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07/18/2019 12:53 PM

Living Sustainably

Can We Save the Planet Without Having to Do Without?

By , Anton Rainer, and

Many in Germany are trying to do their part to slow climate change. They are conscientious about the purchases they make, they ride bikes and they try to reduce their trash and carbon footprint. They can't solve the problem on their own, but they could force politicians and businesses to act.

Saving the planet isn't going to be easy. It'll take effort. Like packing children's lunches into recycled glass jars and wrapping them in wool socks to prevent them from shattering in kids' backpacks. Or making homemade detergent out of curd soap, soda and water. Whatever it takes to avoid plastic packaging. The Meuser family has been living this way for half a year.

"We're only taking small steps, but that alone feels so liberating," says Maik Meuser, 42. "But we also have to invest time and energy," says Nicole Kallwies-Meuser, 41.

Both work full-time. He's a TV host and she's a project manager. They have three children. Their day-to-day family commitments are challenging enough as it is, but at the beginning of the year, the parents asked themselves: How can we leave behind a world for our children that is worth living in and beautiful? Because if something doesn't change soon, the Meusers thought, it's over. And not only for them, but all of humanity.

Surveys show that nearly three-quarters of all Germans are worried about their planet's future. It's no wonder then, that the secretary general of the United Nations hardly misses an opportunity to call climate change the "greatest systematic threat to humanity."

What's new is this: There is an increasing amount of people like the Meusers who are not only worried but are seriously looking for ways to change the way they live. These are people who have decided that saving the environment isn't merely the purview of the hippy-dippy-granola crowd, but for everyone.

A 'Quasi-Religious' Promise of Salvation

The Meusers live in a duplex in the western German town of Dormagen. They don't identify as particularly political. If anything, they're middle-of-the-road kind of people. "We're not radical about what we're doing, just pragmatic," says Nicole Kallwies-Meuser. "Simply step-by-step." They avoid plastic shopping bags, plastic-wrapped sausage and orange juice sold in Tetrapak packaging. When they go to the butcher's counter at the supermarket, they usually bring their own Tupperware to avoid having the meat wrapped in plastic -- even though the woman behind the counter still looks at them funny. Their toothbrushes are made of bamboo.

In the past, the Meusers used to place three yellow trash bags full of plastic garbage on the street in front of their house every week. Now they're down to only one and it's only half full. Their garbage can that once overflowed is now mostly empty. The day care the Meusers' children attend has followed their lead and replaced the disposable plastic water bottles with reusable bottles and tap water. "Five years ago, our friends would have laughed at us," says Maik Meuser. "But now, almost everyone asks how they too can get involved."

The Meusers are no longer outliers. This summer, one of the hottest buzzwords in Germany is "sustainability." It has overtaken economic growth as the main topic on more than half of people's minds, according to a recent survey. Lots of current statistics reflect this shift in thinking: For instance, 42 percent of people want to use less electricity this year. And one in three would like to do without a car more often.

Atmosfair and Myclimate, two organizations that provide consumers with carbon offsets, reported record sales in 2018 with growth rates of 40 percent or more. Anyone who flies and wants to assuage their guilty conscience can donate money to offset their CO2 emissions. At the same time, sales of bicycles and e-bikes jumped by nearly 10 percent in the past year.

Last year, an average of five German farmers a day switched to pure organic farming, and revenues for organic farmers rose by 12 percent compared to the year before. This year, the food industry will sell almost twice as much vegetarian or vegan food as it did three years ago. In 2012, around 20 cookbooks with vegan recipes were published in Germany, while in 2016, that number had jumped to more than 200.

According to surveys, half of Germans find that the Green Party's values are in line with their own. In other words, the desire to protect the environment can no longer be ascribed to a particular political ideology -- and certainly not to a particular milieu. Some people want to live more sustainably because it's progressive. Others want to do so to protect nature.

"Sustainability is becoming a 'quasi-religious' promise of salvation," says communication scientist Norbert Bolz. It's a rallying cry for all the people who are tired of hearing about the other big movement of our day: populism, with its calls for exclusion and secession and its "After us, the flood" mentality. And not to mention Donald Trump.

'The Public Is Currently Way Ahead'

A lot seems to be coalescing at the moment and it's not coming down from above -- from thought leaders or politicians -- but from the middle of society. "The public is currently way ahead of politicians and the economy on this. It's also having an influence on both," says the sociologist and climate expert Harald Welzer.

A new dynamic has emerged, primarily because the climate issue is largely perceived as a question of justice -- intergenerational justice. Millions of young people have understood that their future is at stake and that one day they'll pay the price if something doesn't change soon.

"'Fridays for Future' has developed more political power than Greenpeace on its best day," Welzer says. "The process of cultural change that has begun is palpable."

On the other hand, this will to change isn't reflected in figures everywhere. Meat consumption in Germany, for one, hasn't declined at all, even though many people now express a wish to live vegan. And despite the fact that sustainable tourism is en vogue at the moment, just as many Germans fly to their vacation destinations as ever before.

How does this all fit together?

The Germans, it seems, were long a people of "climate-concerned climate sinners," the German Federal Environment Agency states. They buy organic sausages, put them in their reusable jute bags and drive home in their SUVs.

No One Wants to Change

Consumption continues to grow unabated. And even while the percentage of consumption that is organic-vegan-green is growing, this trend can at best soften the general destruction that is taking place -- not solve it.

That's why this new sustainability movement is as self-deceptive as it is pointless, critics say. In the end, no one really wants to radically change.

But it's also true that leaving it up to consumers alone to change the world will only overwhelm people. The Meusers are experiencing exactly this. Changing their habits to reduce their plastic waste has been difficult enough. Following a completely sustainable lifestyle -- travel, food, housing, clothes, energy -- is out of the question as long as they have to do it completely on their own. "We'd like to do more, but it would just take too big an effort," says Maik Meuser.

The will to do good and live sustainably is there. This is true for many people. But in order to prevent their wish to improve the world from ending in frustration requires more than a few changes in consumption habits. It requires more than a few sacrifices here and there. The economy on the whole needs to become greener. The government needs to begin rewarding sustainable economic behavior and making environmentally harmful behavior more expensive. But is that likely to happen? Will the economy really go green -- or will it just pretend?

The Environment Evangelist

For several months, Michael Jost has been traveling the country like a missionary, speaking to investors, managers and journalists. He shows a disturbing video simulation of the Earth in the year 2100 if the global temperature were to rise by 2 to 4 degrees Celsius (3.6 to 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit). It depicts heat waves that envelop the globe like wildfires. Water shortages. Droughts. Floods. "We need a global strategy to reduce CO2," Jost says. "We must develop into an emissions-neutral society."

Jost doesn't work for Greenpeace or Environmental Action Germany. He's a chief strategist at Volkswagen, the company whose products have been polluting the air for decades. The company which deceived millions of customers worldwide with manipulated diesel engines. The company which a few years ago warned against a "campaign against individual mobility" every time environmental regulations were made more stringent.

The company is currently planning an electric offensive like the industry has never seen: Volkswagen plans to sell 22 million electric cars over the next 10 years. This seems overly ambitious, considering that in 2018, Volkswagen only sold 50,000 electric vehicles worldwide.

The market for electric vehicles is still tiny, the growth forecast vague and the risk enormous: Volkswagen is investing billions in a future technology without knowing for certain whether or not it will even be adopted.

The company's e-offensive isn't exactly voluntary. In China, the world's largest automobile market, the government is pushing for change. Volkswagen expects that by 2040, practically no more cars with combustion engines will be sold in the country. Anyone hoping to do business there in the future, therefore, will have to build electric cars.

The European Union is also exerting pressure and tightening CO2 targets. Internal calculations by VW and BMW show that if they don't increase their fleets' shares of e-vehicles to 40 and 55 percent, respectively, in the next few years, they could face billions of euros in fines.

Time to Force Consumers to Do What's Right

The car companies are actually coping better with the pressure from China than with the new specifications from Europe. Beijing has a master plan for systematically expanding e-mobility. Europe doesn't even have a general plan.

According to VW CEO Herbert Diess, this is exactly where the biggest problem lies: Politicians in Europe are leaving businesses to figure out for themselves how to develop sustainable products on a large scale. For Diess and other leaders in the German automobile industry, one thing is certain: Without government support measures, the vaunted e-mobilization of the masses will be unattainable. A strategy is needed to lure people to electric cars, to create a used car market for e-vehicles, to create a network of charging stations and to make at-home charging stations ubiquitous.

E-cars are still too expensive for consumers outside the high-priced niche. Without subsidies, corporate strategists fear that cheap electric cars -- meaning models suitable for mass production -- would still be a ruinous business in the long run. As long as this is the status quo, e-mobility will remain a luxury for high earners and an unsuitable building block for a turnaround on sustainability.

Companies are struggling with similar issues in other industries as well. They want to -- and have to -- offer more environmentally friendly products. But so far, most of them remain niche offerings. As great as consumer pressure is on the one hand, on the other, it's hard to change consumers' behavior. Everything is supposed to become more sustainable and more ecological -- but please, don't let it become at all uncomfortable or unaffordable.

The coffee chain Starbucks declared nearly a decade ago that it wanted to replace all of its disposable paper cardboard cups with reusable ones. Then in 2015, its goal was to have at least a quarter of all Starbucks cups used in the United States be reusable. In 2018, only 1.8 percent were.

This begs the question: If consumers won't voluntarily forgo cardboard cups, why not slap them with a mandatory surcharge?

How About Some Tax Advantages?

The financial sector has long been interested in promoting "sustainable and impact investments," meaning investments in companies and mutual funds that demonstrably pursue eco-friendly and social goals. Studies have shown that companies that integrate sustainability goals into their business plans perform better in the long term.

Within two years, such investments have increased by 25 percent. Yet they still remain a business for specialists. Sustainable investments could become a product for the masses, if only governments would support them with the proper framework conditions, Axel Weber, the head of the Swiss bank UBS, wrote in an op-ed for the Financial Times. How about incentivizing such investments with tax advantages?

In no other industry, however, does sustainability appear to be as big a deal as in the textile industry. One reason is because there are few industries that are dirtier. Textile manufacturers emitted more than 1.2 billion tons of greenhouse gases in 2015 -- more than all international flights and global shipping combined. What's more: 63 percent of all materials used in clothing production are plastic.

According to a recent study by the management consulting firm McKinsey, nearly 80 percent of buyers of fashion chains are now operating under the assumption that sustainability will have a major influence on consumer purchasing decisions in the coming years, especially in mass fashion. McKinsey predicts that sustainability will be at "the center of innovation in the fashion industry."

Luxury brands like Stella McCartney have already cut polyvinyl chloride (PVC) out of their supply chains and are experimenting with other materials. Mass producers, however, are having a tougher time: European apparel retailer C&A, for one, is trying out compostable T-shirts. In 2017, H&M introduced Arket, a new brand of clothing that was supposed to last longer and be more environmentally friendly. Arket's market share, unfortunately, is still negligible.

Brand-New Used Shoes

Adidas has also developed a sustainable product that has had some success on the mass market. In 2015, the German sports apparel maker launched a running shoe made entirely of recycled plastic waste that had been collected on beaches and in the sea. In 2018, 5 million pairs of the shoes were produced. This year, that number is set to jump to 11 million.

By 2024, Adidas intends to only use recycled polyester. That's not only because customers want it that way -- so do many employees, whose average age is 31. Adidas CEO Kasper Rorsted recently estimated that half of his company's workforce voted for the Greens in elections in May for the European Parliament.

James Carnes wasn't one of them. As an American, he's not allowed to vote in Germany -- even though he's lived in Herzogenaurach for years and has worked for Adidas for nearly two decades. Today, he's the company's head of global strategy and is responsible for new products. His latest new development is a shoe with the somewhat pretentious name, "Futurecraft.Loop." It's a 100 percent recyclable running shoe that can be returned to Adidas, dismantled into individual pieces and reassembled into a new shoe. Raw materials can thus be reused within a closed cycle. "It'll probably take about two years until we can make a mass product out of it," Carnes estimates.

Adidas recently announced its intention to achieve a closed-loop economy with all of its products in the medium-term and eliminate plastic waste altogether. It sounds like a radical goal, but it could be the only solution. What's the point of making things that are only a little bit more sustainable if lots more clothing is getting purchased?

According to a study by Greenpeace, Germans today buy an average of 60 new pieces of clothing a year -- and wear them half as long as they once did. The result of this is that production has more than doubled since 2000. This excessive consumer behavior is diligently promoted by parts of the fashion industry, with up to 24 new collections a year.

What Are Politicians so Afraid Of?

The priorities of the German government can be summed up in a single sentence. "First, we'll take care of the economy, then the climate." With this statement, Peter Altmaier began his new job as Germany's economics minister in the spring of last year.

Even occasional advances have been undermined. When German Environment Minister Svenja Schulze, a social democrat, was getting ready to enforce a stricter CO2 limit for cars, she was reined in by her party's leader, Andrea Nahles. Labor unions don't like electromobility because it could cost jobs -- they'd rather keep depending on diesel. When a government commission decided in late January to stop using coal to generate electricity in Germany, conservative politicians attacked the plan, saying it would lead to the deindustrialization of Germany.

And Christian Lindner, head of the business-friendly Free Democratic Party, told a group of demonstrating students, led by young climate activists like Luisa Neubauer, that they'd be well-advised to leave climate protection to "the professionals."

Many people see it the other way around, however: Professional German politicians don't appear to have their act together. "Germans feel like nothing is happening with climate protection. They're asking themselves, 'How did that happen? We used to be forerunners, what with our decision to phase out nuclear energy,'" says Ortwin Renn. He's the scientific director at the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies in Potsdam, a nonpartisan research institution. His team of researchers tries to track Germans' ecological sensitivities.

"Politicians have been ignoring what's been going on in the country for an astonishingly long time," Renn says. In particular, the generational gap and the growing influence of Fridays for Future remained largely off the radar of many political strategists. Renn can identify when this shift occurred down to the day. It was the evening of May 26, right as the results of the European elections became known. The Greens received almost 21 percent of votes. And it wasn't only Social Democrats who switched to the environmentally minded party -- more than 1 million conservative Christian Democrats did too.

A Broad Shift in Society

For Renn, the rise of the Greens is merely a symptom of a broader societal shift. People can argue over the best way toward an ecologically sustainable world, but everyone agrees that the moral questions are relevant, the researcher says. "There is agreement on this across a large heterogeneous political spectrum," Renn says, from almost the far right to almost the far left. "This is precisely the broad middle part of the spectrum that the old big tent parties -- the Social Democrats and the Christian Democrats -- would like to occupy."

A sign of the shift that is happening in the country could already been seen earlier this year. In February, close to 2 million people in Bavaria trudged through heavy snow and sleet to express their intention to save the butterflies and bees in their state. It was the highest voter turnout for a petition to hold a referendum in the state's history, with 40 percent turnout at town halls in some communities. And it wasn't even the actual vote. It was merely the collection of signatures needed to get the referendum on the ballot -- a new Nature Conservation Act "that should immediately stop the extinction of species in Bavaria through effective regulations." Like banning pesticides, for example.

The Ecological Democratic Party (ÖDP), a niche party backed by the State Association for Bird Protection (LBV), among others, initiated the petition. Against the resistance of farmers' associations, the agricultural lobby and the CSU -- and little wonder, given that the demands would essentially turn industrial agriculture on its head. By 2025, 20 percent of Bavaria's agricultural land is to be farmed organically, with that figure going up to 30 percent five years later.

Ultimately, the referendum didn't take place because state Governor Markus Söder (CSU) adopted the ÖDP draft in its entirety and declared that his party needs to become greener and more open. The numbers had obviously scared Söder. Polls conducted after the successful petition for a referendum found that if it went to an actual vote -- it wouldn't only be Green Party backers who would support it, but also 87 percent of CSU voters.

'The Mood Has Changed Enormously'

"Ten years ago, we wouldn't have been successful with a referendum like this. But the mood among the populace has changed enormously," says Norbert Schäffer, who has headed LBV since 2014. He has spent most of his life working in the field of species conservation and even wrote his dissertation on the "habitat selection and partnership system of spotted rail and corncrake" birds. Schäffer says Germans have actually long been environmentally conscious. But in recent years, one bit of horrific news after the other has been spreading across the country. Headlines like the one announcing that the number of field birds has halved in recent decades. Or a study published in April finding that the mass of insects has decreased in some areas by 75%, which got reduced to: The bees and the butterflies are dying out. "Many seem to be realizing these days that things really can't go on the way they are," says Schäffer. So, what now?

"I don't expect that people will suddenly start rushing out to their organic supermarkets tomorrow," he says. "The step of fundamentally changing the way we act is a big one."

But conservationists do believe something is happening, that there has been a shift in many places. And more than they thought possible two years ago. Hobby gardeners are leaving their lawnmowers in the garage, and rather than complaining to neighbors about uncontrolled growth, they praise them "because they immediately understand that they just want more butterflies in the garden."

Schäffer is optimistic again for the first time in quite a while. "In the medium term, we will look back on this year and say: That's when we passed the nadir, and it was about time."

It seems as if the German government, albeit after considerable delay, has come to a similar conclusion -- that both citizens and businesses actually want the country to be more environmentally conscious. That momentum has grown to the point that the government is under pressure to act. And that something urgently needs to be done.

Since elections to the European Parliament in May, the parties in Germany's grand coalition government in Berlin have been outbidding each other in the competition to win back voters who have migrated to the Greens. Speaking in front of the 245 members of her CDU party's parliamentary group, Chancellor Angela Merkel said, "We need to put an end to the trivial stuff."

Working groups have been set up and researchers commissioned to carry out studies. But as is so often the case when scholars are involved, the politicians are merely given options -- but they have to make their own decisions. This also happened on Friday, when the German Council of Economic Experts, which advises the government on economic issues, released a study on putting a price tag on CO2 emissions.

The crucial question is: How do you tax greenhouse gases?

It will first become clear after the summer legislative break whether a precise plan will emerge from the muddle. That's the point when the Climate Cabinet appointed by Merkel is set to make a fundamental decision.

Good Plans Are at Hand

The experts are actually in agreement: Good plans for climate and environmental protection already exist. And the technologies needed to dramatically reduce CO2 emissions are either in development or are already available.

What is also clear, though, is that there will be incursions into the way we lead our lives -- and that's precisely what scares politicians. Because for all the school-age students at the Fridays for Future movement, there are other European protest movements whose members are demanding exactly the opposite, like the yellow vests, who have been keeping France in suspense since November. These groups want to be left alone when it comes to environmental and climate protection.

Or Germany's right-wing populist Alternative for Germany party, which has been agitating against climate protection for some time now. The party has launched campaigns against the planned decommissioning at the beginning of 2020 of a lignite coal-burning power plant in the Lausitz region and against plans to implement bans on certain diesel vehicles in the city of Stuttgart. State elections are slated to be held in September and October in Saxony, Brandenburg and Thuringia in eastern Germany. Those votes will be the first test of whether the German government can continue with its climate policy.

Sustainability researcher Renn warns politicians against allowing right-wing populists to dictate the agenda. "Climate protection is not an elitist project in Germany," he says. Nor is it a leftist one: "People with conservative values want to provide their grandchildren with the same or better living conditions as they had."

The Highest Hurdles Are Psychological

This means that the highest hurdles today are psychological rather than ideological. "People change their behavior when the effort requires the least psychologically and financially," says Renn. Swapping plastic bags for cloth bags, for example.

If you want people to leave their cars parked, then you also need to make cycling or public transportation more attractive to them. "People are happy when an alternative is available that can help them do something good for their conscience," Renn says.

But alternatives alone are not enough -- for example, green electricity has been around for years now and doesn't cost much more than normal power, and yet it still remains a niche player. That's also the case with many other environmentally sound alternatives available today. That's why, in addition to the alternatives, there also need to be bans in place. Be they sociologists, psychologists or political scientists, the experts seem to be in astonishing agreement about this. That's also the finding of studies by psychologist Stephan Grünewald, who heads Germany's leading institute for deep psychological market research and has spent decades probing the soul of German consumers.

When it comes to sustainable behavior, Grünewald says the average German shows a very clear tendency. "People are conflicted: They want to protect the environment, but plastic bags are just so convenient." The easiest way to resolve this inner strife would be to force them to change their behavior. "That's why people want bans -- so they don't have to rely on self-discipline."

In other words: Consumers do best when they have no other choice but the alternative. "Germans have the habit of following these kinds of rules particularly conscientiously -- you can already see that with recycling," says Grünewald.

Harald Welzer, the sustainability sociologist, also believes it is absolutely obvious that those kinds of clear regulations are needed. Ones like this: The government should stop offering incentives for company cars and instead compel people to switch to buses and trains. But Welzer likes to avoid the word "bans" because it can quickly start sounding like some kind of eco-dictatorship, instead preferring to speak of regulatory policy. The Greens also shy away from overly clear legal restrictions for the same reason: They fear that if they are perceived as a party that only bans things, that they will lose voters and become a small party again.

And that underscores the whole dilemma. If the politicians don't dare to say over and over again: You can't do that, then it's going to be close to impossible to persuade an entire country to behave in a truly environmentally friendly way, even if, in principle, a majority of people want to do so. On the other hand, many politicians wonder whether the sustainability movement is just a passing fad that will disappear just as soon as the first economic crisis hits.

Does Climate Protection Have to Remain a Luxury Good?

It's actually pretty simple: Things that damage the climate should be expensive. There are plenty of scientific studies available on how to get people to change their behavior. One thing pops up again and again: As soon as it hits their pocketbooks, even people with the most entrenched behaviors are willing to change. If the holiday flight to Thailand no longer costs 800 euros, but 5,000 euros, then people would probably prefer to take a train to the Alps in Bavaria. So, what are we waiting for? Politicians should simply impose proper eco-taxes on everything that harms the environment so that companies make their products more sustainable. If they cost more, then we, as consumers, will just all have to pay more. It would be reasonable to demand that in order to save the planet.

That's how the Henke family feels about it too, at least in theory. "Living sustainably is very important to us," says Maria Henke, a 28-year-old optician. Her husband Markus, 41, is completing an apprenticeship and isn't earning money at the moment. They live in an apartment in a pre-war building in the city of Giessen near Frankfurt and have a 1-year-old son.

In the past, the Henkes almost always bought their fruit and vegetables directly from organic farmers -- and they even had their own flour ground for them. In order to eschew plastic to the extent possible, they also bought groceries at a packaging-free supermarket. It would be safe to say that the Henkes are green.

But with only one income now instead of two, the Henkes are now having to buy almost everything from discount supermarkets. They're aware of what that means: "Lots of garbage, imported products with long transport routes," Maria Henke says, the tone of her voice sounding somewhere between frustrated and angry. She says she sometimes feels "really bad" at the supermarket checkout because she places products on the conveyor belt that she doesn't really want to buy. But there's not enough money "to buy what you really want."

Plastic has crept back into the Henkes' lives almost everywhere, but in return, their bank account is also in better shape. Instead of 400 euros, the family needs just 200 a month for food. As a family with just one remaining salary, and an average one at that, "This is the only way we can make ends meet," says Maria Henke. It's the same for many families. And that's today, before the introduction of any CO2 tax, higher gasoline prices, penalties for plastic and all the other ideas being discussed.

Sustainability Needs to Be Fair

That's why the first and most important hurdle that needs to be cleared if we are really serious about finding the path to a more sustainable society is to make sure that it is fair -- not only for moral reasons, but also for purely practical ones. "People with lower incomes will only join in if they feel that poor and rich are equally burdened," says Renn. He says this has been a repeat finding in numerous studies he has conducted. In other words: Nothing will come of saving the planet if sustainability is affordable for the upper middle class, but not for those in the lower strata of society. There can be no climate protection without climate solidarity.

As always, when it comes to money and social issues, the debate quickly turns ideological. Some use ideology to block all approaches to a more sustainable economic policy. The others see it as a gateway for the redistribution of wealth.

But whether and how a consensus can be reached can be observed these days in the haggling over the first, central building block of sustainability policy: a carbon tax. It would require that companies and consumers alike pay the tax on oil, gasoline and coal -- because all of these resources produce greenhouse gases.

Virtually all the experts think it's a good idea. "But only if it is set up according to strict fairness criteria," Renn says. Otherwise, it would be too easy for less well-off people to pay the price -- for example, if they live in a poorly insulated house in the countryside with an old, oil-fired heating system and have to commute to the city every day by car.

The government is currently discussing whether some of the revenue from the CO2 tax should be repaid to the people. But how? In Switzerland, for example, all residents receive a refund at the end of the year, and everyone receives the same amount.

Last week, the German Environment Agency (UBA) proposed providing support for low-income households by subsidizing new energy-saving refrigerators and washing machines, for example, or by having the state give additional subsidies for improving buildings' insulation. It's imperative that something actually happen. "It is important that we quickly begin putting a price tag on CO2," said UBA President Maria Krautzberger.

In their current CO2 tax proposals, the SPD and the Greens also want to return additional revenues back to the people. Under those proposals, people would be rewarded for their climate-friendly behavior. The Greens are proposing an energy subsidy of 100 euros per person per year as well as almost totally eliminating the current tax on electricity. The SPD wants high-income people with large cars and homes to pay extra.

No Lack of Instruments

Meanwhile, Merkel's CDU is still struggling to find its position. The party already has reservations about using the word "tax." The CDU doesn't want to give people the impression it is about to reach into their pocketbooks. A trading system in emissions certificates like the one that already exists for companies would have the best prospects.

So, there is no lack of instruments available. But German politicians are also nervous about recent developments in France, where the government tried to introduce a new environmental tax on fuel, inspired by its strong showing in the election and a general mood in the country that seemed to be calling for change. President Emmanuel Macron announced higher gasoline prices for the benefit of climate protection, driving the yellow vests into the streets, where they smashed the ideas with cobblestones. They were incensed because the environmental levy would have hit the poorest disproportionately, especially those in the rural areas, where people depend on their cars.

Few doubt that the sustainability hype in Germany would quickly die out if the environmental issue was pitted against socioeconomic ones. But you could also still argue that we simply need to live more frugally, which costs nothing. Everyone has the ability to consume less. After all, what this is really about is changing our everyday culture, and new ideas and self-restraint should be at the top of the agenda.

The only problem is that the poorer strata in Germany already consume much less than the rich, anyway. In 2016, the UBA prepared a study on "Per Capita Consumption of Natural Resources in Germany." It essentially states that, "The higher the education and income, the greater the consumption of resources." The highest total energy consumption is also found in the upper strata, "since they generally have above-average incomes and a lifestyle geared toward status and ownership." On average, members of the "simple, vulnerable strata" have the lowest total energy consumption.

In short: If there's a certain group destroying the climate, it's the high-earning, college-educated people who are fond of showing the world to their children during summer vacation, own two cars as well as a Vespa for the summer and have to heat a 200-square meter (2,152 square feet) apartment in the winter.

Ultimately, the question is this: How can the poor and the rich live more sustainably, without a reduction in their current quality of life? And how can we maintain our system of economic growth without being so destructive? It's a bit like the Meusers, the family from Dormagen trying to eliminate plastic from their lives. Their children are still allowed to eat ice cream, even if it comes packed in plastic. Otherwise, their enthusiasm would dissipate rapidly. Or like the Henkes in Giessen: As long they can't afford an electric car, they will likely keep driving one with a combustion engine.

It's a complicated way of life, and there will be fierce debate about many things on the path to sustainability. But the first step is simple, as Welzer, the expert on society with a special feel for Germans' nature, emphasizes. "Just stop whining and start doing something."

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