Photo Gallery: Putting the Brakes on the Coming Catastrophe

Foto: dpa Picture-Alliance / epa Jurna/ picture-alliance/ dpa

The 2 Degree Life What You Can Do to Stop Climate Change

Earth's temperature will continue to rise in the long term if politicians are unable to reach a global agreement on climate protection. But people also need to be asking themselves: Could a new way of life in Europe help prevent a catastrophe?

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 first installment of a two-part initial story in the series. Read the second part here .

Georg Fürtges's pride and joy is a green monstrosity standing in the basement of his house in the western German city of Essen, hissing quietly and consuming dark little pellets that look like worms. The pellets, stored in bins reaching up to the ceiling in another room, are made of compressed sawdust. And the monstrosity is a furnace that is at least three times as big as a modern condensing gas boiler. Fürtges, 55, and his wife Karla, 49, have 6.4 tons of the pellets stored in their basement, enough to meet their heating needs for a year and a half. The couple has decided to live in an environmentally friendly way.

They have been doing so for more than 20 years, partly because they have three children and are thinking ahead, beyond their own life spans. They have made mistakes, but they have also learned a lot. They remain convinced that their approach is the right one, but they also know that a life devoted to living green can only be had at a high price. Georg Fürtges spent an entire year researching heating systems before he recently replaced his old gas furnace with a pellet furnace combined with a solar thermal heating system. Some of the pipes in the house had to be replaced. All told, it cost Fürtges €27,000 ($40,200) to retrofit his home. He would have paid about €10,000 for a modern gas furnace.

"We believe that it will pay off in the long term," says Karla Fürtges. The couple bought their small 1930s house in Stadtwald, an Essen neighborhood, 16 years ago. The heating system was old, the windows weren't insulated and the house lacked effective heat insulation.

The couple began by insulating the outside walls. Then they purchased the costly new gas furnace and had vinyl thermopane windows installed. The insulation alone brought down their annual natural gas consumption from 22,000 to 12,000 kilowatt hours. An average household currently consumes almost twice as much gas.

Greening their Lives

Karla Fürtges works for the city of Herne, while her husband is employed by a local regional development agency. For them, €27,000 is a lot of money to spend on a new heating system, and yet they have even more plans for their house. Their next purchase will be an outdoor rainwater collection tank to supply water for their dishwasher and washing machine.

The Fürtges' living room is furnished with a light-colored wooden table and dark leather armchairs. A large flat-screen TV is mounted on the wall, and there is a stereo system in a cabinet. But none of the standby lights are lit, because all of their electronic devices are plugged into power strips so that they can be disconnected at the flick of a switch. An electronic thermostat on the wall next to the door regulates the heat for the entire house.

The Fürtges are also avid recyclers. Still, there is one price they have not been ready to pay in order to save the environment: The family has been unwilling to give up its car. Karla Fürtges drives to work in her Renault Kangoo. She could take a train or a bus, but then her commute would take an hour and a half, which is almost three times as long as it takes her by car.

An Ugly Blemish

Driving is a sensitive subject in the Fürtges household. Georg has a driver's license, but he never drives himself. Sometimes he gets a ride to work with his wife. Other times the couple argues fiercely over whether it is still cycling weather or time to start driving. Cars are an ugly blemish on the environmental balance sheet. But at the same time, losing two hours a day to commuting is also significant.

The Fürtges know, of course, that they can't save the world and its climate alone. "But we do believe that it's important to make progress," says Georg Fürtges. "We can't exactly expect the Chinese to change their lifestyle if we're not prepared to do the same."

After recognizing early on that mankind overexploits the Earth, the Fürtges tried to live their lives in a sustainable way, accepting a few hardships in return. "One doesn't do it for financial reasons," says Fürtges. "One does it partly for the soul." But their efforts, despite the benefits to their own souls, haven't exactly done the planet a lot of good.

Do We Need a Personal Climate Policy?

Because of the excessive greenhouse gas emissions into the Earth's atmosphere caused by human activity, climate change could soon become a serious threat. The vast majority of climatologists agree that average temperatures on Earth cannot rise by more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), if the worst is to be averted.

At the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, which opened on Monday, politicians and experts from around the world will seek to negotiate an agreement to delay climate change. The outcome of the two-week summit remains uncertain, although many Asian nations have already announced that they consider a concrete deal to be impossible.

If global politics fails when faced with this monumental task, the question of national climate policy becomes all the more urgent. What can an individual country do to avert a potential catastrophe? Can a country like Germany achieve anything at all if countries with very large populations, like China and India, do too little? And should citizens simply bide their time until German Chancellor Angela Merkel and US President Barack Obama can reach an agreement with other world leaders?

The question centers on the issue of personal climate policy. Might it be necessary for each individual to change his or her life, as the Fürtges have done? It is a question of how much each individual is willing to sacrifice; a tedious and unpleasant question that can no longer be avoided. Are the days of our comfortable Western lifestyles numbered, or can we look forward to a new and different approach to the good life?

A team of five SPIEGEL editors has addressed these questions intensively in recent weeks. Our reporters conducted research in Germany, Mexico, Sweden, Great Britain and Indonesia in order to come up with a non-exhaustive list of ways that politicians and citizens alike can contribute to the fight against climate change. The reporters all agreed with the assessment of climatologists that a great deal must be done.

The Current Situation

In 2008, mankind pumped 32 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, the result of the combustion of fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas. The burning of fossil fuels has been responsible for almost 2 trillion tons of CO2 emissions since the invention of the steam engine. Added to that are another 4.4 billion tons from agriculture and forestry, as well as other climate gases like methane and nitrous oxide, which arise primarily in the agrarian economy.

The evil genie escaping from smokestacks, exhaust pipes and cow intestines is causing temperatures to rise on Earth. Since the early days of industrialization, the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has risen close to a level last seen 3 million years ago. If the current trend continues, average temperatures on Earth could rise by 4.5 degrees Celsius (8.1 degrees Fahrenheit) by 2100. "That's roughly the value that differentiates our warm period before industrialization from the last cold period," says German paleoclimatologist Humbertus Fischer of the University of Bern in Switzerland.

A Fine Line of Climatic Stability

Is mankind heading for a climatic state resembling that of the middle Pliocene warm period? It was a time when temperatures were three degrees warmer than they are today. The northern hemisphere was practically ice-free, and sea levels were at least seven meters (23 feet) higher than they are now. If that happens, places where hundreds of millions of people live today could be underwater once again.

"Throughout the history of civilization," says Fischer, "people have gravitated toward the oceans. They have settled regions where environmental conditions are such that life is only possible along a fine line of climatic stability." Climate change could force all of these people to either protect themselves against the elements or move away. But where would they go, given a projected global population of 9 billion by the year 2050?

Some of the model calculations of climatologists paint even more alarming scenarios. For instance, if the glaciers in the Himalayas and the Alps were to disappear, drinking water would become scarce for billions of people. In Asia, this would produce changes in the monsoon system that would threaten agriculture.

Deserts are expected to expand in California, southern Europe and Africa. Ecologists predict that rainforest regions in the Amazon, the Congo basin and Indonesia will gradually become more arid. Marine life is also at risk. Because the oceans absorb a large share of CO2 emissions, producing carbonic acid in the process, they become more and more acidic. This endangers coral reefs and microorganisms that are sensitive to acid and exist at the bottom of the fish food chain, which forms part of man's food chain.

'All of Mankind Would Lose'

The changes would not happen overnight. Nevertheless, 9 billion people are a sluggish mass, and it costs a lot of money to adjust to a changed climate. According to environmental economists, the damage caused by climate change will consume between 5 and 20 percent of the world's gross domestic product, which was $61 trillion in 2008.

If the extreme climate scenarios became reality, there would no longer be winners and losers of climate change. "Then all of mankind would lose" says geoclimatologist Gerald Haug of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETH).

But will those scenarios materialize? All climate prognoses are based on computer models, which are computed with the help of reconstructed, historic and current climate data. They cannot claim to be accurate down to the last detail.

Last week, it became clear once again that mistakes do occur. Scientists from various institutions, including the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK), published a compendium of the latest scientific results in their field. "We have underestimated the climate crisis until now," says Hans Joachim Schnellnhuber, director of the PIK and chairman of the German government's Scientific Advisory Board on Global Environmental Changes (WBGU). "Many changes are happening faster than we thought."

But could climatologists have also erred in the other direction? Is it possible that things will not be as bad as expected? Such questions were raised when an unknown hacker recently gained access to 2,000 e-mails from leading British climatologists, some of which seem to suggest that scientists have doctored scenarios to enhance their sensationalist effects. However, there is no proof that this actually occurred.

The vast majority of climatologists believe that the evidence of climate change caused by human activity is overwhelming, and they are demanding action.

A Call for Action from the West

Their call for action is directed primarily at the West -- at least for the time being. The affluent Western countries are responsible for 70 percent of the additional greenhouse gases found in the atmosphere, even though they are home to only a small percentage of the world's population. Climatologists have calculated that no more than 750 billion tons of carbon dioxide can enter the atmosphere by 2020 if temperatures on Earth are to be prevented from increasing by more than 2 degrees Celsius.

If 750 billion tons were distributed evenly among all human beings, the resulting budget would be shocking: Effective immediately, only about two tons of CO2 emissions per year would be available for each inhabitant of the earth. In Germany, each citizen is responsible for an average of 10 tons of emissions per year. By contrast, that number drops to only 50 kilograms in Mali. "Ultimately, we are taking out a CO2 loan from these people," says Schnellnhuber."

Nevertheless, things still don't add up. The Western countries already consume too much today, and poorer countries will become more affluent and their populations will grow. Ten years ago, there were 3 million cars and motorcycles in the Indonesian capital Jakarta. Today there are 10 million.

It is critical that the developing world and emerging economies participate in a global climate policy. They must refrain from attempting to achieve Western affluence at similar carbon dioxide emissions levels. In other words, they need new technologies, which they cannot afford on their own. Without the West's help, nothing will happen. If a different model than the current Western lifestyle is needed, the West must take the lead.

Radical Change

A different lifestyle is unavoidable. Either it happens today, as part of a social and ultimately democratic movement, or it will be implemented in few years as a result of political and economic imperatives -- when the price of oil reaches $200 a barrel or national leaders can no longer avoid the gravity of the climate problem. In the worst case scenario, the reality of the climate crisis itself -- floods, storms, droughts -- will forcibly bring about radical change. Of course, it would then be under extremely unfavorable conditions.

The longer Western societies wait, the more likely it is a scenario Schnellnhuber calls the "wartime economy" will come true. Under it, national economies would be as strongly regulated as they were in the United States, the Soviet Union, Great Britain and Germany during World War II.

And what will the necessary CO2 reductions yield? It is easiest to eliminate waste. Valuable energy is still being wasted in the form of exhaust heat, be it in cars, homes or computers. With little investment, massive amounts of energy could be saved in the long term. New technologies like renewable sources of energy and electric cars are also helpful. But it takes time for these innovations to reach the market.

Dennis Meadows, the American scientist who explored the "limits of growth" on behalf of the Club of Rome in 1972, says: "New technologies alone are like aspirin for cancer patients. They help, but they don't get rid of the real problem." For that reason, a new "European way of life" is needed -- sustainable, but by no means unpleasant. This new lifestyle is about making sacrifices, not pauperization. Jobs will disappear in old industries, while new jobs will be created in the green economy.

Mexico City Sets Example for Affordable Public Transit

The bronze statues of the Aztek rulers Itzcóatl and Ahuitzotl developed a patina long ago. As "Indios Verdes," or green Indians, they mark the northern edge of Mexico City. Hundreds of thousands of commuters stream past them every morning as they drive along highways from their homes in the suburbs to jobs in the city.

The area of Indios Verdes consists of enormous highway interchanges and bus parking lots. Every day, tens of thousands of drivers merge here onto Avenida de los Insurgentes, which extends for 30 kilometers into the southern section of this enormous city, distributing traffic onto the city's countless arteries, avenues and beltways.

There are 19 million people living in the Mexico City metropolitan area, with nine million living in the city proper. They own 4 million cars, and 200,000 are added to the mix each year. In addition, 4 million people commute into the city every morning, causing traffic congestion.

Transportation is responsible for about 14 percent of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. Experts estimate that transportation sector emissions will increase by half around the globe by 2030. The bulk of that growth will occur in developing countries.

A Pioneer in a Small Transportation Revolution

Mexico City is trying to reverse the trend. A modern bus terminal stands between the taco vendors and rusty suburban busses at Indios Verdes. To enter the terminal, commuters must wave their electronic tickets past a reader, which results in 5 pesos (€0.25) being debited from the card. The bus terminal resembles a train station, with passengers boarding the red articulated busses on platforms. When a bus is ready for boarding and departure, the door opens, there is a whistling noise and an illuminated display reads: "The door will be closing in five seconds."

The bus ride into downtown Mexico City, along Avenida de los Insurgentes, takes 20 minutes, less than any car would take. The buses' modern Volvo and Mercedes engines satisfy the EU's Euro 4 pollution standard. Concrete barriers separate the bus lane from the rest of traffic.

Mexico City is one of the pioneers in a small transportation revolution that is beginning in the megacities of the developing world. Instead of copying Europe's expensive underground subway networks, mayors around the world are introducing express bus systems: in Johannesburg, Lagos and Jakarta, and in many cities in Central America, China and India.

According to the experts, they are up to 50 times cheaper, and take about half as long to build. As a result, a positive impact on the climate is achieved more quickly: The two metrobus lines in Mexico City save 80,000 tons of carbon dioxide per year. Plans call for expanding the network to 200 kilometers of road in the coming years.

Mayor Marcelo Ebrard Casaubón has set up a second office near his home in the Condesa district, one of Mexico City's more bohemian neighborhoods. Ebrard, who lived in Paris for a while, rides his bicycle and leads the fight to save the climate with the intellectual toughness of former US Vice President Al Gore. "It's time to put an end to the model of living based on cars, suburbs and shopping malls," he says.

'We Want to Change Life in the City'

What the mayor is saying, quietly and gently, his hands folded on the table in front of him, is formidable. He was no stranger to controversy in his first three years in office. He pushed through the construction of the metrobus system, took away lanes previously used by cars and forced transport companies to give up their polluting minibuses. He has installed pedestrian zones, plans to introduce fees for the use of parks and wants to make his city more bicycle-friendly. "We want to change life in the city," he says.

Casaubón believes that it is justifiable to limit personal freedoms to benefit the climate, and his courage has not done him any harm yet. He even stands a chance of becoming the president of Mexico, an emerging economy, when his term as mayor ends in three years. In fact, climate protection is his central argument: "This policy must become a priority for the entire country."

Berlin Becomes Lab for 'Intermodal Transportation'

Would this work in Germany? The majority of Germans consider their cars a given and treat them as an expression of their personal freedom. Almost 80 percent of all households have one car, while two cars are the norm among couples without children. A full tank of gas gives people the feeling that they can go any place at any time -- with no concern for schedules and, unfortunately, with no concern for the climate. But better alternatives to the car are already being developed in Germany.

It is a misty fall morning at the Jannowitzbrücke commuter train station in Berlin. After searching briefly, Andreas Knie, a professor at the Social Science Research Center Berlin, finds the blue, white and red plastic plate on the ticket validation machine on the platform. Knie runs his mobile phone across the plate, and a message on the screen reads: "You are logged in. You may leave the Touchpoint." Touchpoint is a pilot program in the city that allows passengers to pay for rides on the local commuter trains using their mobile phones.

In the world of the future, he could also use his mobile phone to open a rental car at his destination station, then remove the key from the glove compartment and drive to a meeting. Later, he might rent a bicycle standing at the next street corner. In Berlin today, however, the system only works on trains.

An Alternative to the Personal Car Fetish

Knie wants more. He wants to expand the territory within the city's commuter rail circle line into a laboratory for "intermodal transportation." An electronic alliance of the rail system, bicycles and rental cars could compete with private cars. Knie believes that the "private ownership of means of transportation" is history, and he sees the future in a highly flexible public transportation system. He hopes that the "metromobile population" of the future will be more interested in quickly getting from point A to point B than in the car as a status symbol.

The German national railway system, Deutsche Bahn, with which Knie has been cooperating, has experimented with rental bicycles and rental cars in big cities for some time. But Knie wants to optimize the system further so that customers can combine the advantages of all means of transportation. "Using without having to think about it" is his mantra.

According to Knie's plans, up to 15,000 rental bikes and 1,500 rental cars are needed to develop an alternative to the car inside the German capital's most populated areas. But the city is still a long way from reaching this goal.

Nevertheless, the Berlin model shows that there are alternatives to the personal car fetish. To ensure their success, the primacy of the private automobile must be called into question. Only then will a market develop that also gives the alternatives a chance.

  • In other words, the decision is largely up to citizens. The internal combustion engine car is a dubious means of transportation. If alternatives exist, people should use them;

  • The government can support this by making driving a car more expensive and using such tools as higher parking fees and tolls. The downtown areas of cities should be free of private cars with internal combustion engines;

  • The industry should invest more heavily in electric engines;

  • Mineral oil should be included in the European emissions trading market. As a result, a climate surcharge would be added to the price of the gasoline once it leaves the port in Rotterdam, home to some of Europe's biggest oil refineries, and heads to customers all across Europe.

Check back tomorrow for more SPIEGEL prescriptions for a Two-Degree Life.


Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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