Jump to content
Powered by

How can a green economy protect the environment?

Jointly organised by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) and the German Federal Ministry of the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety (BMU), the recent Green Economy conference focused on how a sustainable bioeconomy can contribute to creating an environmentally friendly future. The conference participants agreed that immediate action was needed. Research programmes have been put in place to explore the opportunities, risks and general conditions associated with the establishment of a green economy, to give recommendations for action, and recommendations on how to deal with the challenges of climate change and the scarcity of energy and resources.

Jeremy Rifkin, keynote speaker at the conference “Green Economy“ © Foundation on Economic Trends

The conference “Green Economy – A New Economic Miracle”, to which Germany’s Research Minister Annette Schavan and Germany’s Environment Minister Peter Altmeier invited experts from science, industry, politics, associations and society on September 4th and 5th 2012, focused on environmental protection and the application of environmental technologies. The conference in Berlin was intended as a first step on the path towards a green economy research programme. “We want to provide society with guidelines for action to effectively address the challenges posed by climate change and the scarcity of energy and resources, because the way we live and conduct our economic activities has an enormous impact on our environment,” said Schavan highlighting that “by pursuing a green economy, we are aiming to make the economy more resource efficient and more environmentally friendly.” 

From geopolitical consciousness to biospheric consciousness

All the conference participants – speakers and discussion participants from industry and business associations, unions and of course non-governmental organisations such as Germanwatch and Deutscher Naturschutzring (German League for Nature, Animal Protection and Environment; see www.fona.de/green-economy) – appeared to be committed to this goal. They all agreed that action was needed if the catastrophic consequences of climate change were to be prevented. In his keynote lecture, Professor Dr. Ottmar Edenhofer, Head of the IPCC workgroup “Mitigation of Climate Change”, called for immediate action. Edenhofer is the key author of the United Nations’ “Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change” (IPCC) special report published in 2011. He pointed out that “renewable energies have the potential to provide around three quarters of global energy requirements by 2050”, adding that the report referred to potential only.

Whether this route will be chosen depends on political choices, not just by the German government, but by political decision-makers worldwide. However, Germany is in an excellent position to show the way towards a green economy, as the star speaker of the conference, the American economist Jeremy Rifkin, said in his talk entitled “The Foundation on Economic Trends”: “What Germany needs is something profound - a shift in geopolitical consciousness to biospheric consciousness. Today, the German and the European mission is to lead us into this new world. We need to create a research agenda, create deployment agendas, and use these models as flagship projects across the world."

The forums and workshops at the conference dealt with the big picture rather than the details, which are already the subject of research programmes and other initiatives. Professor Dr. Jürgen Mlynek, President of the Helmholtz Association, explained: “In 2011, the German government launched its “BioEconomy 2030” research programme, and around the same time the Helmholtz Association launched its portfolio process geared to the big challenges faced by society, science and industry, which, amongst other things, focuses on research related to the “Sustainable Bioeconomy” and promotes the pooling of projects undertaken at different Helmholtz Centres, universities and other research institutions in this field. Project partners from Baden-Württemberg include scientists from the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, the University of Stuttgart and the Fraunhofer Institute for Interfacial Engineering and Biotechnology IGB. In line with the autumn 2010 recommendations made by the German Bioeconomy Council, which considered bioeconomic research in Germany to be too fragmented, the greatest proportion of portfolio financing is directed at networking projects. Mlynek also pointed out that projects relating to the resolution of nutritional, raw material and environmental problems will in future be given greater attention and that sustainable environmental protection is impossible without biotechnology.

New catalysts for the reduction of CO2

Prof. Dr. Hans Diefenbacher, Universität Heidelberg, Alfred Weber Institute © BMBF/FONA

Industry representatives pointed out that industrial biotechnology can make considerable contributions to “greening” industry in the 21st century to the extent that it merits the name “green economy”. The speakers talked about biorefineries that are already able to use all kinds of biological waste for the production of valuable raw materials, for example the production of biogas from lignocellulose accumulating in the fields of agriculture and forestry or from household waste. Scientists are currently working intensely on the development of catalysts that enable the economical large-scale production of such materials. 

Dr. Markus Müller-Neumann (Science Relations and Innovation Management, BASF SE) referred to the “Catalysis Research Laboratory“ (CaRLa) in the Heidelberg Technology Park, in which scientists from BASF and the University of Heidelberg are focused on the development of innovative raw materials and new catalysts with industrial potential. Müller-Neumann also highlighted the huge potential of biorefineries with closed recycling systems in preventing carbon dioxide production. A study carried out by the Danish division of the WWF (World Wild Fund for Nature) in 2009, suggests that industry could prevent the production of around 200 million t CO2 per year in the short term, and more than a billion t per year by 2030.

However, the majority of experts are sceptical or do not agree with the assumption that it simply requires industrial innovation to limit the rise of global warming to no more than 2°C in this century. The reason for the scepticism is because the environmental problem of anthropogenic CO2 increase is closely linked with the energy problem, which in turn is interconnected with the problem of feeding the world’s population, which will likely reach around nine billion by 2050. Ecologically and socioethically oriented scientists such as Professor Dr. Hans Diefenbacher from the Alfred Weber Institute for Economics are convinced that prosperity and justice can only be achieved in the near future by massively reducing the use of resources on the global scale. And this can only be achieved with a profound change in the traditional way of thinking in terms of economics, ecology, philosophy and government – a revolution far removed from Jeremy Rifkin’s “Third Industrial Revolution”. 

Can climate engineering solve environmental problems?

Schematic depicting different climate engineering measures under discussion. © Kiel Earth Institute
Many people now doubt that the goal of holding global warming to 2°C can be reached by reducing CO2 emissions, and many are now coming up with large-scale, so-called climate engineering solutions aimed at reducing CO2 concentration or solar radiation. One possible option relates to a biotechnological environment experiment in which researchers used fertiliser to create a man-made algal bloom, which "funnelled a significant amount of carbon down into the ocean's depth" (see BIOPRO article published on 4th April 2011, in German only). One might see such experiments and ideas as further evidence of human arrogance and an ‘out of the frying pan, into the fire’ solution. However, the environmental economist Professor Dr. Timo Goeschl from the Alfred Weber Institute in Heidelberg is convinced that climate engineering will become a key topic in international climate policy over the next 25 years. However, little is still known about the risks of these technologies and their social and political dimensions. In order to create a scientifically founded basis for further discussion, the German Research Foundation (DFG) has established the new priority research programme “Climate Engineering: Risks, Challenges, Opportunities” in which the natural sciences, humanities and social sciences work closely together with the aim of exploring the social, political, legal and ethical challenges involved. Four researchers from Heidelberg are involved in the DFG programme, including Dr. Timo Goeschl, and they were all also involved in the interdisciplinary project “The Global Governance of Climate Engineering” established under the University of Heidelberg’s “Global Change and Globalisation” excellence initiative and coordinated by the University of Heidelberg’s Marsilius Kolleg. The preliminary results of the project, which has just come to an end, all flow into the new DFG research programme.
Website address: https://www.biooekonomie-bw.de/en/articles/news/how-can-a-green-economy-protect-the-environment