Germany's Eco-Trap Is Environmentalism Really Working?

Germany is among the world leaders when it comes to taking steps to save the environment. But many of the measures are not delivering the promised results. Biofuels have led to the clear-cutting of rainforests, plastics are being burned rather than recycled and new generation lightbulbs have led to a resurgence of mercury production. A SPIEGEL survey.
Rapeseed for biofuels and wind generators for clean electricity -- against a backdrop of a coal-fired power station in Germany.

Rapeseed for biofuels and wind generators for clean electricity -- against a backdrop of a coal-fired power station in Germany.

Foto: A3250 Oliver Berg/ dpa

As usual, ordinary Germans were to blame. Everything had been prepared for the green revolution: fresh supplies and new signs at the gas stations, and the refinery depots were full to the brim with the new wonderfuel. But then drivers turned their backs on the new era. They didn't want to buy E10, a blend of ethanol and gasoline, even through it cost almost 10 cents less per liter than conventional gas.

"It's annoying but there's no question of stopping the sale of E10," said Environment Minister Norbert Röttgen. E10, Röttgen said with a hint of threat in his voice, was a milestone of German climate control policy.

When it comes to the environment these days, all other interests must take a back seat, including possible engine damage from E10. After all, the United Nations has proclaimed that ensuring environmental sustainability is one of its "millennium goals," and greater importance is assigned to climate negotiations among the big industrial nations than to economic summits these days.

All the serious political parties devote large parts of their policy programs to environmental policy. In the coalition deal between Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives and the pro-business Free Democrats, protecting the climate comes ahead of education and internal security in the list of policy priorities. The government is as committed to promoting the development of electric cars as it is to expanding renewable energies and protecting fish stocks in German rivers.

There is no issue that produces such unanimity among the parties. A proposal to increase tax credits for employees led to weeks of political debate, while the 2009 European Union ban on conventional light bulbs was approved without a single debate in parliament. As soon as the word environment is mentioned in any policy initiatives, all discussion becomes redundant.

Great Crested News and 50 Million Euros

And no price seems too high. Germany even spends tens of millions of euros on redirecting roads or building tunnels to protect animal species. Last August, for example, a four kilometer long, €50 million tunnel was approved for a highway in the state of Hesse. The reason? A colony of great crested newts had to be protected.

Germans usually obediently go along with environmental measures, in fact they're a model people when it comes to green living. They carefully sort their rubbish, take their bottles back to the supermarket and put their batteries in special containers. When they were told to have carbon filters fitted to their cars, they did so without complaining. And of course they're at the forefront when it comes to attaching solar panels to their roofs or insulating their homes.

Germans only rarely question environmental policies. The light bulb ban was one example. Most didn't see the need to scrap conventional bulbs when the simplest way to save electricity was just to turn off the light. And Germans have been unusually stubborn about the biofuel E10 -- the name refers to the 10 percent ethanol admixture. They would prefer to pay a few more cents fpr a liter of gas than put their car engines at risk.

Many haven't yet fully realized that E10 is an ecological swindle. People who want to help the environment shouldn't use it. Nine large European environmental associations recently conducted a joint study which concluded that the bottom line impact of the fuel on the environment is negative. Rainforests are being clear-cut in Brazil and Borneo to make room for sugarcane and oil palm cultivation. At the same time there's a shortage of arable land for food production, which is leading to the threat of famine in parts of the world. Last year, the price of grain rose sharply in the global market.

A single full tank of bio-ethanol uses up as much grain as an adult can eat in a whole year. In order to cover the German requirement for biofuel, an arable area of around one million hectares would be needed. That is four times the size of the south-western German state of Saarland, which would need to be fertilized, treated with pesticides and intensively farmed. Environmental groups say that across Europe, farming for biofuels would create up to 56 million tons of additional greenhouse gases -- an environmental crime they say must be stopped immediately.

Diminishing Utility

But it's too late for that. Farming and industry have already made the conversion. Germany has devoted huge tracts of farmland to producing maize (for biogas), rapeseed (for biodiesel) and sugar beet and wheat (for biopetrol).

Not everything that looks green serves the environment. The ecological principle of proceeding with care doesn't seem to apply to environmental policy. The more, the better, seems to be the principle. No one is calculating whether all the billions being invested in protecting the environment are actually being spent wisely. Ordinary citizens can't judge it and many experts have no interest in shedding any light on this aspect because their livelihoods are at stake.

A large amount of money flows into studies, risk assessments and providing seals of approval. In many cases, a closer look at environmental measures reveals that they're expensive and don't have much effect. German environmental standards are so high already that it would require an enormous expense to achieve further improvements -- especially in comparison with less developed nations such as China, India or the former Eastern bloc states.

In economics, it's called the law of diminishing marginal utility. The first glass of water you drink will help a lot to quench your thirst. The second will help a little less and so on. By the 10th glass you will be feeling unpleasantly full or even sick. That's the worst aspect: some major environmental policies aren't just ineffective -- they are counterproductive.

Does German Garbage Really Get Recycled?

When it comes to garbage, the Germans are a nation of gatherers and sorters. In most cities, there are several colored garbage cans to choose from: a yellow one for packaging, a blue one for paper, two separate ones for different colors of glass, a brown one for plant waste and a black one for the little that is left over. An orange one for electronics waste is now being introduced in Berlin.

Astonishingly, only 20 percent of garbage ends up in the wrong containers, an impressive performance given the complexity. Some people even rinse their empty plastic yoghurt containers before throwing them away, presumably in the hope that doing so will aid the recycling process.

Once the rubbish is collected, the sorting continues. Special machines with infrared sensors discern six different types of plastic. But then something strange happens -- more than half the yoghurt cups, plastic juice bottles and packaging foils are incinerated. That is quite legal. Under German law, only 36 percent of plastic rubbish has to be recycled.

Importing Plastic to Burn

The remainder can be sold for a profit, for example to plants that burn rubbish to produce heating or power. Such facilities are everywhere in Germany. Municipalities across the country built then in response to a ban on storing garbage in landfills. Indeed, now there are far too many of them in Germany -- and there is a shortage of burnable waste.

The result is that firms are buying up as much plastic waste -- which burns well due to the high quantity of oil in plastics -- as they can get their hands on. Indeed, some companies have even resorted to importing plastic waste to burn -- hardly a contribution to an environmental utopia.

Companies which process plastics for use in other products are also dependent on imports. The company mtm plastics in eastern Germany, for example, transforms plastics in to granules before producing flower pots. But the plastic necessary is transported to the plant from hundreds of miles away. Company head Michael Scriba says he has opted not to calculate the carbon footprint of his finished product.

The Problem with Water Conservation

The Germans are obsessed with saving water. You won't find many countries north of the Sahara that are as water-conscious as Germany. They save water while washing dishes (a modern dishwashing machine uses only six liters per cycle), while going to the toilet (many toilets have a setting that allows only a brief flush), and even when washing their cars.

The Environment Ministry recommends that people turn off the tap while they're brushing their teeth. Saving water, the ministry's web page strongly hints, helps poor countries to irrigate their paddy fields. EU authorities are considering setting water flow-through limits in shower heads.

Yet Germany is one of the world's most water-rich countries -- it could theoretically consume five times more water than it does now. Furthermore, it's impossible to transport tap water over thousands of kilometers, so German thrift don't help Vietnamese rice farmers on bit.

And water conservation in Germany can be harmful -- particularly when it comes to the sewage systems beneath German cities. The lack of waste water flowing through the canalization means that fat, faeces and discarded food aren't getting flushed out enough, and are corroding the walls. To compensate, utilities are forced to pump hundreds of thousands of liters of fresh water through the system to keep it operable.

The result, not surprisingly, are higher water bills. And consumers respond to those higher bills by saving even more water. Paradoxically, the vicious cycle can only be broken if consumer start using more water.

The Danger of Dust

Until 2005, Germans were largely unaware of the danger. Tiny particles, most of them not even one tenth the width of a human hair, are everywhere. They come from candles, cigarettes, chimneys and, mostly, from exhaust pipes. For city-dwellers, the results are asthma, lung cancer and heart problems. An EU study claims that 65,000 people die in Germany each year due from the effects of air pollution.

But Brussels also found the solution. In 2008, the EU mandated maximum limits of this deadly dust, and mandated regular measurements. In Germany, car owners across the country dutifully installed filters on their diesel-powered automobiles -- largely at their own expense.

Initially, pollution levels in German cities fell. But then, in the last two years, they have begun rising again. Now, they are higher than ever. The dangerous dust, after all, doesn't just come out of the motor of diesel-powered automobiles, but also from brakes, tires and clutches. And from power plants and farm machinery. It is, as expert Martin Lutz admits "a very complex topic."

Adding to the complexity: Modern "pellet stoves," which emit much less CO2 than conventional fireplaces, produce a large amount of toxic particles. Stove owners will soon have to fit their fireplaces with filters as well. And in 2015, stricter EU limits are set to go into effect. They question remains whether or not they will be effective.

Mercurial Light

The light bulb did its job for 130 years, banishing darkness, making the streets safer and comforting people in the dead of night. Until recently, no one would have thought that this everyday object posed such a major environmental threat that it must be banned.

Yet as of Sept. 1, 2009, all 100-watt bulbs vanished from European Union store shelves. A year later, it was the turn of 75-watt bulbs. This year, 60-watt bulbs will go the way of the dodo bird.

Many people already miss them. The energy-saving bulbs that replaced them emit blue light and induce stress because they disrupt the body's production of the sleep hormone melatonin. In addition, they contain mercury -- to the point that consumers are advised not to use them in children's rooms.

In response, many Germans have stockpiled conventional light bulbs in silent protest. They feel the ban on conventional light bulbs makes no sense -- and they're right. The energy-saving bulb is a pretty dirty affair if one takes a closer look at the production process. Eighty percent of the bulbs are made in China where safety standards are so lax that many workers suffer from mercury poisoning. In Germany, the bulbs are classified as special waste and the poisonous substance they contain has to be dumped in underground sites.

Furthermore, the new bulbs don't live up to their promise regarding energy efficiency either. When the magazine Ökotest tested an array of the bulbs recently, half of them didn't last longer than 6,000 hours, well below EU estimates of 10,000 hours, Indeed, it was found that the larger estimate applies only to continuous use. Switching the new bulbs on and off, it would seem, isn't good for them.

The Paradox of Insulation

By rights, the venerable town of Weimar with its beautiful old architecture should be forbidden. None of the buildings meet modern standards of heating insulation. The walls are too thin, the windows aren't properly sealed, the place is a disaster in terms of energy efficiency.

Politicians in Berlin have ensure that the situation will soon improve. By 2050, all buildings in Germany must be carbon neutral, according to the government's energy plan presented last year. "If we take that legislation seriously, we would have to tear down half the town," says Weimar Mayor Stefan Wolf.

In general, however, Germans have responded as they often do -- by taking action. Across the country, insulating panels are going up on the outside of myriad buildings. With older buildings making up a quarter of the country's housing stock, there seems to be little other choice. Particularly given that heating accounts for 71 percent of household energy consumption.

But insulation with polystyrene and other materials is expensive, unsightly and in many cases doesn't last for more than 10 or 15 years. An errant soccer ball can dent the material and pecking birds can pierce it. Another problems is that well-insulated buildings don't breathe -- no outside air gets in and CO2 can build up quickly inside as a result. So can mould. Installing air vents can be exorbitant.

The alternative is to air one's home frequently, by opening doors and windows after cooking or taking a shower. But this constant airing wreaks havoc with the energy efficiency of a building. Home insulation consultants usually only point out that important fact when it's already too late.

Bottle Deposits and the Grim Truth

The introduction of a deposit on disposable cans and plastic bottles in 2003 by the center-left government was intended to discourage people from buying them. But the opposite has happened. In 2003, the market share of reusable drinks bottles was 64 percent. Since then, it's fallen to below 50 percent. Many customers seem to be unaware that many plastic bottles and cans with refundable deposits can't be reused.

The German government is lobbying the EU to require all bottles to be labelled more clearly as reusable or disposable. But it's not an easy problem to solve, because most EU countries don't have a system of paying deposits on disposable bottles.

The frequency with which environmental policies backfire should give pause for thought. Biofuels were meant to protect the environment and combat global warming -- in fact it destroys rainforests and causes greater CO2 emissions than conventional fuel.

Saving water was meant to protect natural resources, but it just drives up water bills. Banning the light bulb was seen as a milestone on the path to carbon neutral living in Europe -- but China has been cranking up its mercury production to satisfy demand for the alternative energy saving bulbs.

In the fight to protect the environment, it may be time to pause and ask oneself: what is really helping, and what isn't? And to admit at times: sorry, we were wrong. But it doesn't work like that. Environmentalism knows no doubt. The idea is never wrong, the problem is always in the implementation.

And so it will continue. Additional rubbish containers will be introduced, for different types of rubbish. The EU will ban the stand-by function on electronic appliances to reduce energy consumption -- even though engineers know this reduces product lifespans.

At some point, only electrical cars will fulfil environmental requirements, but the electricity will have to come from somewhere -- maybe French or Czech nuclear power stations?

Ordinary people will put up with all this patiently, what else can they do? It all serves the environment, and no one can object to that.

This article is an adaptation of a longer piece by Jan Fleischhauer, Guido Kleinhubbert and Alexander Neubacher

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