The 2 Degree Life What You Can Do to Stop Climate Change

Earth's temperature will continue to rise in the long term if politicians are unable to reach a global agreement on climate protection. But people also need to be asking themselves: Could a new way of life in Europe help prevent a catastrophe?



Editor's note: This week the United National Climate Change Conference began in Copenhagen. World leaders are seeking a common path to limit global warming. Most climate researchers are united in their belief that any increase of the planet's temperature over 2 degrees in the coming years would have disastrous consequences. In the first of a three-part series, SPIEGEL describes what the politicians and citizens of Europe can do to help keep climate change at bay. This is the first installment of a two-part initial story in the series. Read the second part here.

Georg Fürtges's pride and joy is a green monstrosity standing in the basement of his house in the western German city of Essen, hissing quietly and consuming dark little pellets that look like worms. The pellets, stored in bins reaching up to the ceiling in another room, are made of compressed sawdust. And the monstrosity is a furnace that is at least three times as big as a modern condensing gas boiler. Fürtges, 55, and his wife Karla, 49, have 6.4 tons of the pellets stored in their basement, enough to meet their heating needs for a year and a half. The couple has decided to live in an environmentally friendly way.

They have been doing so for more than 20 years, partly because they have three children and are thinking ahead, beyond their own life spans. They have made mistakes, but they have also learned a lot. They remain convinced that their approach is the right one, but they also know that a life devoted to living green can only be had at a high price. Georg Fürtges spent an entire year researching heating systems before he recently replaced his old gas furnace with a pellet furnace combined with a solar thermal heating system. Some of the pipes in the house had to be replaced. All told, it cost Fürtges €27,000 ($40,200) to retrofit his home. He would have paid about €10,000 for a modern gas furnace.

"We believe that it will pay off in the long term," says Karla Fürtges. The couple bought their small 1930s house in Stadtwald, an Essen neighborhood, 16 years ago. The heating system was old, the windows weren't insulated and the house lacked effective heat insulation.

The couple began by insulating the outside walls. Then they purchased the costly new gas furnace and had vinyl thermopane windows installed. The insulation alone brought down their annual natural gas consumption from 22,000 to 12,000 kilowatt hours. An average household currently consumes almost twice as much gas.

Greening their Lives

Karla Fürtges works for the city of Herne, while her husband is employed by a local regional development agency. For them, €27,000 is a lot of money to spend on a new heating system, and yet they have even more plans for their house. Their next purchase will be an outdoor rainwater collection tank to supply water for their dishwasher and washing machine.

The Fürtges' living room is furnished with a light-colored wooden table and dark leather armchairs. A large flat-screen TV is mounted on the wall, and there is a stereo system in a cabinet. But none of the standby lights are lit, because all of their electronic devices are plugged into power strips so that they can be disconnected at the flick of a switch. An electronic thermostat on the wall next to the door regulates the heat for the entire house.

The Fürtges are also avid recyclers. Still, there is one price they have not been ready to pay in order to save the environment: The family has been unwilling to give up its car. Karla Fürtges drives to work in her Renault Kangoo. She could take a train or a bus, but then her commute would take an hour and a half, which is almost three times as long as it takes her by car.

An Ugly Blemish

Driving is a sensitive subject in the Fürtges household. Georg has a driver's license, but he never drives himself. Sometimes he gets a ride to work with his wife. Other times the couple argues fiercely over whether it is still cycling weather or time to start driving. Cars are an ugly blemish on the environmental balance sheet. But at the same time, losing two hours a day to commuting is also significant.

The Fürtges know, of course, that they can't save the world and its climate alone. "But we do believe that it's important to make progress," says Georg Fürtges. "We can't exactly expect the Chinese to change their lifestyle if we're not prepared to do the same."

After recognizing early on that mankind overexploits the Earth, the Fürtges tried to live their lives in a sustainable way, accepting a few hardships in return. "One doesn't do it for financial reasons," says Fürtges. "One does it partly for the soul." But their efforts, despite the benefits to their own souls, haven't exactly done the planet a lot of good.

Do We Need a Personal Climate Policy?

Because of the excessive greenhouse gas emissions into the Earth's atmosphere caused by human activity, climate change could soon become a serious threat. The vast majority of climatologists agree that average temperatures on Earth cannot rise by more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), if the worst is to be averted.

At the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, which opened on Monday, politicians and experts from around the world will seek to negotiate an agreement to delay climate change. The outcome of the two-week summit remains uncertain, although many Asian nations have already announced that they consider a concrete deal to be impossible.

If global politics fails when faced with this monumental task, the question of national climate policy becomes all the more urgent. What can an individual country do to avert a potential catastrophe? Can a country like Germany achieve anything at all if countries with very large populations, like China and India, do too little? And should citizens simply bide their time until German Chancellor Angela Merkel and US President Barack Obama can reach an agreement with other world leaders?

The question centers on the issue of personal climate policy. Might it be necessary for each individual to change his or her life, as the Fürtges have done? It is a question of how much each individual is willing to sacrifice; a tedious and unpleasant question that can no longer be avoided. Are the days of our comfortable Western lifestyles numbered, or can we look forward to a new and different approach to the good life?

A team of five SPIEGEL editors has addressed these questions intensively in recent weeks. Our reporters conducted research in Germany, Mexico, Sweden, Great Britain and Indonesia in order to come up with a non-exhaustive list of ways that politicians and citizens alike can contribute to the fight against climate change. The reporters all agreed with the assessment of climatologists that a great deal must be done.


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