SPIEGEL Interview with German Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel 'Butting Heads with the Americans Doesn't Do Any Good'

German Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel, 48, discusses the costs of the European Union's new climate protection plan, his party's desire to impose a speed limit on the German autobahn and the need to work together with the Americans.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Gabriel, we took a look into the archives and searched for articles that contained the terms "Gabriel" and "climate protection" -- specifically, before you became Germany's environment minister.

Sigmar Gabriel: And did you find any articles?

SPIEGEL: One, to be exact. You had just dedicated the Wybelsumer Polder wind farm. We have the impression that your favorite topic today is something you couldn't have cared less about in the past.

Gabriel: I wouldn't say that I didn't care about it. But it's true that I certainly hadn't investigated the issue at length.

SPIEGEL: You were sleeping.

Gabriel: We were all sleeping, including SPIEGEL. For a long time, climate protection was a subject for the experts, even though the threat posed by climate change has been known for more than 20 years. As far back as the early 1990s, the Enquete Commission (on Climate Change) in the Bundestag (Germany's parliament) was already dealing with everything we are discussing today.

SPIEGEL: And to what do you attribute this?

Gabriel: The fact is that certain circumstances are necessary to draw attention to this sort of an issue and to get the ball rolling.

SPIEGEL: When you were named environment minister, everyone thought that Gabriel and climate policy go together about as well as (German race car driver) Michael Schumacher and the Tour de France. It just doesn't fit.

Gabriel: That's probably because very few people know that I began my political career as an environmental politician. Of course, the climate wasn't as much of an issue back then. But I worked my way into the subject and became passionate about it.

SPIEGEL: And now you want to save the world. But wouldn't you be promoting an expansion of the autobahn network with the same enthusiasm if you had happened to be appointed Minister of Autobahns?

Gabriel: Politicians don't become cabinet ministers because they have a degree in the subject matter for which they're responsible. We assume a political management task, and it's our job to do it well. However, when it comes to environmental policy, it is perhaps more important than in other areas of politics to be passionate about it, to have an inner conviction.

SPIEGEL: Were you a hypocrite when it came to the climate in the past?

Gabriel: I was a member of the supervisory board at Volkswagen, and of course I was very enthusiastic about technology at the time, especially cars, and their impact on the environment probably doesn't even fit into the scope of climate protection anymore. But it's also important to recognize ecological challenges and ask yourself: "What exactly am I doing here?"

SPIEGEL: That's a question quite a few people ask when Sigmar Gabriel talks about speed limits on the German autobahn. You said last spring that imposing a speed limit would be nothing but a "symbolic policy" that would not help the climate. Then the SPD (Social Democratic Party) party conference reached a different conclusion, and suddenly you're in favor of speed limits.

Gabriel: Compared with the need to save about 500 million tons (of CO2) in Germany, the impact of a speed limit, which would mean a reduction of perhaps 2.5 million tons of CO2, is relatively insignificant. Besides, the SPD should certainly be able to expect its ministers to stand behind resolutions made at party conferences -- especially because this is not a question of conscience. I am currently trying to implement this resolution together with the SPD's parliamentary group.

SPIEGEL: Would a speed limit no longer be a symbolic policy today?

Gabriel: A speed limit of 130 (kilometers per hour, or 80 mph) on German autobahns would probably do little to help the environment if millions of Chinese discover driving in the future. What we really need are different engines and different fuels.

SPIEGEL: Wouldn't the limit be a symbol of sacrifice and moderation?

Gabriel: You're right. And I admit that the adage "small animals also produce manure" is also applicable to climate protection, especially now that the European Union has given us even more ambitious targets.

SPIEGEL: When will there be a draft bill?

Gabriel: The subject is taboo for the Union (the conservative Christian Democratic Union and its sister party, Bavaria's Christian Social Union). I'm convinced that we will see a speed limit, but probably not until after 2009 (when German federal elections take place). Besides Germany, the only countries that don't have speed limits are places like Nepal, where road conditions are so bad that a limit would be beside the point. In other words, it's a little crazy that this is even a topic for debate in Germany.

SPIEGEL: The EU unveiled its climate protection program last week. It calls for even higher reductions in CO2 emissions for Germany by the year 2020 than was originally planned. The Brussels measures alone will cost each citizen €3 ($4.42) a week. Are you concerned that public support for the climate policy will begin to diminish?

Gabriel: My office has a view of low-cost housing, old East German prefabricated apartment buildings. It isn't an attractive view, but it's very helpful, because it reminds me to ask myself, whenever there is a decision to be made, whether the people who live there can afford our decisions. Only if we take social considerations into account will climate protection progress continue to enjoy the support of a majority of people.

SPIEGEL: The EU didn't pay a whole lot of attention to German interests in its climate package. That doesn't exactly help us when it comes to progress.

Gabriel: The European Commission did comply with our wishes to a large extent. Unfortunately, however, it's also true that it doesn't even consider calling countries like Spain, which hasn't met its climate protection obligations by a long shot, to account. We urgently want the Commission to explain to us how it intends to penalize inaction on climate policy in the future.

SPIEGEL: German automakers have been especially vocal critics of the tough climate protection requirements.

Gabriel: We support the EU in its goal of requiring that all new vehicles emit an average of only 120 grams of carbon dioxide per kilometer in the future. Where we don't see eye-to-eye with the EU is on the question of whether all parts of the European automobile industry should contribute to this or just the Germans. The Commission isn't even demanding the current state of the art from some manufacturers in Europe. In contrast, the highly efficient (VW) Passat Blue Motion, for example, is already close to the limit at which penalties would have to be paid. This makes neither environmental nor economic sense.

SPIEGEL: Now you're sounding like the German foreign minister.

'One Shouldn't Be Closed-Minded Towards Certain Arguments Just Because they Come from the Auto Industry'

Gabriel: One shouldn't be closed-minded toward certain arguments just because they come from the auto industry. For instance, the development of new and more environmentally friendly technologies usually starts in the upper price segment -- that is, with the big sedans. Their high sticker prices make it possible to experiment with new materials and engines, which are later used in less expensive small cars.

SPIEGEL: Are you saying that German automakers are doing everything right and just being taken to task by the evil EU?

Gabriel: Nonsense. Of course the German auto industry was sleeping. Now it faces huge changes. If it hopes to remain a factor in the markets of the future, it has to develop new, environmentally friendly models, and it has to act quickly. We don't want to relive the history of catalytic converters, diesel filters and hybrid engines. We (Germans) invented them, but in all three cases the Japanese were ahead of us when it came to implementation.

SPIEGEL: Who should get higher marks on climate protection, (German Chancellor Angela) Merkel or you?

Gabriel: Of course, I would give us both excellent marks. The only difference is that my party supports me, while the Union isn't always behind Ms. Merkel. Her state governors have a tendency to praise climate policy on Sundays, and only on Sundays. During the week, they do their utmost to undermine it in the Bundesrat (the upper house of the German parliament, in which the federal states are represented). Ms. Merkel should be glad she has the SPD. We're certainly pleased to help her push through our national climate protection package, the world's toughest, over the objections of the states with conservative administrations.

SPIEGEL: Economics Minister Michael Glos wants to make extending the operating life of nuclear power plants a topic in the election campaign. Other conservative politicians are even calling for the construction of new nuclear power plants.

Gabriel: If Mr. Glos wants to give it to us as a campaign gift, I certainly won't turn him down. I believe that we simply cannot get the technology under control, especially in the case of older plants. That's why the reactors have to be shut down.

(Editor's note: Click here to read a 2007 debate  between Sigmar Gabriel and energy utility EnBW CEO Utz Claassen about whether nuclear power can provide a way out of the climate crisis.)

SPIEGEL: Are they any conditions under which you would even consider giving up the idea of abandoning nuclear power?

Gabriel: No, none at all.

SPIEGEL: Is that the last word.

Gabriel: The last word is always reserved for lawmakers.

SPIEGEL: While we abandon nuclear power, our neighbors are busy building new plants. This doesn't make much sense, in the age of globalization.

Gabriel: The British have to replace their nuclear power plants with new ones because they invested too little in renewable energy sources. The idea that the growing demand for energy worldwide can be met with energy from nuclear power is nonsense. If nuclear power is to make a significant contribution to climate protection worldwide, 2,000 to 3,000 nuclear power plants will have to be built worldwide. There are only about 430 today, and 200 of them are so old that they would have to be replaced by new plants just to keep the same number of reactors. But current plans call for building less than 30.

SPIEGEL: Your old friend within the party, Wolfgang Clement, recently warned against Germany abandoning coal and nuclear power. You used to have a high opinion of him.

Gabriel: My old friend Wolfgang is apparently suffering from memory lapses. As a cabinet minister, he supported the nuclear consensus (the nuclear phase-out agreement that went into law in 2001), so he can't exactly say now that abandoning nuclear power is a gamble. Besides, his claim that the SPD is completely opposed to new coal power plants is completely wrong. In fact, the opposite is the case. But the real issue is the technology that's used to operate the plants.

SPIEGEL: Then again, environmental organizations are protesting against new coal power plants.

Gabriel: Even if we achieved the goal of 30 percent of our energy coming from renewable sources by 2020, 70 percent of our energy needs would still have to be met. Achieving this with natural gas alone, as the Greens and some environmental groups are demanding, would be extremely costly for industry and for consumers. The future Russian president has already said that natural gas prices will increase by 40 percent in 2008. If we relied completely on gas, the price of electricity would skyrocket. Let the Greens explain that to the public.

SPIEGEL: Corporate executives are already issuing dire warnings about a "huge gap" in the power supply if older nuclear and coal power plants are systematically shut down. Could we soon see power outages like in California?

Gabriel: That's total nonsense. Not even the studies my colleague Glos presented at last year's energy summit paint those kinds of horror scenarios.

SPIEGEL: 2007 was the year of climate diplomacy. What is your most lasting memory of the summit in Bali?

Gabriel: That these sorts of negotiations are worse than any wage negotiations. Climate diplomats seem to have developed a rule that negotiations always have to be 24-hour marathons -- even when everything is already set in stone or a compromise has been reached. But at least it was worth it. The most important achievement of the Bali conference is that we have finally reached the point where not just climate issues, but also economic and political interests are openly on the table.

SPIEGEL: A binding UN climate protection treaty is expected by 2009. Given the difficult start in Bali, do you think this is possible?

Gabriel: Yes, I am optimistic, even though a real breakthrough can only be expected after the American presidential election.

SPIEGEL: Your state secretary is traveling to Honolulu this week to attend the US's own climate summit. Why are you even taking part in this show conference?

Gabriel: If the United States had boycotted Bali, we would have withdrawn from its conferences of the world's major energy consuming nations. But in the end, the UN climate agreement will be reached by precisely those 20 countries that will be represented in Honolulu as the world's biggest emitters of CO2. Constantly butting heads with the Americans doesn't do any good; at some point, America's more well-meaning citizens will also start to take it personally.

SPIEGEL: And what do you hope to achieve during your trip to China this week?

Gabriel: Together with the Chinese, we want to launch climate protection projects for which we would provide part of the funding and that would enable Germany to claim emissions reduction credits.

SPIEGEL: The Chinese have enough money to build new warships to protect oil imports. And we're supposed to pay for their environmental projects?

Gabriel: If we want to implement climate protection worldwide, countries like Germany, which are capable of developing new technologies, will have to hand over some of their knowledge. We can't expect to have our cake and eat it too.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Gabriel, we thank you for this interview.

Interview conducted by Christian Schwärgerl and Markus Feldenkirchen.

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