Leading German Climate Expert: 'Kyoto Has Only Carrots and No Sticks'

Global carbon dioxide emissions are continuing to grow, but prospects for a worldwide climate policy were diminished even further in Durban, South Africa, this week. In an interview, environmental policy expert Klaus Töpfer explains what steps need to be taken and why Germany will face greater challenges than most other countries in its battle against CO2.

A coal-fired power plant in Germany: The country has a "massive responsibility" with its shift to cleaner energy, argues environment expect Klaus Töpfer. Zoom
AP

A coal-fired power plant in Germany: The country has a "massive responsibility" with its shift to cleaner energy, argues environment expect Klaus Töpfer.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Just after the climate summit in Durban, Canada withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol -- apparently because the country wants to avoid having to pay emissions penalties that could be in the billions. What do you think of that?

Töpfer: It didn't surprise me. Canada is one of the three countries that said before the summit that they wanted to withdraw from the protocol. The other two are Japan and Russia. Even before that, Canada had not fulfilled its obligations under the Kyoto Protocol. The decision coming now shows that, at the Durban summit, everything was achieved that was feasible under these circumstances. But it was in no way a breakthrough in climate policy.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: But isn't it a design flaw of an international treaty if a country can simply withdraw in order to escape penalties?

Töpfer: One is always wiser with hindsight. The right to give notice is a design flaw. However, the main problem with the Kyoto Protocol is that there is hardly any enforceable means for implementing the agreements. In other words, there are only carrots and no sticks.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: You have described the result in Durban as being the best possible. By doing that aren't you ignoring the fact that a compromise has been agreed to which envisions no concrete date for CO2 goals and one for which it is unclear whether it is actually legally binding?

Töpfer: I may come across as overly optimistic in that respect. But the summit had come close to failure! The fact that didn't happen is the first success. Secondly, climate policy may not have progressed in terms of content, but it has structurally. Now a fundamental review of the procedures and implementation will have to be undertaken.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What do you mean by that?

Töpfer: It is a success with many Ifs -- and we will have to wait and see whether a new treaty takes shape in Qatar (in 2012). But one thing is clear: The European Union has succeeded in staying the course with a discernible, consistent and tough strategy. We have also brought more partners on board, the developing nations. That is important because these countries suffer the most from climate change. Until now they always stood on the side of the Chinese in voting against the treaty. That represents a revolutionary change.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: China, the world's greatest emitter of carbon dioxide, is still insisting that no binding CO2 limits be formulated. Will the Europeans be able to use the summit decision in order to apply pressure on China? Or on the United States?

Töpfer: No. Pressure from outside doesn't yield much. But the pressure from inside, especially in China, has since increased significantly. Climate change will cause serious harm to the country, and the Chinese recognize that. Just as they have the necessity for a different energy policy -- especially for economic reasons. And the priority for developing nations is already clear: It remains overcoming poverty. We in the West cannot just put on airs and tell the poorer countries not to burn any fossil energies because they are harmful for the climate. They consider that to be arrogance because they can, of course, see what we have been doing for years.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: But what's the alternative?

Töpfer: We have to point out the advantages. You can become independent of the price fluctuations and supply problems of fossil energy sources; you can take advantage of your own resources. Geothermal in Kenya or solar energy in North Africa, for example. By doing so, these countries will become independent, the innovations will aid them in their development process and at the same time it will have a positive effect on the climate.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Germany is considered the global trailblazer when it comes to climate policy. Nonetheless, you recently said that not even that is sufficient. Why?

Töpfer: Then and now, Germany is a driving force in climate policy. And I am not the only person who sees it that way: Even industry is getting anxious. We need to implement the energy revolution (Chancellor Angela Merkel's ambitious plan to phase out all nuclear energy and massively increase reliance on sustainable energies in the coming years) far more stringently and insistently. It cannot come at the expense of climate change.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What do you mean in concrete terms?

Töpfer: For the implementation of the energy revolution within 10 years, we will need a manager for the energy transformation because it is one of the biggest projects we have going in Germany. It will require professional management that can control the developments in the transformation and incorporate civil society and, of course, the companies. One also has to state that the way in which Germany responded to the catastrophe in Fukushima was unique in the world. There is no other industrialized country that wants to withdraw from nuclear energy while at the same time emitting ever lower quantities of CO2.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Things probably could have gone easier for Chancellor Angela Merkel's government if it hadn't moved to extend the life spans of Germany's nuclear power plants by an average of 14 years in 2010. By doing so, her government reversed a nuclear phase out that had already been approved by the coalition government of former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's center-left Social Democrats and the Green Party in 2001.

Töpfer: That did indeed increase the political pressure. But even the extension of the life spans at the time didn't call into question the ultimate decision to abandon nuclear power. Now we have a burden of proof. This is because other countries will be saying: You are making our people nervous. They will be asking why Germany is able to forego nuclear power? Why do we need this technology?

SPIEGEL ONLINE: These days, anti-nuclear power protests are even taking place in France, a country that has long promoted atomic energy.

Töpfer: Precisely. The responsibility that Germany has assumed in implementing the energy revolution is a massive one. But it also has to be clear that the share of nuclear energy in Germany of overall consumption is 25 percent, but 80 percent in France. That makes it difficult to draw direct comparisons. Following the Chernobyl disaster, we have gone all out in researching renewable energies and in ensuring that they prevail on the market. Germany now has the duty to prove whether the world's fourth largest economic power, which is so heavily dependent on exports and energy-intensive industries, can remain competitive with such an energy policy. That will be the major challenge in the years ahead.

Interview conducted by Christian Teevs

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About Klaus Töpfer
  • DPA
    Klaus Töpfer, 73, is Germany's most highly regarded expert on environmental issues. The economist switched career paths from science to politics during the 1970s. He was environment minister in the western German state of Rhineland-Palatinate and also at the federal level as a member of Chancellor Helmut Kohl's cabinet beginning in 1987. A member of the conservative Christian Democratic Union party, he exited the political stage in 1998 and moved to Nairobi, where he served as director of the United Nations Development Program.

    In 2006, he returned to Germany. For the past two years, he has served as the head of the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies in Potsdam, which conducts research into issues like sustainability and climate change. Following the catastrophe at Fukushima, the German government appointed him to lead an ethical commission tasked with providing recommendations for the country's shift away from nuclear energy to more sustainable sources.

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