SPIEGEL Interview with German Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel: 'Butting Heads with the Americans Doesn't Do Any Good'

German Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel, 48, discusses the costs of the European Union's new climate protection plan, his party's desire to impose a speed limit on the German autobahn and the need to work together with the Americans.

German Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel: "The British have to replace their nuclear power plants with new ones because they invested too little in renewable energy sources."
REUTERS

German Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel: "The British have to replace their nuclear power plants with new ones because they invested too little in renewable energy sources."

SPIEGEL: Mr. Gabriel, we took a look into the archives and searched for articles that contained the terms "Gabriel" and "climate protection" -- specifically, before you became Germany's environment minister.

Sigmar Gabriel: And did you find any articles?

SPIEGEL: One, to be exact. You had just dedicated the Wybelsumer Polder wind farm. We have the impression that your favorite topic today is something you couldn't have cared less about in the past.

Gabriel: I wouldn't say that I didn't care about it. But it's true that I certainly hadn't investigated the issue at length.

SPIEGEL: You were sleeping.

Gabriel: We were all sleeping, including SPIEGEL. For a long time, climate protection was a subject for the experts, even though the threat posed by climate change has been known for more than 20 years. As far back as the early 1990s, the Enquete Commission (on Climate Change) in the Bundestag (Germany's parliament) was already dealing with everything we are discussing today.

SPIEGEL: And to what do you attribute this?

Gabriel: The fact is that certain circumstances are necessary to draw attention to this sort of an issue and to get the ball rolling.

SPIEGEL: When you were named environment minister, everyone thought that Gabriel and climate policy go together about as well as (German race car driver) Michael Schumacher and the Tour de France. It just doesn't fit.

Gabriel: That's probably because very few people know that I began my political career as an environmental politician. Of course, the climate wasn't as much of an issue back then. But I worked my way into the subject and became passionate about it.

SPIEGEL: And now you want to save the world. But wouldn't you be promoting an expansion of the autobahn network with the same enthusiasm if you had happened to be appointed Minister of Autobahns?

Gabriel: Politicians don't become cabinet ministers because they have a degree in the subject matter for which they're responsible. We assume a political management task, and it's our job to do it well. However, when it comes to environmental policy, it is perhaps more important than in other areas of politics to be passionate about it, to have an inner conviction.

SPIEGEL: Were you a hypocrite when it came to the climate in the past?

Gabriel: I was a member of the supervisory board at Volkswagen, and of course I was very enthusiastic about technology at the time, especially cars, and their impact on the environment probably doesn't even fit into the scope of climate protection anymore. But it's also important to recognize ecological challenges and ask yourself: "What exactly am I doing here?"

SPIEGEL: That's a question quite a few people ask when Sigmar Gabriel talks about speed limits on the German autobahn. You said last spring that imposing a speed limit would be nothing but a "symbolic policy" that would not help the climate. Then the SPD (Social Democratic Party) party conference reached a different conclusion, and suddenly you're in favor of speed limits.

Gabriel: Compared with the need to save about 500 million tons (of CO2) in Germany, the impact of a speed limit, which would mean a reduction of perhaps 2.5 million tons of CO2, is relatively insignificant. Besides, the SPD should certainly be able to expect its ministers to stand behind resolutions made at party conferences -- especially because this is not a question of conscience. I am currently trying to implement this resolution together with the SPD's parliamentary group.

SPIEGEL: Would a speed limit no longer be a symbolic policy today?

Gabriel: A speed limit of 130 (kilometers per hour, or 80 mph) on German autobahns would probably do little to help the environment if millions of Chinese discover driving in the future. What we really need are different engines and different fuels.

SPIEGEL: Wouldn't the limit be a symbol of sacrifice and moderation?

Gabriel: You're right. And I admit that the adage "small animals also produce manure" is also applicable to climate protection, especially now that the European Union has given us even more ambitious targets.

SPIEGEL: When will there be a draft bill?

Gabriel: The subject is taboo for the Union (the conservative Christian Democratic Union and its sister party, Bavaria's Christian Social Union). I'm convinced that we will see a speed limit, but probably not until after 2009 (when German federal elections take place). Besides Germany, the only countries that don't have speed limits are places like Nepal, where road conditions are so bad that a limit would be beside the point. In other words, it's a little crazy that this is even a topic for debate in Germany.

SPIEGEL: The EU unveiled its climate protection program last week. It calls for even higher reductions in CO2 emissions for Germany by the year 2020 than was originally planned. The Brussels measures alone will cost each citizen €3 ($4.42) a week. Are you concerned that public support for the climate policy will begin to diminish?

Gabriel: My office has a view of low-cost housing, old East German prefabricated apartment buildings. It isn't an attractive view, but it's very helpful, because it reminds me to ask myself, whenever there is a decision to be made, whether the people who live there can afford our decisions. Only if we take social considerations into account will climate protection progress continue to enjoy the support of a majority of people.

SPIEGEL: The EU didn't pay a whole lot of attention to German interests in its climate package. That doesn't exactly help us when it comes to progress.

Gabriel: The European Commission did comply with our wishes to a large extent. Unfortunately, however, it's also true that it doesn't even consider calling countries like Spain, which hasn't met its climate protection obligations by a long shot, to account. We urgently want the Commission to explain to us how it intends to penalize inaction on climate policy in the future.

SPIEGEL: German automakers have been especially vocal critics of the tough climate protection requirements.

A traffic jam on the A2 autobahn in the eastern German state of Saxony-Anhalt: "I am convinced we will see a speed limit."
DPA

A traffic jam on the A2 autobahn in the eastern German state of Saxony-Anhalt: "I am convinced we will see a speed limit."

Gabriel: We support the EU in its goal of requiring that all new vehicles emit an average of only 120 grams of carbon dioxide per kilometer in the future. Where we don't see eye-to-eye with the EU is on the question of whether all parts of the European automobile industry should contribute to this or just the Germans. The Commission isn't even demanding the current state of the art from some manufacturers in Europe. In contrast, the highly efficient (VW) Passat Blue Motion, for example, is already close to the limit at which penalties would have to be paid. This makes neither environmental nor economic sense.

SPIEGEL: Now you're sounding like the German foreign minister.

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