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Towards German Zero

December 21, 2020
topic:Climate action
by:Frank Odenthal
Germany was once considered a pioneer in fighting climate change. But that seems an awfully long time ago. The issued climate protection targets will foreseeably be missed by far. This annoys and frustrates many citizens in Germany and beyond.

Therefore, non-governmental organization GermanZero would like to increase the pressure on the German government to achieve the goals that they have agreed by contract to achieve. German engineer Claas Helmke is one of the founders of GermanZero. FairPlanet spoke to him.

FairPlanet: What is GermanZero about?

Claas Helmke: Our goal is to help politicians to meet the Paris climate target, namely to stay well below 2° C global warming. To do this, we don't just want to take to the streets and demand more commitment; That is why we have written a climate plan and are now preparing a template to introduce a law. This way we want to make sure that climate protection is properly anchored in the German constition.

Who came up with the idea of GermanZero, and when was that?

I have been active in the field of renewable energies for 25 years, especially in the field of solar technology. I was part of the German Tausend Dächer Programm („Thousand Roofs Program“), then I worked in research management at the European Commission, and today I‘m employed by an impact investor in Berlin for three years now. Two years ago, at a conference, I met Heinrich Strossenreuther, who helped initiate the mobility law in Berlin, which was then passed. At this conference, when asked what he was planning to do next, he told me: something with CO2 pricing. So I went to him and suggested that we should join forces. We both thought that our economic system has a systematic flaw because resources that are becoming scarce, namely clean air and clean water, haven‘t got a price tag. So we founded GermanZero as an association in the summer of last year, which was then officially recognized as a non-profit organization in November. In the meantime, more than twenty permanent employees and around 200 active volunteers are working on our common goal, supported by over 2,000 citizens, who are mostly organized on site and spread the word.

We want to help politicians to meet the Paris climate target

What are the main points of the climate plan that you have put up?

Claas Helmke: Our climate plan is similar to the concept that Fridays For Future has developed together with Wuppertal Institute. The Wuppertal Institute also worked with us, but with us it was a hackathon to which 30 scientists, economists and renowned climate researchers were invited and worked on this paper for three days on two weekends. It was about the individual sectors, mobility, agriculture - in contrast to Fridays For Future, by the way, which excluded agriculture up to now -, industry, building insulation, etc. The question was: what can be done today? What is the state of the art in these sectors? What can be implemented and made possible immediately? The most difficult factor, of course, is time. We have set a renovation rate of four percent per year for private houses in Germany. At the moment the rate is still below two percent! One of the reasons for this is that there are not enough craftsmen in Germany who are qualified to carry out this sustainable renovation work, for example to advise and install heat pumps or insulation material.

And now you are trying to win over parliamentarians who should then pass a law that Germany will reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to zero by the year 2035. Is that correct?

Germany should become CO2 neutral by 2035, that's an important difference. In this context, CO2 also includes other greenhouse gases that are converted into CO2 equivalents. Because there are also natural sinks such as seas, forests and moors that naturally absorb CO2. The point is that the budget is balanced between natural sinks and CO2 emissions. There are still many intermediate steps on the way. Of course politicians have now also understood the problem of climate change. But there are many forces of inertia that work against it. The many lobbyists who represent the interests of industry stakeholders; They are basically activists too, but well-paid activists. It's strange. When you talk to the industry, their representatives always say that they see the problem and that of course they want to do something about it, but politicians are actually terrified of acting in a forward-looking manner. The German Minister of Economic Affairs Altmeier speaks of “technology-open guard rails”. He only talks about it, but does not set it! In fact, putting a price tag on CO2 would be the most technology-open thing you could imagine. A good deal of the problems would take care of itself if CO2 were priced according to the costs it causes.

Ms. Merkel should no longer be called a climate chancellor

How do you rate the German climate policy to date? Chancellor Merkel was once called the climate chancellor ...

It is quite sad, because Ms. Merkel should no longer be called a climate chancellor. Because she and her government completely overslept the problem of climate change for many, many years. There was only lip service in favor of climate protection, but the need to actually make substantial changes was not seen. There was probably no will for a broad view. It is said that sustainability is the driving force behind innovation. And thus climate protection and sustainability also create future-proof jobs, future-proof industries that ultimately secure Germany‘s stand as a business location. But so much more could have been done!

I had the opportunity to meet the Pope once, at his 80th birthday, on which we gave him an electric car. And at that time he had explicitly thanked the Germans because with the „Energieeinspeisegesetz“ ("Energy Supply Act") they ensured that solar technology has become so cheap that there is no cheaper form of energy generation today, and that it can help many developing countries, to convince them to stay out of burning fossil fuels.

Do we still have a chance to meet the 1.5° target?

It would take a huge effort, and with every day we wait, it gets harder to get to 1.5 degrees. In the Paris climate treaty it was written “well below 2 degrees”. You can of course argue about what “well below two degrees” means in concrete terms. But you can also say: we have not yet reached 1.5 °, but we can already see the environmental damage for people and entire countries, and we can already say that 1.5 ° would be a sensible goal.

In your Climate Plan you list various options for action and strategies. One point you mention is “global responsibility”. So not only to reduce emissions at home in Germany, but at the same time also to help other countries, especially in the Global South, to do so, financially and technologically. Doesn't that mean that rich Germany would buy its way out and sneak out of its responsibility?

The consequences of greenhouse gas emissions have been known since the first IPCC report in 1990. Since then, far more greenhouse gases have been emitted in Germany than is tolerable for a 1.5 degree target. It is only thanks to the countries, most of them in the global south, that emit much less GHG per capita, that the global 1.5 degree target can still be achieved. And these are the countries that are already suffering the most from climate change. So we owe something to these countries and we cannot just shirk this responsibility!

It‘s about the so-called carbon offsetting. We have very different opinions on this, even within our organisation GermanZero. Personally, I don't think so much of it. It could possibly be a temporary solution, whereby these countries get a source of income and thus, for example, get to know and appreciate the value of rainforests. But in principle, Germany has a national responsibility to do everything to reduce climate-damaging emissions in Germany, and to do so massively. Historically, Germany is one of the largest CO2 emitters in the world, we are the sixth largest economic power in the world and - what is very important - we have a comparatively large freedom of the press. In other words: we have excellent basic prerequisites for setting a good example when it comes to climate protection and thus perhaps creating a positive domino effect. The sad reality, however, is that in recent years Germany has been on the brakes when it comes to climate protection, and of course it cannot go on like this. If we have done our homework here and then help developing countries not to make the same mistakes as we did, but rather help them to skip certain industrial evolutionary steps and not just start extracting oil in order to build an industry based on fossil fuels , then Germany would live up to its global responsibility.

It would take a huge effort, and with every day we wait, it gets harder to get to 1.5 degrees

When it came to phasing out nuclear power, Germany was once a pioneer. Now we hear again and again that, despite all the horror, nuclear energy may be the solution to the climate crisis because it is low in CO2. Is nuclear power an option for you?

You are addressing me as an engineer here. Ultimately, with coal, gas, oil or even nuclear energy, you only heat water and use the steam to drive a turbine. Boring! How beautiful, on the other hand, is solar energy! You put a solar panel down, it doesn't move, it doesn't emit anything, it doesn't make any noise - and it generates electricity. This is progress! If you took the waste problem into account, nuclear power would also be much more expensive. One kilowatt hour of solar power now costs only three to four cents in Germany. You couldn't get it any cheaper with nuclear power!

Perhaps nature - with the current coronavirus pandemic and the lockdowns that are being imposed around the globe – shows us that the solution is not further innovations, continued unconditional economic growth, but to limit ourselves, to reduce ourselves, not to replace a diesel SUV on our doorstep with an electric SUV, but not to buy an SUV at all and pick a bike instead. Shouldn‘t we find alternatives to growth with all its negative excesses? 

That sounds good, but I‘m afraid people are not made like that, to step back, to reduce. It's not about giving up anything, it's about responsibility. I was also hoping that the corona crisis would lead people to focus on more regional value chains, both in the food sector, but also in industry. We have seen that in such situations our dependency on China is a huge problem, so it also makes sense in terms of energy to create our own security of supply, and that can certainly not be achieved with a gas pipeline from Russia, while more and more Methane craters occur next to those Russian gas fields because the permafrost melts and the gas escapes. Taking back ourselves would be right, it would be important, but I guess we‘re just not made like that.

The example of France, where an increase in the mineral oil tax had led to heavy protests across the country - yellow vests - also shows that the population – the situation of each individual – should be taken into account ...

That's right. That is why we have planned many steps between our climate plan and the adoption in the German parliament to get people involved. At the moment we are working on developing templates for a new climate law, and these templates will then turn into a citizen participation process, which is very important to us, so that citizens feel involved in the legislative process. This is done via an online platform where citizens can contribute their inputs, comments and suggestions. This platform called Consul was funded by the United Nations for citizen participation and democracy and is already used in some countries, for example in Mexico and in Colombia, but also in cities such as New York and Madrid . At GermanZero we are going into the beta test phase this November, and we will hopefully go online with this participation tool at the beginning of 2021.

Citizens should feel involved in the legislative process

Are there any other tools that you want to use at GermanZero?

We have continued to develop our climate plan, and we‘ve now set up a “climate city map generator”. It can be used for all cities that want to be climate neutral by 2035 the latest. Within seconds the generator determines the need for conversion in individual sectors, including all the costs involved, depending on the structural conditions in these communities of course.

Which organizations or companies do you cooperate with?

We are currently in talks with some organizations regarding cooperation. Fridays For Future really got going last year and showed what is possible. Many, especially young people, have understood that things cannot go on like this, that something has to be done because their future is at stake. First of all, we at GermanZero had to do our job to be on an equal footing in terms of perception and to be seen as an equal partner. Now we are working with many stakeholders who want to see CO2 reduction together with more democracy. Specifically, we are a member of the Climate Alliance, we work together with Fridays for Future, Scientists for Future, CO2 Abgabeverein, Mehr Demokratie e.V., Unternehmensgrün and many other like-minded people.

How is GermanZero financed?

We accept donations only. We were very fortunate to have met German film producer and director Lars Jessen from Hamburg at the beginning, i.e. at the end of last year, who had produced a film called “Fractus” and has been committed to sustainable work on film sets for years. He made a support video for us with some celebrities, which has now over a million clicks on YouTube. It helped us to generate a lot of donations. In addition, there are a few major donors who have donated five-figure sums.

Claas Helmke is the founder and board member of GermanZero. He learned shipbuilding, studied mechanical engineering, did his doctorate in electrical engineering, spent years in the field of renewable energy in various positions, and currently works for the impact investor Wermuth Asset Management in Berlin, which invests exclusively in companies that demonstrably practice environmental protection. He was born in Bremen and now lives in Berlin.

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