Germany's Eco-Trap: Is Environmentalism Really Working?

Germany is among the world leaders when it comes to taking steps to save the environment. But many of the measures are not delivering the promised results. Biofuels have led to the clear-cutting of rainforests, plastics are being burned rather than recycled and new generation lightbulbs have led to a resurgence of mercury production. A SPIEGEL survey.

Rapeseed for biofuels and wind generators for clean electricity -- against a backdrop of a coal-fired power station in Germany. Zoom
DPA

Rapeseed for biofuels and wind generators for clean electricity -- against a backdrop of a coal-fired power station in Germany.

As usual, ordinary Germans were to blame. Everything had been prepared for the green revolution: fresh supplies and new signs at the gas stations, and the refinery depots were full to the brim with the new wonderfuel. But then drivers turned their backs on the new era. They didn't want to buy E10, a blend of ethanol and gasoline, even through it cost almost 10 cents less per liter than conventional gas.

"It's annoying but there's no question of stopping the sale of E10," said Environment Minister Norbert Röttgen. E10, Röttgen said with a hint of threat in his voice, was a milestone of German climate control policy.

When it comes to the environment these days, all other interests must take a back seat, including possible engine damage from E10. After all, the United Nations has proclaimed that ensuring environmental sustainability is one of its "millennium goals," and greater importance is assigned to climate negotiations among the big industrial nations than to economic summits these days.

All the serious political parties devote large parts of their policy programs to environmental policy. In the coalition deal between Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives and the pro-business Free Democrats, protecting the climate comes ahead of education and internal security in the list of policy priorities. The government is as committed to promoting the development of electric cars as it is to expanding renewable energies and protecting fish stocks in German rivers.

There is no issue that produces such unanimity among the parties. A proposal to increase tax credits for employees led to weeks of political debate, while the 2009 European Union ban on conventional light bulbs was approved without a single debate in parliament. As soon as the word environment is mentioned in any policy initiatives, all discussion becomes redundant.

Great Crested News and 50 Million Euros

And no price seems too high. Germany even spends tens of millions of euros on redirecting roads or building tunnels to protect animal species. Last August, for example, a four kilometer long, €50 million tunnel was approved for a highway in the state of Hesse. The reason? A colony of great crested newts had to be protected.

Germans usually obediently go along with environmental measures, in fact they're a model people when it comes to green living. They carefully sort their rubbish, take their bottles back to the supermarket and put their batteries in special containers. When they were told to have carbon filters fitted to their cars, they did so without complaining. And of course they're at the forefront when it comes to attaching solar panels to their roofs or insulating their homes.

Germans only rarely question environmental policies. The light bulb ban was one example. Most didn't see the need to scrap conventional bulbs when the simplest way to save electricity was just to turn off the light. And Germans have been unusually stubborn about the biofuel E10 -- the name refers to the 10 percent ethanol admixture. They would prefer to pay a few more cents fpr a liter of gas than put their car engines at risk.

Many haven't yet fully realized that E10 is an ecological swindle. People who want to help the environment shouldn't use it. Nine large European environmental associations recently conducted a joint study which concluded that the bottom line impact of the fuel on the environment is negative. Rainforests are being clear-cut in Brazil and Borneo to make room for sugarcane and oil palm cultivation. At the same time there's a shortage of arable land for food production, which is leading to the threat of famine in parts of the world. Last year, the price of grain rose sharply in the global market.

A single full tank of bio-ethanol uses up as much grain as an adult can eat in a whole year. In order to cover the German requirement for biofuel, an arable area of around one million hectares would be needed. That is four times the size of the south-western German state of Saarland, which would need to be fertilized, treated with pesticides and intensively farmed. Environmental groups say that across Europe, farming for biofuels would create up to 56 million tons of additional greenhouse gases -- an environmental crime they say must be stopped immediately.

Diminishing Utility

But it's too late for that. Farming and industry have already made the conversion. Germany has devoted huge tracts of farmland to producing maize (for biogas), rapeseed (for biodiesel) and sugar beet and wheat (for biopetrol).

Not everything that looks green serves the environment. The ecological principle of proceeding with care doesn't seem to apply to environmental policy. The more, the better, seems to be the principle. No one is calculating whether all the billions being invested in protecting the environment are actually being spent wisely. Ordinary citizens can't judge it and many experts have no interest in shedding any light on this aspect because their livelihoods are at stake.

A large amount of money flows into studies, risk assessments and providing seals of approval. In many cases, a closer look at environmental measures reveals that they're expensive and don't have much effect. German environmental standards are so high already that it would require an enormous expense to achieve further improvements -- especially in comparison with less developed nations such as China, India or the former Eastern bloc states.

In economics, it's called the law of diminishing marginal utility. The first glass of water you drink will help a lot to quench your thirst. The second will help a little less and so on. By the 10th glass you will be feeling unpleasantly full or even sick. That's the worst aspect: some major environmental policies aren't just ineffective -- they are counterproductive.

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