German Environment Minister 'Our Lifestyle Has Revolved Around a Dangerous Egotism'

In a SPIEGEL interview, German Environment Minister Norbert Röttgen, 46, discusses the United Nations climate summit in Durban, South Africa, the West's ecological deficit and the halting efforts for Germany to abandon nuclear plants and shift almost entirely to renewable energy sources.


SPIEGEL: Minister Röttgen, negotiators and ministers from nearly 200 countries are currently on their way to the climate summit in Durban, South Africa -- but it is already clear that the conference will not lead to the approval of binding targets for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. Is global climate policy on the verge of failure?

Röttgen: No, but it is in a difficult situation. In many countries there is a diminishing willingness to accept binding regulations for climate protection. Meanwhile, climate change continues unabated. The gap between the two continues to widen, and this worries me.

SPIEGEL: Is there any point at all in traveling to the conference in Durban?

Röttgen: It is definitely worth the effort. The entire process is a marathon. We only have one forum for debate on global climate protection -- and that is the United Nations.

SPIEGEL: So the message from Durban will be: Nice that we talked with each other?

Röttgen: No, the message will hopefully be that we have taken a step forward. The summit is about finding out whether the emerging nations in particular are prepared to engage in a process that will ultimately lead to submitting to a reduction regime for carbon dioxide emissions. It's also about keeping the tenets of the Kyoto Protocol alive, although no second period has been established for commitments.

SPIEGEL: The International Energy Agency recently announced that it now predicts that the Earth's temperature will rise by up to 6 degrees Celsius (10.8 degrees Fahrenheit) if carbon dioxide emissions continue at their current rate. Isn't it about time you admitted that the 2 degree Celsius goal pursued by the international community is no longer attainable?

Röttgen: It is still not too late. We still haven't reached the point of no return, where climate change can no longer be stopped. There is a chance that we can limit the extent of climate change.

SPIEGEL: Where do you get your optimism? Last year, more greenhouse gases were released into the atmosphere than ever before in the history of mankind.

Röttgen: We still haven't managed to disengage economic growth from the production of greenhouse gases, and this is one of the great problems of our time. My message, though, is that the world has not yet missed this opportunity.

SPIEGEL: Who bears responsibility for the disappointing results of global climate policy?

Röttgen: A decisive role is played by the big emitters: the United States, China and India. The political situation in the US prevents the enactment of federal climate legislation and US President Barack Obama has no domestic political mandate for climate protection. China is doing a good deal on the domestic front, but for political reasons is hesitating to make international commitments -- and India is afraid of curbing its economic growth if it commits to CO2 reductions.

SPIEGEL: In your opinion, why is there such resistance in the US to climate protection policies?

Röttgen: First, the US currently faces enormous competition from China, and there is the fear that every climate protection objective will lead to a competitive disadvantage. Second, the American way of life is very strongly rooted in individual freedom and consumption, which makes it difficult to push through a lifestyle based on resource conservation and efficiency. Climate protection is not a winning political issue in the US. This holds true for the Republicans, but is now also fairly widespread among the Democrats.

SPIEGEL: If you were the president of a global government, and you alone could determine the course of international climate policy, what would you do?

Röttgen: I can only offer the view of the German environment minister -- and from my perspective, it is reasonable and necessary to introduce rules of competition that protect the climate. The ultimate objective would then be a per capita budget for greenhouse gas emissions, which would apply to every person on the planet. It's ultimately also a matter of justice.

SPIEGEL: In your opinion, why has the issue of climate protection moved out of the public spotlight in recent months?

Röttgen: Over the past few months, concern over the euro has dominated public debate, no doubt about it. But I wouldn't conclude that people are no longer interested in climate protection. This issue has deep roots in Germany, both in terms of the dangers and the economic opportunities. In comparison to nations like the US, we should recognize this as a highly positive cultural characteristic of our country.

SPIEGEL: Chancellor Angela Merkel has said that the environmental crisis and the financial crisis have common causes. Is this true?

Röttgen: I totally agree with the chancellor. The great crises of our time arise from a mindset and a political approach that knows no tomorrow. Countries and financial markets live on borrowed money, the world's social systems -- even in Germany -- are not sufficiently sustainable, and we derive our prosperity from resources that should actually be available to future generations. We run up financial debts, social debts and environmental debts. This adds up to a life on credit that ignores our responsibility for the future.

SPIEGEL: It sounds like saving the euro isn't our biggest challenge.

Röttgen: The euro crisis is difficult enough, but it's only part of a wider problem. We are dealing with a systemic crisis. Our lifestyle of the past few decades has revolved around a dangerous egotism, which only focuses on our present needs, and which we now have to overcome.

SPIEGEL: What is worse, our current financial or our environmental debts?

Röttgen: The environmental mountain of debt is a bigger problem. When a financial bubble bursts, you can always resort to bailouts and pull back again from the brink. When ecosystems collapse, you can't just approve a bailout package. Indeed, there is a danger that you can't return these systems to a healthy state.

SPIEGEL: In the past, the conservative party you belong to, Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU), pursued the policies that you are referring to very strongly.

Röttgen: Yes, we are all guilty of this. But this is a mistake that our entire society made, in fact, the entire Western world. Now, we are hearing extremely loud alarm bells, both on the financial markets and in the field of climate research, and we have to act.

SPIEGEL: What does this mean for Germany?

Röttgen: A debt brake has been enshrined in our constitution (an amendment that requires the government to virtually eliminate the budget deficit by 2016) and we have started to make a fast and bold transition from nuclear and fossil energy to renewable energy. These are important steps. We have to -- and we will -- continue along this road.

SPIEGEL: Your critics say that the forced transition to renewable sources of energy -- with a decommissioning of all German nuclear power plants by 2022 and a target of obtaining at least 80 percent of all energy from renewable sources as by 2050 foreseen under Chancellor Angela Merkel's plan -- is neither practically nor economically feasible. Could they be right?

Röttgen: It was four months ago that we decided on the energy transition and we are right on schedule.

SPIEGEL: You must be joking.

Röttgen: Allow me to point out that renewable sources of energy are being expanded in a highly dynamic manner, that the extra costs for this environmentally friendly power will remain stable, and that we have ended decades of blockading in the search for a final repository for nuclear waste. Next on the administration's agenda is legislation on combined generation of heat and power. And there is more to come ...

SPIEGEL: But the Bundesrat (the upper legislative chamber that represents the states in Germany) recently voted down your program to make existing buildings more energy-efficient. How do you intend to achieve the necessary reductions in CO2 emissions?

Röttgen: There are direct subsidies from the state-owned development bank (KfW) amounting to €1.5 billion ($2 billion). But we also need tax incentives for homeowners so they can reduce the energy consumption of their buildings. It is scandalous that those states with coalition governments consisting of the (center-left) Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the Green Party are blocking this legislation. This has to be clarified and amended in the Mediation Committee (a body that acts as an intermediary between the German parliament, the Bundestag, and the Bundesrat).

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