European Affairs

We Need World Rules to Save the Environment     Print Email

Minister of Environment, Nature, and Forests for the State of Schleswig-Holstein, Germany, and a member of the Green Party

For any society, protection of its environment and natural resources is of crucial importance. This means not only improving the physical environment, but also adopting modern environmental policies - steps that we in the German government are committed to taking.

The guiding principle must be sustainability. Products, industrial processes and services are sustainable when they minimize the consumption of energy, raw materials and land, and concentrate on using renewable resources. This makes ecology an indispensable component of modern economic and energy policies.

Fossil energy sources are a scarce and limited commodity. The problem is that in the mid- to long-term, the price of using them is too low and reflects only part of their true cost, providing little incentive to explore energy-saving options to develop renewable energy sources.

In Germany, on the other hand, other non-wage costs, particularly social insurance contributions, place an excessive burden on both employers and their employees. The government is taking steps to rectify this imbalance, by shifting the tax burden from employment to the environmental sector.

Energy taxes are being increased incrementally, while social security contributions are being reduced, so as to make this ecological tax reform revenue-neutral. By phasing the measure over a period of years, stretching beyond the life of the present legislature, the government hopes to create predictable conditions for investment and purchasing decisions.

Most of the extra revenue from energy taxes will go toward reducing employers' and employees' pension contributions. But DM200 million ($90 million) will be used to promote the development of renewable energy sources. That figure will rise in proportion to the growth in electricity tax revenue.

The heating sector will need a different approach. In the private market, tax credits and subsidies will be used to encourage the installation of solar, biomass, and geothermal heating systems.

With the phase-out of nuclear power in Germany, we are pointing the energy sector in a completely new direction. The plan is that, as nuclear power is phased out, new systems that favor heat-power co-generation, natural gas, and the use of renewable energy sources will be phased in.

The ambitious aim is to reduce carbon dioxide emissions in Germany by 25 percent by 2005. This will mean a major effort to implement more efficient energy production, conversion, and savings, and to accelerate the use of regenerative energy sources. We also hope to double the share of renewable energy sources in total energy production by 2010, eventually reaching 50 percent by the middle of the century.

Transport must also make its contribution. Our goal is a transport system that guarantees cleaner mobility for everyone. Average auto fuel consumption must be reduced for all vehicles, with a possible target of 60 miles per gallon for cars. As German competitiveness depends on a properly functioning transport infrastructure, we plan to shift freight traffic from roads to rail and waterways.

We also intend to put a stop to cheap, environmentally harmful waste disposal, and introduce clear guidelines for waste management. So far there has been a lack of clarity as to how to create efficient and sustainable recycling systems. There have to be clear and enforceable regulations for the entire sector, from waste elimination to high quality recycling and publicly acceptable waste disposal.

A number of laws already compel manufacturers and distributors in important sectors, such as packaging, cars and batteries, to take care of their own products when they are no longer needed. We intend to build on these results in other sectors, with priority for electronic scrap, which poses a particularly serious waste management problem.

We shall present a comprehensive strategy for environmental protection focused on product design, and we shall work for implementation as well. Here, too, we want to see these issues reflected more strongly in regulations at the EU level.

A cornerstone of sustainable development is nature preservation - especially in such a densely populated and highly industrialized country as Germany. Today the "consumption" of nature continues: ancient landscapes are being destroyed, and biological diversity is threatened. We need not just deal with the threat today, but to anticipate what may come. Different levels of protection will be needed for different areas of Germany.

We plan to propose a bill to introduce a nature preservation system ensuring that:

  • land use is made more compatible with nature, the environment and the landscape,
  • an extensive network of integrated biotopes is established over some 10 percent of the country,
  • biodiversity is effectively protected,
  • countryside planning is conducted on a national basis.

The Federal government is also committed to a fully funded clean-up program of contaminated sites in the new Eastern Laender, where more streamlined decision-making is needed. Reclaiming contaminated land not only helps protect people and the environment from pollution, but it also relieves the settlement pressures on currently undeveloped land. In addition, nitrogen levels in agricultural soils must come down, and to that end we want to support an expansion of organic farming.

The goal of sustainability cannot be attained without an overall strategy reaching beyond the public sector. Sustainable development depends on the initiative and innovation of business and science alike, and must have active public participation. Non-governmental organizations can lend an important impetus to the political process, promote greater public awareness of our responsibilities to current and future generations, and mobilize the public at large to take practical action. We need a new dialogue between politicians and the public on sustainable development.

It is now internationally recognized that effective environmental protection depends on the strengthening of citizens' participation, greater transparency of government action, and court access for both individuals and associations on matters of environmental concern. Germany recently became the last EU member state to sign the UN/ECE Aarhus Convention on access to environmental information, an area involving important democratic principles on which Germany should no longer lag behind.

The protection of water resources means moving ahead with an EU directive providing for comprehensive water protection, and bringing standards for the discharge of wastewater into surface water in line with the best available technology.

Air pollution control is another area where there is much to be done. For example, action is needed on waste incineration, on better clean air planning at the regional level, and on combating summer smog. An EU Directive is in the works to establish national emission ceilings for harmful acid-forming substances and ozone precursor substances. We vigorously support these initiatives, which will bring considerable environmental benefits to Germany.

As an EU member, we shall also play our part in international negotiations on crucial environmental protection issues such as climate protection. Though the Buenos Aires Climate Change Conference in November 1998 fell short of our expectation, it proved that it is possible to agree on a working program with firm objectives. Its implementation, however, must be treated as a matter of priority.

As for the Kyoto Treaty, the German Government will push for stringent and transparent rules in areas like emissions trading, joint implementation, and clean development mechanisms. The treaty regime must also include an effective system for monitoring compliance.

There are other instances of crucial international cooperation. Under the Convention on Biological Diversity, we have to make progress on several fronts, including forest preservation and chemical safety. The Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer offers an example of international cooperation that embraces developing countries. An international water conference is planned in Germany for 2002 in support of the Global Freshwater Initiative of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development.

Yet another example is protection of the marine environment. Shipping is an important concern. We ought to take action at the national, international, and, if necessary, at the EU level, to prevent damaging maritime accidents and improve our emergency response systems.

An international strategy must also involve the United Nations. Sustainable development and environmental protection should be inscribed as aims of the UN Charter, the UN Environment Program must be strengthened and we must push forward with UN environmental reforms.

In response to the economic globalization, we need a worldwide ecological regulatory framework in order to prevent environmental dumping. The aim must be international minimum environmental standards, e.g. for world trade, foreign investment, and export promotion. Nowhere else do we see so clearly how all nations on Earth share a common destiny as in the protection of the environment. It is time to turn this community of common destiny into a community of action.


This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number I, Issue number IV in the Fall of 2000.

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