Prescriptions for Saving the Planet: How to Halt the Catastrophe

By SPIEGEL Staff

To keep the planet's temperature from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius, countries must increase their reliance on renewable energies, companies must produce more energy efficient and durable products and consumers must also change their buying behavior.

Photo Gallery: Putting the Brakes on the Coming Catastrophe Photos
REUTERS

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 second installment of a two-part initial story in the series. You can read the first part here.

It is a bleak, vast landscape, deforested as far as the eye can see, with smoke hanging in the air, smoldering fires everywhere and soil that looks like an open wound. Here, in Palangkaraya on the island of Borneo, begins a food chain that ends up in Germany.

The region is one of the centers of the Indonesian palm oil economy. For Rosenda Chandra Kasih, site coordinator for the Indonesian province of Central Kalimantan for the environmental protection organization WWF, the business model is "fail-safe." The proceeds from the sale of lumber produced by felling the area's giant trees are used as seed capital, while the incinerated remains of the forests become fertilizer. Once the forests have been cleared, workers plant endless, militarily precise rows of oil palm seedlings into the charred soil. The first harvest can be brought in after five years. Palm oil, now the world's most popular vegetable oil, is made from the fruits of the trees. Of the 45 million tons placed on the market each year, 10 percent is sold in the European Union.

When they see the words "vegetable oil" printed on the labels of products on German supermarket shelves, most consumers have no idea that there is often a direct and substantial CO2 connection between cookies and cosmetics, cooking oil and prepared foods, shampoos and cream sauces and the destruction of rainforests. A quarter of all worldwide emissions are generated in connection with food production.

The depletion of Indonesian forests is particularly detrimental to the world's climate. In places like Borneo, many rainforests grow in thick layers of peat soil, which contain vast amounts of stored carbon dioxide. When the forests are cleared and the land is drained, the peat releases the carbon dioxide. "Two billion tons of CO2 are generated as a result of the clearing of forests in Indonesia alone, says Kasih, "and the main driving force behind this is the lucrative palm oil business." Two billion tons of CO2 are roughly equivalent to Germany's total greenhouse gas emissions for two years, or about 6 percent of worldwide emissions. Germans consume 13 kilograms (28.6 pounds) of palm oil per capita, which corresponds to 400 kilograms of carbon dioxide emissions. This, in turn, is the equivalent of driving 2,500 kilometers.

A Disastrous Message

Food producers in Germany, which is often touted as an environmentally conscious country, do not voluntarily buy palm oil that is certified as sustainable and, according to the WWF, is produced without destroying rainforests. There is plenty of fallow land in the world where such sustainable cultivation is possible. But oil produced on reclaimed rainforest soil is cheaper, because the land comes complete with free fertilizer.

"Providers of sustainable palm oil have been unable to sell their more environmentally friendly product, which sends a disastrous message," warns the WWF.

The beef industry also leaves a devastating trail of CO2 production in its wake. In Brazil, parts of the Amazon rainforest are being cleared to grow soybeans, which are used for livestock feed. The animals themselves produce methane, a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, in their digestive tract. For each kilogram of beef produced, 36 kilos of CO2 escape into the atmosphere. Every year, Germans consume 88 kilos of meat per capita.

"The composition of our diet holds great potential to reduce CO2 emissions," says Erika Claupein of Germany's Federal Research Institute of Nutrition and Food in the southwestern city of Karlsruhe. Food scientists have developed guidelines for eating in a way that is less harmful to the climate, and that also happens to be healthy:

  • Diets should include more plant-based and significant less animal-based foods;

  • Fresh, unprocessed and regional agricultural products are generally recommended;

  • Rapeseed oil and sunflower oil are high-quality substitutes for palm oil.

Energy Monsters

Anyone who walks through an electronics superstore like America's Best Buy, Britain's Currys or Europe's Saturn can witness the total concentration of electronic life into a paradise of entertainment, communication and tools to make life easier. The store is likely to be filled with blinking lights, sounds and flashy gadgets, from the washing-machine aisle to the TV section, a plethora of electronic equipment: computers, kitchen devices, headphones, MP3 players, and the list goes on. Electronics superstores offer consumers the promise of a pleasant, effortless life, and everything, of course, can be had at a great price.

But almost all of these products consume more resources and electricity than necessary. Their usable life is often too short, and it is not unusual for repairs to cost more than a new device. This electronic parallel world is also consuming more and more energy. According to some calculations, the average electronic alter ego on the Internet uses more electricity than the average consumer in India. And in many cases, the newer a computer is, regardless of its size, the more power it consumes. The good news is that there are efforts to put an end to this madness.

Hope in Green IT

At its Berlin headquarters Strato, a Web hosting service, occupies a 4,000-square meter (43,000-square foot) space covered with a sea of blinking lights and brightly colored cables. Strato's computer center uses as much electricity as a small city of 5,000 households. But this is still a lot less than it was consuming three years ago. That was when René Wienholtz, a member of the management board, happened upon the expression "Green IT" and decided that his computers had to become more eco-friendly.

"Our primary goal was to save electricity," says Wienholtz. "When energy costs skyrocketed in 2006 and 2007, we came under growing pressure to do something about it."

The first step was to arrange the computers in the space to optimize the use of cold and warm air. This produced energy savings of 25 percent. Then the company bought computers that consume significantly less power during off-peak periods. Strato developed the necessary power adaptor internally. "The investments paid off after a year or, at the most, a year and a half," says Wienholtz. Strato now sells and generates revenue with the power adaptor.

The CO2-neutral electricity Strato uses, which comes from hydroelectric power plants, is more expensive than regular power. "We can afford this, because we save so much in other ways," says Wienholtz, who also uses eco-power in his home. According to Strato's own figures, the changes have enabled the company to reduce its energy consumption by 30 percent and its annual CO2 emissions by 15,000 tons.

Entrepreneuers like Wienholtz are the driving force behind the green retrofitting of industry. Companies across the board, from mid-sized service providers to major corporations, stand to achieve enormous savings in energy costs while simultaneously reducing CO2 emissions. Governments and citizens can support the trend toward sustainable products:

  • The so-called "Frontrunner" model is already being used successfully in Japan, where the efficiency values achieved by the best companies quickly become the legal standard for all businesses. Inefficient products automatically disappear from stores. This speeds up progress and rewards ingenuity, and eventually the inefficient products disappear from the market altogether;

  • Products should have longer lives than before and should be easier to repair;

  • Consumers should be able to find information about energy use and CO2 emissions on all products. This leaves it up to the consumer to buy the most eco-friendly products. Higher startup costs are offset by the long-term benefits of lower energy costs.

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