German Environment Minister 'We Must Discuss Climate Change's Devastating Consequences Openly'

In a SPIEGEL interview, German Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel, of the Social Democratic Party, discusses the prospects for climate protection in the economic crisis, the shortcomings of Obama's new emissions policies and the challenges to be faced in Copenhagen this December.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Gabriel, when you became Germany's environment minister in 2005, you were described as an "environmental black box." Is there any light in the box today?

Gabriel: It was nonsense back then, because I began my career as an environmental politician in the state parliament in Lower Saxony, where I was dealing with the problems of heavy metal contamination in the part of the northern Harz Mountains where I come from, as well as in the Harz National Park. However, I have a low opinion of people with narrow political horizons. Someone who talks about the environment and knows nothing about economics can make as many mistakes as someone who does the opposite.

A coal-fired power plant in the German city of Niederaussem: "We have to eliminate our dependency on oil and nuclear energy."

A coal-fired power plant in the German city of Niederaussem: "We have to eliminate our dependency on oil and nuclear energy."

SPIEGEL: Can we image you as a successful case of a reawakening?

Gabriel: Hardly, since I haven't died yet, but if SPIEGEL wants to embark on that esoteric path, please, be my guest ...

SPIEGEL: After having served in other government positions, have you now become a dyed-in-the-wool environmental politician?

Gabriel: In the business of politics, emotions and productive dissatisfaction with the world in which we live today are gradually being covered up by the minutiae of ordinary life. The preoccupation with current environmental issues, the injustices it conceals, the ignorance that threatens entire populations today as a result of environmental destruction, and the burdens we all expect our children to bear, all of these things have brought me back to the questions and emotions that attracted me to the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and politics in the first place.

SPIEGEL: Are you saying that you take environmental problems personally?

Gabriel: Yes, most definitely. Being told about the effects of climate change is an appeal to our reason and to our desire to bring about change. But to see that Africans are the hardest hit by climate change, even though they generate almost no greenhouse gas, is a glaring injustice, which also triggers anger and outrage over those who seek to ignore it.

SPIEGEL: But one cannot claim that the German government is making any particular effort to stop climate change. The measures that have been introduced to date are insufficient to achieve the goal we have set for ourselves, a 40 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020. Are you disappointed by Angela Merkel, the former climate chancellor?

Gabriel: Oh please. We are among a handful of countries in Europe that have exceeded their Kyoto climate protection goals for 2012 in 2008. And we never claimed that have already implemented all the measures that will be needed to reach our goal for the year 2020. We are still about five percentage points behind. But a great deal has been put in motion, from the expansion of renewable energy to the renovation of buildings. And just as an aside, these efforts have created 280,000 new jobs. Our counterparts in other countries, including South Africa, China and India, rate us in a completely different way and see us as role models. So why the criticism?

SPIEGEL: Because Chancellor Merkel had already stopped saying much about climate protection before the financial crisis began, as if she had written off the issue.

German Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel: "We must invest large amounts of money in energy efficiency and eliminating our dependency on oil and nuclear energy."

German Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel: "We must invest large amounts of money in energy efficiency and eliminating our dependency on oil and nuclear energy."

Gabriel: I cannot criticize the chancellor for the things she has achieved internationally. Despite the dramatic financial crisis, she and Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier have managed to convince other European countries not to abandon any of the climate protection targets. On the contrary, we reduced emission rights even further and have finally expanded the trade in emissions credits to a significant degree. My problem with the chancellor is that she allows her own party to torpedo and undermine everything she announces on the international stage. Allowing this to happen is a big mistake, and it undermines her credibility.

SPIEGEL: And what happens to your own credibility, when you reward people for buying cars by paying a so-called environmental premium that makes no environmental sense?

Gabriel: I still call it the scrapping premium, because the main goal is to stabilize auto sales. But the project clearly has an economic impact, because new vehicles emit less CO2 and pollutants per kilometer driven than old ones.

SPIEGEL: But the production of new car consumes enormous resources.

Gabriel: One could take that argument a step further and say: It would be best for the environment if we stopped buying or producing any new products. That would be the way to save the most energy and CO2. The next thing you'll ask me is why the government didn't give people €2,500 ($3,250) to buy tickets for public transportation.

SPIEGEL: At least that would have deserved the name environmental premium.

Gabriel: But, as environment minister, I am very interested in a thriving German automobile industry, because I can only pay for the rising costs of environmental protection at home and abroad if there are people in Germany with jobs and who pay taxes. The increase in expenditures for environmental and climate protection in the federal budget from €875 million ($1.14 billion) under a Green environment minister to €3.4 billion ($4.4 billion) today would not work without the economic success of German industry.

SPIEGEL: Are you saying we should drive cars for the environment?

Gabriel: Slowly, slowly. No one is disputing that the German auto industry has been disastrously tardy in reacting to environmental challenges. And I would have liked to see a significantly stronger emphasis on local public transportation in the €2 billion ($2.6 billion) earmarked for investment in transportation in the economic stimulus package. But this doesn't change the fact that environmentalists should not be making the same mistake, just from the opposite point of view, that some of the unyielding ideologues at the Federation of German Industries (BDI) are still making today: pitting industry and the environmental movement against each other.

SPIEGEL: Only 13 percent of Germany's stimulus funds are slated for environmental measures. There is little evidence here of the "crisis as opportunity" you repeatedly mention.

Gabriel: That puts us in fourth place worldwide, which isn't bad. If you added the money other countries earmark for renewable energy in their national budgets, which goes through the cost of electricity in Germany, we would be even higher up in the ranking, perhaps even at the top.

SPIEGEL: So we should put our hands in our laps and be content with fourth place?

Gabriel: No, of course not. When it comes to the stimulus programs, we have to take even more steps to ensure that the billions we are now spending to revive the economy will have been worthwhile for our children and grandchildren. We must modernize our economy, not preserve it. And to do so, we have to invest large amounts of money in energy efficiency and eliminating our dependency on oil and nuclear energy. This will make us more competitive as we emerge from the crisis than when it began. The environmental industry, with its new technologies, is the biggest market worldwide. We must retain our leading position, because other countries, like the United States, have started to compete with us.

SPIEGEL: US President Barack Obama is depriving the Germans of their leadership role in climate protection?

Gabriel: No, but his economic stimulus programs are good, and he introduced an overdue change of direction in climate policy. But as far as concrete reduction targets are concerned, his current proposals are still not sufficient. America remains well removed from the European targets and the necessary international targets in climate protection. Many in politics are so pleased about the new American administration that they want to be nothing but nice to the United States. But in doing so, we fail to recognize that the American president, no matter who he is, will always strongly champion American interests.

SPIEGEL: Obama has offered to reduce American CO2 emissions to 1990 levels by 2020.

Gabriel: But that is still far from enough. International climate scientists believe it is vital that we reduce CO2 emissions by 2020 to a level 25 to 40 percent lower than in 1990. And the developing and emerging nations expect serious efforts on the part of the industrialized nations. The Americans must also show some movement if the December climate summit in Copenhagen is to be a success. Otherwise, many will hide behind the United States. If that happens, our efforts will fall far short of what is needed to stop climate change and its devastating consequences. We must now discuss this openly worldwide.

  • Part 1: 'We Must Discuss Climate Change's Devastating Consequences Openly'
  • Part 2

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