As the U.N. climate-change conference heats up this week in Nairobi, Kenya, strategies to promote clean energy and slow global warming top the agenda for many nations — not least of all Germany, which is Europe’s biggest economy, a global leader in green technology, and the country set to take over the 12-month presidency of the G8 industrialized nations and the six-month European Union presidency in January.

Chancellor Angela Merkel has vowed in recent months to use Germany’s upcoming leadership stints to tackle climate change afresh, with bold new policies. Some inside the German government, though, are skeptical that her Christian Democratic Union will make good on those promises. A leading voice of dissent — and the one calling loudest for urgent action on climate change — is Renate Künast, a former agriculture minister and the current chair of the Green Party.

Künast, a 50-year-old lawyer and social worker who has written books on ecology and health, has been a pioneer in consumer-protection rights and a voice for the organic movement. She also helped usher in 2000′s Renewable Energy Sources Act, which led to Germany’s current role as the world’s leading wind-power producer and its second-largest in solar power. Grist recently caught up with Künast and asked Berlin’s most powerful Green what it’s going to take to lead us all toward a more climate-safe future.


Q. Last week’s report by Nicholas Stern put a sharp economic focus on climate change, claiming that our efforts to combat it would cost 1 percent of global GDP now, as opposed to up to 20 percent if we wait. The message seemed clear: there’s no longer time to debate making changes. How did you react to the report?

A. The British report is not really new, because we already have details from the next [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] study. But it’s good to see another E.U. member state focusing on this issue and telling the truth. The point is, we have to decide about consequences today, because the costs of doing nothing are immense.

If you look at the results of more climate change and how expensive it will be versus the results of acting now to reduce our climate impact, there is no other alternative. But it’s not enough to use interesting words and deliver rhetoric. It’s too late for that.

Q. When Germany takes over the rotating seats of the E.U. and the G8 nations in January, what should its goals be for addressing climate change — and can it realistically step up and lead not only the debate, but the action?

A. Right now the coalition government [controlled by the conservative Christian Democratic Union] is dealing only with status quo environmental issues, like fighting to pull out of nuclear power. What we need is a push with Germany making decisions first.

For example, saying we will reduce CO2 emissions by 40 percent by 2020 would push E.U. countries to reduce their emissions by 30 percent. It’s like showing a donkey a carrot and saying: To reach this, this is where you must go. We need to make the decisions and develop the new technologies to really change the way we live — the way we organize the transport of industrial goods, of public traffic, the way we produce fuel for cars, and so on. We have to push renewable energy further. We need to put out the carrot and tell the donkey: You have to go there.

The market is not solving the problems alone. [Businesses] need rules. They need subsidies. Not in the old-fashioned way that follows old [polluter] traditions, but in a way that helps develop and research the tools to confront climate change and reduce CO2.

Q. On a recent BBC program about climate change, an energy analyst suggested that what we really need is something akin to a “green arms race.” What do you think about cooperation versus competition — as in, “Who can go greener?” — in the global race to reduce CO2?

A. It is not only about competition; it must be a mixture. It is like using a toolbox with many different tools inside. There are some things you have to rule by law, like requiring cars to burn no more than five liters of fuel per 100 kilometers (about 1.3 gallons per 62 miles). After that, the rest is competition, and your question becomes, “Who is the first to reduce to three liters (0.8 gallons) per 100 km?”

It’s not about a green arms race where we look to industry to make the moves. Industry is not doing it. They are sitting there. We need a race, but we can’t ask who is interested in running. We need to force people into the race.

Q. As everyone knows, America is the world’s biggest polluter and one of the few countries that rejected the Kyoto Protocol. How do you envision bringing the U.S. administration, present or future, on board to address climate change?

A. Let’s make a distinction between the federal and state levels. On the state level there are a lot of governors — look at Schwarzenegger — who say, “I’m a Republican, but I’m doing something against climate change,” which is completely different from White House politics. Many state politicians are moving the right way, seeing that it is better to be free from oil, that there are alternatives, that there are no jobs to be traded.

Of course, [Europe] is disappointed that the U.S. didn’t back the Kyoto Protocol, even as we are now discussing a Nairobi Kyoto Plus plan to see what comes after 2012. We were disappointed in President Bush’s State of the Union address this year when he focused on energy costs only by saying, “Let’s grow less dependent on oil states,” and looked at the question in terms of trade and foreign politics. I didn’t read that he is really interested in, and really understands, the question of climate change. But I think the U.S., if we look at [Katrina] in the South, is one of the countries where you should understand what is happening.

Q. Germany is one of the world leaders in producing and promoting green technologies. How do you see the clean-fuels economy developing in the future?

A. If we look at 2050, for example, I would say that it’s a different kind of growth: sustainable modes of production, sustainable economy, sustainable mobility. What that means, for starters, is that most houses in Germany and Europe will be built as “passive energy” houses, using the heat from the refrigerator, people’s breath, and elsewhere to generate energy and requiring additional heating from outside, for example, only when temperatures fall below -20 degrees C. There is also the goal of zero-emission mobility, with cars running off entirely renewable energies. Our cities will have a high quality of life — more green spaces and excellent air — because of zero-emission mobility.

Q. Germany’s Green Party lost some of its magnetism, and maybe even direction, after Joschka Fischer stepped down from politics last year, having served seven years as Gerhard Schroeder’s foreign minister. What’s next for the Greens?

A. I am happy about the current opinion polls. We have 10 or 11 percent support nationally, and in some regions we have more. We had good results in the last state elections [the Greens captured 13.1 percent of the vote in Berlin], and we are developing with the same visions, but looking for new tools. Working against climate change is the main point and we want to focus, like I said, on a toolbox of strategies.

It’s about creativity. It’s about inspiration. The next point is justice: we have to look at how we perform as a social state. We have demographic changes going on. The way people are working is changing. You’re no longer going to your job for 20 years and leaving at 61. We’re changing much more to an American way of working life, where you have jobs for some months or years and then you have to look again, with times of unemployment. Based on these conditions, we have to rebuild our social state, especially in education, because that is the central question of justice: giving everyone the chance to be part of society, to fulfill themselves and even give society something of their knowledge and power back. With good education you solve a lot of problems.

Q. On the theme of education, you recently helped organize a large youth conference on the environment in Berlin. What did you take away from that?

A. I think it was brilliant in terms of getting younger people interested in climate-change politics. It’s always good when you make a conference where younger people come and have their special way of debating issues without the pressure of older people around. They feel at home in a peer group and able to discuss questions about the future. For the Green Party, it’s important to have these younger people. I can say we have the most members under 30 years old of any party, and we are working very hard to get more of them. The Grünen Jugend [Young Greens] are growing.

Q. The Renewable Energy Sources Act proved to be a successful subsidy that widely encouraged clean-fuel use throughout the German economy, and it has been used as a model by countries as diverse as Spain and China. What needs to be done to follow up on that legislation?

A. The Renewables Act is definitely not enough. We have to push more to reduce emissions, and it’s so easy now because lots of technologies are on the table. How can we force someone to make the decision to reduce emissions? By telling them, “If you don’t reduce, you have to buy emissions rights instead.”

It’s like this: If you want to fix something, you get a screw and you turn it and turn it until it is fixed. That is what we have to do in the way of selling more and more emissions rights. We have to go to companies’ research departments and say, “I have a problem and you have to deliver the solution.” New power plants get too many emissions allowances. Let them invest on this level and say, “I can build it now, but I have to reduce [emissions] every year.”

Q. Plans are under way for a pan-European energy grid that will eventually connect gas from Scandinavia with solar power produced in North Africa. How can Germany, in its upcoming position as chair of the E.U., speed this so-called “European energy vision” along?

A. The German government has to decide if it really wants to be the driving player pushing renewable technology. The point of having a European energy vision is not only about getting gas from Russia or solar energy from Morocco. The way they are thinking is in terms of energy security: Do we get enough? This is not the right question. The question is: Can we abolish one thing and replace it with another? Can we reduce energy use and emissions in Europe on a massive scale?

I hope that places like Africa are not only delivering renewable energy to Europe. They should also be developing and investing in renewables for their own economic development.

Q. You are a big supporter of organic farming and did a great deal as agriculture minister to promote pesticide-free, ecologically grown food. Where is green business going in Germany?

A. It’s still growing. The bad news is that state ministers are cutting some of the special subsidies that the ecological farmers need in order to change over from conventional to organic farming. This is the wrong way to go. Especially during the first two years when you change your acreage from conventional to organic: You have to work by organic rules but you are not certified and you cannot sell as organic, so you have more work but definitely not more income.

This is an example where you see how the Christian Democrats are not really prepared for the debate on climate change, because if you really understand [the issue] you know that you have to use every point. The World Trade Organization says we have to reduce subsidies — [but] in the places where subsidies are good against climate change, we have to keep them. Still, organic is a growing market and consumers here are asking for much more organic food than producers can deliver.

Q. Have you considered going to America to lecture and bring some of your ideas to communities there, most of which are not exposed to a European perspective?

A. I’m planning to travel to the U.S. at the beginning of next year. If this interview helps organize any invitations for me to speak, that is good! [Laughs.]