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Climate catastrophe: is Berlin moving fast enough?

It’s August 2050. The Spree has run dry as temperatures edge up to 40C. The nights are tropical; the days, scorching. Your elderly neighbour was found dead: her air conditioning broke down weeks ago...

Image for Climate catastrophe: is Berlin moving fast enough?
Illustration by Lars Wunderlich of Peachbeach

It’s August 2050. The Spree has run dry as heat wave temperatures edge up to 40C (105F). The nights are tropical; the days, scorching. Your elderly neighbour was found dead: her air conditioning broke down three weeks ago. Palm trees sway in front of the Stadtschloß. Refugees crowd into camps near Berlin-Brandenburg International Airport. At least you are not in Italy, where nobody can go outside.

This is not science fiction, but a prediction based on science. A study carried out by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) for the Berlin government earlier this year paints a grim picture: an average increased temperature of 2.5C in the region by 2050 – and due to natural fluctuation, temperatures could reach even higher levels. While two or three degrees may not sound dramatic, the consequences will be. The PIK expects summer drought and deadly heat waves whose effects will endanger the young and the elderly. The water table could drop by 15 percent between 2031 and 2040, killing off whole forests. Winter will bring unceasing pelting rain, 50 percent fewer frost days and extreme weather that will damage property and drive up insurance premiums. Children will ask their parents if they remember when it used to snow.

The situation will be even worse elsewhere in the world – a fact that will also affect Berlin. More than 50 percent of the planet’s population live in low-lying areas. Floods will displace whole cities and destroy land, sending scores of refugees to better-off countries. As rising temperatures destroy entire agricultural industries and worldwide food demands are not met, famine will spread like wildfire.

The NGO GermanWatch has already put populous states like Bangladesh, India and China in the top 10 of its climate catastrophe index. As the UN’s Copenhagen climate change conference last December made clear, humanity’s future depends on curbs on greenhouse gas emissions like CO2, which is produced from the burning of fossil fuels like coal. So what is being done here in Berlin to find alternative energy sources and otherwise temper the effects of an apocalyptic future?

“Very little,” says Michael Schäfer, Deputy Chairman of the municipal Green Party and its spokesperson for climate change and energy policy. “Our biggest problem is that the mayor, Klaus Wowereit, does not care about climate issues.” From the head of his SPD coalition, Klaus Wowereit has been promoting the interests of the Swedish electrical consortium giant Vattenfall. Vattenfall, which controls almost 80 percent of the city’s electrical market, sponsored the Berlin-based 2009 IAAF World Championships in Athletics and has developed an energy model for the city – a plan Wowereit called “an important breakthrough”.

But Vattenfall’s profile is highly controversial. It describes itself as a leader in a new technology that captures and stores offending carbon gasses; it benefits from a related draft law that’s set to be approved by the German cabinet this year. However, critics of the company such as Friends of the Earth and other environmental NGOs awarded it the 2009 “Greenwash Award” for the mastery of its spin about climate change. They say carbon capture technology is uncertain and will take 15 years to develop, and that it is used as a justification to build new coal-fired power plants. Vattenfall says coal, which is cheap and currently provides Germany with 50 percent of its power, will “definitely account for a substantial share of the energy mix until 2100”.

“Everyone is against Wowereit and Vattenfall… the conservatives, the liberals, the Chamber of Commerce. They all object to Vattenfall as a competition killer,” says Schäfer, “ and public opinion was successful last March in shutting down Vattenfall’s plans for a coal-fired plant in Berlin. Wowereit only came out against the plant once the plan was dead. The city, meanwhile, is moving very, very slowly to tackle climate change.”

The city takes a different point of view on that issue: Cornelia Poczka, the Head of Federal, European and Cabinet Affairs at Berlin’s municipal Department for the Environment, says that Berlin has taken steps to cut CO2 emissions. “We have made three main policy steps. First, we plan to cut CO2 emissions by 80 percent by 2050 compared to 1990 levels. We cut them by 25 percent by 2005, five years ahead of schedule because of the deindustrialization of the East. Second, we have introduced an environmental zone in the inner city to limit polluting vehicles.

Finally, we have a huge program to retrofit our building stock to increase energy efficiency. The Economic Intelligence Unit says that we are the eighth cleanest of 30 European cities. And we are the biggest city in the top eight.”

Berlin’s government speaks of the reduction of fossil fuels – which are slowly replacing coal with natural gas in cogeneration plants – but argues that a lot of green technology has not reached the stage where it can be fully employed. “We had plans for solar panels everywhere,” says Poczka, “but this is difficult in a comparatively dense city, where not all the roofs are appropriate and where we don’t get a lot of sun. Windmills take up space and cannot be placed too close to residential areas. But that said, we are open to innovation, are piloting programs and have a biomass power cogeneration plant under development.”

Other city plans include the introduction of vegetation that requires less water and can survive the hotter summers. Surveys are being conducted to ensure Berlin will have sufficient water and locallysourced food supplies in 2050. The reduction of motor vehicles, the extension of the cycling grid and an increase in public transportation with shorter wait times are all underway.

But the plans to continue using coal, which accounts for 20 percent of greenhouse gases worldwide, infuriates the Green Party. According to Schäfer, “Berlin needs an energy model based on 100 percent renewables. That means: wind, solar, biomass. Berlin is moving too slowly in this direction. We must grab the first mover advantage in the competition between cities to attract companies that will be market leaders. We are not moving as fast as Austin, Seattle or Copenhagen.”

Activists and the environmental NGO community tend to agree, but are not convinced that even the Greens are doing enough. Daniel Mittler is an environmental blogger (greendaniel.blogspot.com), a former international negotiator for Greenpeace and an expert at the European Climate Foundation. “It is shameful that my neighbourhood, Kreuzberg, which has been run by the Green Party for so long, is still nowhere in terms of renewable power,” he says.

“Just because Berlin is not going to go underwater does not mean that we don’t need as dramatic change as elsewhere. Berlin needs to be a leader in energy efficiency and renewables. Now, it is only mediocre at best – and the city government is refusing to force Vattenfall to move faster and more aggressively towards a renewable future.”