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 second installment of a two-part initial story in the series. You can read the first part here.
It is a bleak, vast landscape, deforested as far as the eye can see, with smoke hanging in the air, smoldering fires everywhere and soil that looks like an open wound. Here, in Palangkaraya on the island of Borneo, begins a food chain that ends up in Germany.
The region is one of the centers of the Indonesian palm oil economy. For Rosenda Chandra Kasih, site coordinator for the Indonesian province of Central Kalimantan for the environmental protection organization WWF, the business model is "fail-safe." The proceeds from the sale of lumber produced by felling the area's giant trees are used as seed capital, while the incinerated remains of the forests become fertilizer. Once the forests have been cleared, workers plant endless, militarily precise rows of oil palm seedlings into the charred soil. The first harvest can be brought in after five years. Palm oil, now the world's most popular vegetable oil, is made from the fruits of the trees. Of the 45 million tons placed on the market each year, 10 percent is sold in the European Union.
When they see the words "vegetable oil" printed on the labels of products on German supermarket shelves, most consumers have no idea that there is often a direct and substantial CO2 connection between cookies and cosmetics, cooking oil and prepared foods, shampoos and cream sauces and the destruction of rainforests. A quarter of all worldwide emissions are generated in connection with food production.
The depletion of Indonesian forests is particularly detrimental to the world's climate. In places like Borneo, many rainforests grow in thick layers of peat soil, which contain vast amounts of stored carbon dioxide. When the forests are cleared and the land is drained, the peat releases the carbon dioxide. "Two billion tons of CO2 are generated as a result of the clearing of forests in Indonesia alone, says Kasih, "and the main driving force behind this is the lucrative palm oil business." Two billion tons of CO2 are roughly equivalent to Germany's total greenhouse gas emissions for two years, or about 6 percent of worldwide emissions. Germans consume 13 kilograms (28.6 pounds) of palm oil per capita, which corresponds to 400 kilograms of carbon dioxide emissions. This, in turn, is the equivalent of driving 2,500 kilometers.
A Disastrous Message
Food producers in Germany, which is often touted as an environmentally conscious country, do not voluntarily buy palm oil that is certified as sustainable and, according to the WWF, is produced without destroying rainforests. There is plenty of fallow land in the world where such sustainable cultivation is possible. But oil produced on reclaimed rainforest soil is cheaper, because the land comes complete with free fertilizer.
"Providers of sustainable palm oil have been unable to sell their more environmentally friendly product, which sends a disastrous message," warns the WWF.
The beef industry also leaves a devastating trail of CO2 production in its wake. In Brazil, parts of the Amazon rainforest are being cleared to grow soybeans, which are used for livestock feed. The animals themselves produce methane, a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, in their digestive tract. For each kilogram of beef produced, 36 kilos of CO2 escape into the atmosphere. Every year, Germans consume 88 kilos of meat per capita.
"The composition of our diet holds great potential to reduce CO2 emissions," says Erika Claupein of Germany's Federal Research Institute of Nutrition and Food in the southwestern city of Karlsruhe. Food scientists have developed guidelines for eating in a way that is less harmful to the climate, and that also happens to be healthy:
- Diets should include more plant-based and significant less animal-based foods;
- Fresh, unprocessed and regional agricultural products are generally recommended;
- Rapeseed oil and sunflower oil are high-quality substitutes for palm oil.
Anyone who walks through an electronics superstore like America's Best Buy, Britain's Currys or Europe's Saturn can witness the total concentration of electronic life into a paradise of entertainment, communication and tools to make life easier. The store is likely to be filled with blinking lights, sounds and flashy gadgets, from the washing-machine aisle to the TV section, a plethora of electronic equipment: computers, kitchen devices, headphones, MP3 players, and the list goes on. Electronics superstores offer consumers the promise of a pleasant, effortless life, and everything, of course, can be had at a great price.
But almost all of these products consume more resources and electricity than necessary. Their usable life is often too short, and it is not unusual for repairs to cost more than a new device. This electronic parallel world is also consuming more and more energy. According to some calculations, the average electronic alter ego on the Internet uses more electricity than the average consumer in India. And in many cases, the newer a computer is, regardless of its size, the more power it consumes. The good news is that there are efforts to put an end to this madness.
Hope in Green IT
At its Berlin headquarters Strato, a Web hosting service, occupies a 4,000-square meter (43,000-square foot) space covered with a sea of blinking lights and brightly colored cables. Strato's computer center uses as much electricity as a small city of 5,000 households. But this is still a lot less than it was consuming three years ago. That was when René Wienholtz, a member of the management board, happened upon the expression "Green IT" and decided that his computers had to become more eco-friendly.
"Our primary goal was to save electricity," says Wienholtz. "When energy costs skyrocketed in 2006 and 2007, we came under growing pressure to do something about it."
The first step was to arrange the computers in the space to optimize the use of cold and warm air. This produced energy savings of 25 percent. Then the company bought computers that consume significantly less power during off-peak periods. Strato developed the necessary power adaptor internally. "The investments paid off after a year or, at the most, a year and a half," says Wienholtz. Strato now sells and generates revenue with the power adaptor.
The CO2-neutral electricity Strato uses, which comes from hydroelectric power plants, is more expensive than regular power. "We can afford this, because we save so much in other ways," says Wienholtz, who also uses eco-power in his home. According to Strato's own figures, the changes have enabled the company to reduce its energy consumption by 30 percent and its annual CO2 emissions by 15,000 tons.
Entrepreneuers like Wienholtz are the driving force behind the green retrofitting of industry. Companies across the board, from mid-sized service providers to major corporations, stand to achieve enormous savings in energy costs while simultaneously reducing CO2 emissions. Governments and citizens can support the trend toward sustainable products:
- The so-called "Frontrunner" model is already being used successfully in Japan, where the efficiency values achieved by the best companies quickly become the legal standard for all businesses. Inefficient products automatically disappear from stores. This speeds up progress and rewards ingenuity, and eventually the inefficient products disappear from the market altogether;
- Products should have longer lives than before and should be easier to repair;
- Consumers should be able to find information about energy use and CO2 emissions on all products. This leaves it up to the consumer to buy the most eco-friendly products. Higher startup costs are offset by the long-term benefits of lower energy costs.
Germany's Green Energy Labs
The Niederaussem coal-fired power plant near Cologne is a monstrous, massive structure. One of its cooling towers is the world's tallest. On windless days, the vapor rising from these towers looks almost like a puffy white cloud against the backdrop of a blue sky. It gives the plant a pleasant and harmless -- as well as deceptive -- appearance.
The oldest unit of the power station was built in the 1960s. The newest, Unit K, went into operation in 2003, and at that time it was dubbed the world's most modern coal-fired power plant. But even this unit operates at a maximum efficiency level of only 43 percent, which means that 57 percent of the energy it produces escapes unused into the atmosphere. As a result, an average citizen whose electricity comes exclusively from the Niederaussem plant is responsible for about two tons of CO2 emissions per year -- purely from using the plant.
Plants with efficiency levels considerably lower than 43 percent are still being built around the world, particularly in emerging countries like China, India, Indonesia and South Africa. Coal is the cheapest and most readily available fossil fuel. In China, a kilowatt hour of electricity from coal costs only half as much as green electricity.
RWE, the German electric power company that owns the Niederaussem plant, is already trying to make energy derived from coal less harmful to the climate. The company inaugurated a pilot plant for CO2 sequestration in the summer, and it is spending €130 million ($192 million) to refurbish older plants and increase their efficiency levels, which reduces fuel consumption. At Niederaussem, RWE is experimenting with a process of capturing CO2 and feeding it to algae, thereby producing biomass. Energy companies are also examining ways to store CO2 underground.
An Effective Test Field for Green Power
But none of this is enough to make a significant difference. Mankind's carbon dioxide budget is simply too small to make room for new coal-fired power plants of this type. The construction of an alternative to Niederaussem off Germany's North Sea coast began in the summer and was completed in mid-November: "Alpha Ventus," Germany's first offshore wind farm.
The turbines are 185 meters (607 feet) tall, from sea floor to rotor tip, which makes them taller than the Cologne Cathedral. "It was clear to all partners involved that we would be learning the hard way with this project, but that was an essential part of launching the offshore effort," says Georg Friedrichs, managing director of one of the project partners, Vattenfall Europe Windkraft, his hair standing on end in high winds.
Installing the turbines in the heavy seas at the site, 45 kilometers (28 miles) off the North Sea island of Borkum, is a pioneering technological achievement. Workers must drill deep into the ocean floor to ensure that the masts are on stable footing. A crane ship then hoists the enormous rotor onto the mast. The pilot project will provide an indication of whether the greening of Germany's power plants can succeed. Is there enough pressure from investors to built offshore wind farms on a large scale?
"About €30 billion in investment is necessary to make the 10,000 megawatts of offshore power planned by the federal government available by 2020," says Friedrichs. This target value corresponds to five large coal-fired or nuclear power plants.
Some experts question whether this is possible. Nevertheless, Germany has already proven to be an effective test field for green power. The sharp growth in the industry was possible because green power could be fed into the grid at lucrative prices guaranteed by law. This attracted investors.
Renewable Energy Responsible for 280,000 German Jobs
But now the country is about to embark on the more difficult path to its real goal: meeting all of its energy needs through renewable energy sources. According to Environment Minister Norbert Röttgen, with the conservative Christian Democrats (CDU), it is up to Germany to prove to the world that it is possible to operate a wealthy industrialized nation in a way that's "CO2 neutral."
Röttgen believes that controversial nuclear power will play only a minor role in the new energy mix. "Its function is merely to bridge the gap into the renewable age," says Röttgen, who opposes building new nuclear power plants and says that the operating life of existing plants will only be extended in a few cases.
Instead, his "goal is to satisfy all of Germany's energy needs with renewable energy," a goal he says is part of the coalition agreement between Chancellor Angela Merkel's CDU and its junior partner, the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP). Today, solar, wind, hydroelectric, geothermal and biomass cover about 15 percent of Germany's energy needs. One hundred percent is now the "starting point and goal" of the National Energy Strategy Röttgen is expected to present by October 2010. "This creates an enormous incentive for innovation and will place the German economy in a leading position on the global market," says Röttgen, who is betting on a boom in green energy.
Lucrative patents and global markets will offset investment costs. Renewable energy is responsible for 280,000 German jobs today, and companies like engineering giant Siemens are already earning a growing share of their global revenues with environment business. The shift to renewable energies could also help Germany save the billions it now spends on natural gas and oil from Russia and Norway.
From a technical standpoint, satisfying all of Germany's energy needs from renewable sources is not problematic, says Thomas Hunecke of German power utility company E.on Avacon -- "in principle, that is, just as flying to the moon isn't a problem, in principle." Nevertheless, there are still many hurdles to overcome. The expansion of electrical grids will require massive investments, and new storage power plants and large batteries are also costly. But ultimately, says Hunecke, the decisive factor will be whether the market functions and provides enough incentives for the various players.
To ensure that it reaches its 100-percent goal, the new government in Berlin must put things on the right track today:
- The federal government should impose on itself strict CO2 targets for the period after 2020. Reductions of 60 percent over 1990 levels by 2025, 70 percent by 2030, 80 percent by 2035 and 90 percent by 2040 are ambitious, but they are necessary as an incentive;
- Energy research should be made a priority. The federal government should increase its annual budget for energy research from €400 million today to at least €1.5 billion.
- Heating with energy from renewable sources should be promoted more heavily. This is where the greatest potential for savings lies. However, citizens should not just expect to receive subsidies from the government for going green, but should also demonstrate initiative.
Patrick Birley, 56, is sitting in his office in the heart of the financial world, the City of London, where many major banks are headquartered. He is the chief executive of the European Climate Exchange (ECX), the most important trading center for emissions certificates, which the European Union has been issuing since 2005. Environmental economists applaud the system, despite its many minor flaws, and prefer it to a climate tax on CO2 emissions.
The 27 EU member states are currently participating in the system, in which 12,000 companies involved in a wide range of industries, from steelmaking to concrete production, are assigned certificates.
If a company is doing well and needs more certificates, it has to buy emissions rights from companies that have rights left over, either because business is poor or they have reduced their CO2 emissions and are now able to turn their certificates into cash. "The system provides sticks for the wasteful and carrots for the frugal," says Birley.
The government, which plays the key role in this system, must reduce the number of emissions certificates each year in such a way as to ensure that CO2 emissions are reduced by a sufficient amount. Where this happens, the market regulates the system, "in other words, where it's cheapest," says Birley.
"There, you see," he says, tapping a computer screen with his pen. A company has offered 66,000 tons of carbon dioxide at a price of €14.33 a ton. Another company has offered to buy at €14.31 a ton. "Here, they agreed on a price of €14.32 a ton, for 20,000 tons."
"On normal trading days, we have a trading volume of 20 million tons," says Birley, an avid athlete who jogs 12 kilometers to work every day, as evidenced by the running shoes and sweat-soaked socks under his desk.
'Speculation Is Fine'
A recent study by the environmental protection organization Friends of the Earth concluded that emissions trading has been taken hostage by unscrupulous players, such as banks that are packaging carbon dioxide certificates into increasingly complex financial products.
"They resemble the subprime loans that caused the financial crash not too long ago," says Sarah-Jayne Clifton, the author of the study.
ECX chief Birley calmly leans back in his chair. "Speculation is fine, as long as politicians properly limit the number of certificates each year."
He could be right. The biggest problems occurred in the past, because the EU member states, most of all Germany, were allocating too many certificates to their domestic industries. As a result, the price of emissions rights quickly plunged toward zero.
The system, however, can only be effective if it works globally -- that is, if the United States, China and India participate. If this doesn't happen, carbon dioxide emissions come at a price in only part of the world, evoking a situation that Munich-based economist Hans-Werner Sinn calls "the green paradox." In Europe, emissions trading makes energy more expensive, which leads to the desired effect of lowering the consumption of oil, coal and gas. As a result, commodities prices decline on the global market. "This, in turn, boosts consumption in all those countries that are not participating," says Sinn. For this reason, the system could end up being a zero sum game for the climate.
It is up to politicians to prevent this from happening. They must negotiate an agreement in Copenhagen that includes all major nations in emissions trading, as well as all key economic sectors, including agriculture. Otherwise it will be impossible to limit the increase in the global temperature to 2 degrees Celsius.
- If the Copenhagen conference is to move the world forward, a global emissions target would also make sense: a 50 percent overall reduction by 2050, and a significantly more ambitious target for the industrialized countries;
- The conference should also agree to financial mechanisms that lend economic value to rainforests and other ecosystems;
- The industrialized countries should pledge to support the emerging and developing countries' efforts to bring about environmentally minded change and development.
Stockholm Presents Green Future, Today
A plus two-degree world of sorts already exists. It is in Hammarby Sjöstad, a part of Stockholm, and life there shows that we shouldn't be afraid of this world. Positive climate protection is possible. It results from a mixture of intelligent technology and climate-conscious behavior.
The Tiljas -- Henrik, Asa-Viktoria and their young daughter Doris -- live in this world. They haven't had a car in a long time, and they eat organic food. In addition, for the past year they have been living in a stylish, 68-square-meter (732-square-foot), all-white apartment in Hammarby Sjöstad. "We are responsible for only 3.6 tons of carbon dioxide emissions per person," says Henrik Tilja, "which almost puts us at the level of people in a developing country." Using sophisticated environmental technology, city planners have reduced carbon dioxide emissions by almost 40 percent, and yet residents and visitors notice virtually none of the related measures.
"The gas we use here," says his wife Asa-Viktoria, as she places a teakettle on the stovetop, "is organic." It comes from the city's nearby sewage treatment plant. In a sedimentation tank created by blasting a hole deep into the bedrock, digested sludge ferments and produces methane gas, which the public utility company then pumps into the Hammarby gas network.
Some of the energy the Tiljas use to heat their apartment comes from the residual heat a heat exchanger extracts from the sewage they produce. There is also an ampere meter that can display, minute-by-minute, how much electricity each individual consumer is using. Merely the knowledge of how to influence one's own power use has reduced consumption by 40 percent. "The idea is that people have to be rewarded for environmentally conscious behavior," says Henrik Tilja.
On the nearby playground, four large pipes with flaps on top protrude from the ground next to the sandbox. The pipes are for trash disposal, separated by category, from organic waste to paper. But unlike places with conventional waste disposal systems, there are no sweating garbage collectors and stinking garbage trucks in Hammarby, because vacuum pumps suction off the waste at speeds of 70 kilometers per hour (44 mph). This saves energy and has resulted in an astonishingly disciplined populace when it comes to separating waste. Close to 100 percent of organic waste can be converted into biogas, which powers the buses in Hammarby.
Part of the reason Stockholm as a whole has a relatively small environmental footprint is that 40 percent of its electricity comes from hydroelectric power and 40 percent from nuclear energy. "But none of what is being done here can't be implemented elsewhere," says Ulla Hamilton, the deputy mayor in charge of Stockholm's environmental affairs. According to Hamilton, the investment costs were only two to four percent higher than those for a normal new neighborhood.
A 'CO2-Postive' Neighborhood
Planners at city hall are already working on a second Hammarby, a neighborhood in the city's northeast called Royal Seaport, where ferries depart for Finland and the Baltic countries, and where the Swedish capital's oil tanks and gas storage units are located.
Construction is scheduled to begin next year on a residential and commercial neighborhood that will be "CO2 positive." In other words, it will actually serve as a net consumer of carbon dioxide. To achieve this goal, the houses will have to produce 30 percent of the electricity they consume. More importantly, however, they will only be able to consume 55 kilowatt hours of energy per square meter.
Tomas Gustafsson, the chief planner, used to advise government agencies in China, Vietnam and Thailand on how to build cities that don't make their residents sick.
Gustafsson, who now works for the city of Stockholm, and Deputy Mayor Hamilton have hired the electronics company ABB to build a so-called smart grid for the Royal Seaport project. In this system, the electric meter for each house is connected online with the electricity supplier. This allows it to report house-specific information to the central office, such as that a given family's electric car has to be fully charged by 7 a.m. the next morning. The central office then determines the best time to charge the vehicle.
The computer also controls the washing machine, so that it only runs at night, when electricity costs are the lowest. "As a result, some of the peak current is removed from the grid when consumption is high," says Gustafsson. If capacity utilization is distributed more evenly, fewer power plants are needed.
"The goal is to make it as easy as possible for people to behave in an environmentally friendly way," says Gustafsson. His boss, Ulla Hamilton, agrees: "We have to take away their fear that protecting the climate means climbing back into the trees."
RALF BESTE, DIRK KURBJUWEIT, RALF NEUKIRCH, CHRISTIAN SCHWÄGERL, GERALD TRAUFETTER