“It Is Not Impossible at All.“

In the face of the fracking euphoria, a European Union without concrete goals and fruitless UN climate negotiations, many dedicated people have given up the hope that political instruments may help form a more sustainable world. Ernst Ulrich von Weizsäcker is a politician and scientist and still values the ability to guide.

An interview with Ernst Ulrich von Weizsäcker by Ralf Bindel.

Translated from the German by Anna-Lena Vohl, Konstantina Perdikoulia, La Toya Vaughn and Karen Leicht

Looking at what has happened in the field of sustainable development from a global point of view shows the following: peak oil isn’t an issue any more, fracking is also being discussed in Europe and lignite is still being mined extensively. The UN climate negotiations have been fruitless and the post-Kyoto Protocol does not have a future. The situation in Germany is similar: emissions are still rising; there is no sign of an efficiency initiative and the Energiewende (German energy transition) is slowing down. Numerous other aspects show that nothing is going on at the moment that would portend a transformation into a sustainable society. This can be frustrating, don’t you think?

Ernst Ulrich von Weizsäcker: Yes, it can. But by looking back at history, we know that movements sometimes occur in waves. This has even happened in the history of the Federal Republic of Germany: by 1976, after about five years under Chancellor Willy Brandt and the Minister for Interior Affairs, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, the federal government launched a formidable environmental policy. In the shadow of the oil crisis and the recession, things came to a standstill under Helmut Schmidt. There were to be no new environmental laws, he said. That was a great shock for a lot of people. A few years later, the Waldsterben debate (forest decline) arose and even Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who belonged to the German conservative party, became a pioneer of a massively influential environmental policy. The same applies to the climate. Of course, the question here is whether there is enough time.

You said there wasn’t any reason for frustration. So… you aren’t frustrated?

I’m not because it’s not in my nature to be frustrated all the time. If I were, I would be long dead. 

Still, after the first steps towards sustainable development, after the Agenda 21, the Rio Conference and the implementation of emission trading, some things have been set in motion that we are now further from attaining than ever before.

That is exactly right. It was the same in the 1970s. What I want to say is that something like this should always be expected. It didn’t only happen under Helmut Schmidt but also, to an even greater degree, under Ronald Reagan. He appointed a man Secretary of the Interior – a position that includes the responsibility for environmental issues – who was opposed to environmental protection. Nevertheless, after some time, the government got the ball rolling again. But it was a lot easier to do so in the context of classical local pollution policy because there was a way to increase prosperity and protect the environment at the same time. It is not that easy when it comes to the climate. 

Why not?

Until now we’ve seen a strong correlation between CO2 emissions per capita and the gross domestic product. We must eliminate this correlation first. The so-called Kuznets curve, which has existed for a long time for local pollution, at the end of which a society is rich and clean, must now finally also be established for CO2. Neither politicians nor economists have yet been able to think of anything much different than renewable energies, which is very nice, nuclear energy, which is dreadful, and carbon capture and storage, which will be so expensive that it will never really work. The underlying topic of energy efficiency has been neglected – in Germany less than in other countries. 

Your subject area used to be resource efficiency

That’s exactly the same thing: resource efficiency is made up of energy efficiency on the one hand and material efficiency on the other hand. 

At least the discussion about Factor Four, Factor Five, Factor Ten, Factor X or Y led to a partial increase in resource productivity but there are also the famous rebound effects. On the whole, the consumption of resources isn’t decreasing, decoupling hasn’t taken place. In fact, we consume more than what grows back. Our ecological footprint is far too large, yet things haven’t changed. This development has been clear for a long time already.

That’s totally true. But in the more recent book Factor Five, which is much more political than Factor Four, there are recipes – that I consider to have considerable appeal – on how to tackle the rebound effect and at the same time generate prosperity i.e. reach the Kuznets curve and overcome the rebound effect. This is a gigantic task. I’m not saying that it’s easy because there are recipes. But what is needed now is to very carefully test and popularise them and make them capable of convincing the majority.

Name the aspects that are capable of convincing the majority in this situation. How do the methods of Factor Five fit into the present time? Almost all countries find themselves in an unfavourable economic situation. To combine this with the necessity of reducing the consumption of resources seems to be more of an impossible task than a gigantic task. 

It isn’t impossible at all. In Factor Five, we initially praise Germany and other countries that brought the transition from purely fossil fuels and nuclear energy to renewable energies into motion. Without the German Renewable Energy Act (EEG) this wouldn’t have happened. But the EEG was then copied by about 100 countries including China. Our message, however, is – and I also share this view today – that renewable energies are well and good but don't solve the problem.

Most politicians and economists think that growth achieved by having a green economy is enough. 

Here is a quick calculation: the EU promised on the basis of the success story of the EEG, among other things, that by 2020 the percentage of renewable energies will amount to at least 20 percent throughout the EU. Then this would be valid for half a billion people. Let’s optimistically assume that the other half billion people in the OECD countries, the USA etc. also achieve 20 percent. How much of the world’s problem is solved by that? The answer is pathetic: one thirty-fifth, because 20 percent is a fifth of one hundred, one billion is one seventh of seven billion. To increase renewable energies, for example from corn, rapeseed and palm oil plantations, water and wind power stations, thirty-five fold isn’t ecologically responsible. 

What would be necessary and possible in addition? 

As much as we love renewable energies, we must know that the second component – and first for me in terms of priority – namely efficiency, is part of it, too. First, there is evidence that all this works; two thirds of the book Factor Five deals with this point, and secondly the political options I just mentioned. The most important measure is to create an equivalent to the EEG, only this time for efficiency. I am aiming at a ping-pong effect between the increase of energy efficiency and subsequently the increase of energy prices on the market in exactly the same percentage. If this happens, efficiency will increase almost automatically by means of economic incentives, which would be ‘pong’. Then ‘ping’ comes into play again and prices will increase. This is an exact equivalent to the staggering success story of the Industrial Revolution – at the time with labour productivity and wages. Over the course of 150 years, this ping-pong effect always resulted in increased labour productivity, increased wages, then again in increased productivity. All this led to a twentyfold increase in labour productivity and thus represented a prosperity generator. I had something similar in mind for energy. I absolutely consider this to have political majority appeal as soon as it’s well formulated by the legislator and promoted correspondingly.

You more or less invented or introduced the energy transition together with Hermann Scheer and Michael Müller, as members of the German Bundestag representing the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD). Now, Sigmar Gabriel, the federal chairman of the SPD, is regarded as having a rather dampening effect on the energy transition. In his proposals there’s no mention of an efficiency offensive and we’re experiencing precisely this effect of increased prices for electricity. This, however, doesn’t lead to reflection about efficiency, but about stopping the price increase.

In my opinion, it’s not that straightforward. Sigmar Gabriel has the electoral mandate to stop the price increase for extra payments for renewable energies, which has assumed alarming proportions since 2009. That’s what he’s doing and you can’t hold it against him since it was the electorate’s mandate, there’s no room for interpretation. The only ones not in favour of this are the ones who have profited from the cause of the price increase, especially the producers of renewable energies. But with the main points of his bill Gabriel made it clear that the target of expanding from the current 24 percent to 60 percent will undoubtedly be adhered to.

To that extent, the current political chatter suggests that Gabriel is destroying the energy transition, but this cannot be justified on the basis of the quantities. He would achieve an efficiency gain in industrial enterprises if the energy prices were increased for them. 

That is correct. With respect to industry, I find the bill dissatisfying, because the incentives there remain feeble. However, I have an answer to this of course. I’m referring to the brilliant experiences the Swedes made with their air pollution tax in the early 1990’s. It was created to combat the death of the forests due to acid rain. In those days, there was already an air pollution tax in France, initiated among others, by the local nuclear lobby. The Swedes said: what the French are doing is not good enough; we’ll invent a tax that will be forty times higher for every tonne of pollutant. The outcry in industry was tremendous: now we will abandon Sweden, now is the time for a major de-industrialisation movement. We all know these kinds of speeches. The government reacted ingeniously and offered them a deal: we demand from you this brutal air pollution tax in the same way as we do from everyone else, without exception. But, we will return the money to you industrially, not for every tonne of toxins, but for value creation. So, coal-fired power stations for example were compensated per megawatt hour. Thus, the operators were incredibly interested in getting rid of air pollutants and produce good energy. The whole issue was some sort of a rejuvenating cure for the Swedish industry right up to the iron and steel industry, no one emigrated and subsequently the Swedish were more competitive than before. A similar approach could work for the issue of energy. Yet, this is not the way industry thinks up to now and unfortunately, not even the German government and the European Union. But that is once again a matter of informing and advertising.

It would be something like a resource tax.

I would rather call it resource tax reform, because the German state does not become wealthier through it. It would be a social prioritisation of efficiency through a market incentive program in which a tax is imposed on intense consumption of resources and the collected money is then reallocated for more efficient technologies. Naturally, this must happen at a very slow pace so that the expected technical progress can keep up and no bad investments emerge. The Swedes were a lot more brutal; what I am suggesting is incremental.

So, does a political instrument of that kind actually still work when lobbyists are so heavily represented on the committees that the politicians can barely decide freely? 

In a democracy in general, the lobbies always find themselves in key positions. But once the people awake, the needed indignation is generated and the politicians make proposals that satisfy the population and put the lobbies in their place, without the rise of their feared misinvestments, it does function again quite well. That was exactly the case with Brandt, Schmidt and Kohl and the conventional environmental policy. 

Normally, politicians show they have a good sense of what the population wants. You are saying now that Sigmar Gabriel has the mandate to reduce the rise of the EEG apportionment. 

This is a priority amongst people today. Then, of course, there are surveys. They are indeed all saying they want solar energy, but when the question arises as to whether or not they want a further increase in additional charges, of course the answer is no.. 

The only option for the private consumer is to save money. For them, the electricity price increased because of exceptions made for industry, the suspension of emissions trading, giving certificates away as presents etc. But it also has to do with a decrease in personal consumption. Germany pollutes the environment with 11 tons of CO2-emissions per capita and year. They would have to reduce their emissions to 2.7 tonnes in comparison. Then why not also use a higher price as an argument?

The reduction is feasible and I’ll provide arguments for it. The prices have to increase for the private consumers as well. However, I much prefer the ping-pong idea over EEG dynamics. The former means that the upward trend in prices should be in proportion to the efficiency gains. The latter was a cost recovery method for the providers, which had nothing to do with the consumers. In 2009, it was determined – something I thought was insane – that the surcharge should be measured according to the difference between market prices and the prices at the European Energy Exchange in Leipzig. After that decision, the surcharge increased when prices dropped in Leipzig, which is absurd. But for investors in renewable energies it was great news: they did not need to fear the lower proceeds at the energy exchange. Now they complain that this is no longer the case. Despite any joy about and support for renewable energies – I was one of those in the German Bundestag, who had initiated it, Herman Scheer was the real hero: we cannot for political reasons afford great privileges at the expense of the poor population. As I said, for that reason the expansion target of 60 percent and 100 percent shortly after that, is not in doubt. If, due to the EEG dynamics, the prices have increased more dramatically especially in the last five years, a lot more quickly than the efficiency has come along, then someone should definitely deflate them again. This does not mean that from now on energy will get cheaper again, but rather that it should get more expensive in lockstep with efficiency progress, which, however, happens at a slower pace.

Do you have an example of how the efficiency-reform could work in the private sector and how it could reduce consumption?

If you want to convert an old building into a Passive House, you must spend quite a lot of money. The loan payback period would extend to between 15 and 30 years. That is too much time for today’s financial markets. They demand a payback period of eight years or less. When everyone knows, including the German public bank’s employees and architects, that from now on energy will be more expensive in proportion to the efficiency gains, the payback period will automatically be cut short. It could be reduced to eight years. The same bank employee who denies someone a loan now, would then of course approve it, because it would be a profitable thing to do. In this way, it would suddenly become possible to cost-efficiently reduce the CO2 emissions per capita by a factor of 4, from 11 to 2.7 tons.

Heating and fuel costs have risen significantly more than those of electricity. Actually, electricity only amounts to an average of 2.5 percent of household expenditures. The costs of operating a motor vehicle, of heating and of hot water would need to be estimated higher, by a factor of 3. People only talk about electricity, which, although it accounts for 39 percent of the primary energy demand, only makes up 14 percent of the primary energy costs.

Exactly – not all of the aspects are taken into consideration: everyone looks at electricity and only few people take heating into account. But we know that almost half of the CO2 emissions come from radiators and transportation, and this is why we have to pay more attention to heating and fuels, so, of course, the ping-pong idea can be put into practice. But heating plays a less important role for politics in Berlin than the reform of the German Renewable Energy Act. However, this is going to change: when the German environmentalist Wolf von Fabeck calculated the cost-covering reimbursement for solar electricity using the so-called Aachener Modell, ten years before the German Social Democrat Hermann Scheer, this idea had not yet established itself in Bonn’s – or rather Berlin’s – politics. Ten years later, it gained acceptance. This is also the way I’d imagine this concept to work here and now. Once reason – as Immanuel Kant described it, in terms of the Enlightenment – asserts itself, there will be a majority supporting it.

Right now, it actually looks like a majority can be won by assuring them that the economic situation is good.

The people’s thinking is dominated by this idea, which I regard as historically wrong, that the cheaper our energy, the better the state of the economy. This thought was empirically refuted by the Japanese in the 1980s, when they had the highest energy costs and the strongest economy. […]


Prof. Ernst Ulrich von Weizsäcker, born on 25 June 1939, studied physics and taught biology in Essen and Kassel. He was president of the Wuppertal Institute from 1991 until 2000 and a member of the German Parliament from 1998 until 2005. He has been co-president of the Club of Rome since 2012 and patron of the crowd-funding platform Bettervest since 2013. He has received numerous awards and honours. His most recent book, Factor 5, was published by Droemer, a German publishing house, in 2011.

More articles on the topic of frustration & failure and sustainability are either online or in our factory Magazine Sisyphus. Fine illustrated and good readable on tablet computers and screens the PDF magazine contains all articles and pictures with numbers and citations to topic and is free to download.

Magazin als PDF