initial conditions should go into the joint final analysis. It is only on this sort of joint basis that we can issue recommendations capable of enduring in the future.

SPIEGEL: And if you don't achieve this?

Hambrecht: Then certain individuals will probably no longer attend these meetings in the future.

SPIEGEL: Will you be one of them?

Hambrecht: It's possible.

SPIEGEL: You say that what the government is calling for is completely unrealistic. What is realistic?

Hambrecht: Realistic is what is doable without harming the economy. Otherwise we will be solving supposed problems by de-industrializing Germany. We are one of the few Western economies that still has a large, well-functioning system of industrial production. If politicians no longer want energy-intensive companies in Germany they should be honest about it.

SPIEGEL: No one wants to drive out industry. But why shouldn't there be other ways to increase energy efficiency?

Hambrecht: Industry has already done a great deal on its own in the past, including adherence to substantial voluntary obligations. And we will continue to do a lot in the future. But we have already moved far up the learning curve. Climate protection that doesn't make sense economically translates into the loss of jobs to other countries.

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