Building a sustainable Germany – now more than ever

In times of war, pandemic, inflation and energy shortages, humanity needs sustainability more than ever. This was the key takeaway from the 21st Annual Conference of the German Council for Sustainable Development, where one of the topics in focus was sustainable building and housing.

A true transition needs “a good story”, said Hans Joachim Schellnhuber at the 21st Annual Conference of the German Council for Sustainable Development (RNE) in Berlin. One of the most internationally renowned climate scientists, Schellnhuber founded the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK), where he has been Director Emeritus since 2018.

“The biggest elephant in the climate room is building”, he explained, having joined forces with other experts to set up Bauhaus Earth to change this. Some 40 percent of greenhouse gases emitted globally originate from the construction and operation of buildings and infrastructure. And not only that: half of all waste produced in western industrialised countries comes from building and demolition. In Germany alone, some 45 hectares a day of near-natural landscape is lost to housing developments and transport infrastructure. And yet this giant among climate sins went for a long time unrecognised.

“We should have changed direction long ago”, said Schellnhuber. In 2019 the Greenland ice sheet lost a record amount of mass, with one million tonnes of ice melting every minute. Humanity rushed towards the planks laid down by the Paris Agreement in 2015. But the average temperature of the Earth’s surface is already 1.25 degrees above its pre-industrial level. “We are heading towards 3, 4, 5 degrees”, warned the climate scientist. “That would be a different world, one in which civilisation could not survive.” Global warming, he continued, “must be halted not much above two degrees – and then we have to work backwards”.

Now more than ever

But aren’t there other priorities for now? The climate crisis is not the only crisis to contend with. 2019 introduced us to coronavirus and on 24 February this year came Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine on top. People are worried about heating their homes, putting food on the table and how they will get to work. Germany is facing existential problems – as is the rest of the world. But that’s no reason to put the socioecological restructuring on hold. Quite the contrary. The participants, including many members of the government, were agreed. It’s worth following the debate. It reveals a lot about how seriously sustainability should be taken in the crisis and which partners can help drive it at home and abroad.

“Now more than ever”, explained Sarah Ryglewski, who as Minister of State in the Federal Chancellery is responsible for Federal-State relations and sustainability policy. She had stepped in at short notice to replace Federal Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who was due to attend the conference as keynote speaker but had come down with Covid. “We all realise how dependent we are on fossil fuels”, said Ryglewski. At the same time the ecological crises are escalating: devastating floods in Pakistan, drought in the Horn of Africa, not to mention the many forest fires in Europe. Germany, she continued, wants to be the first major industrialised nation to reach climate neutrality by 2045. The target share of renewable energies making up gross electricity consumption is at least 80 percent by 2030, which is why infrastructure planning and approvals are now also being fast-tracked. And the federal administration itself plans to be climate-neutral by 2030. Far from being an obstacle, the transition to sustainability is an economic opportunity. “If we miss it, we’ll be left behind”, insisted the Minister of State. And Germany won’t swerve its international obligations either.

Bonfire of enthusiasm for sustainability

Rebuilding Germany and the world sustainably – that’s what many people want. Of course there are also voices that say “Crisis management first – transition, change, climate neutrality later”. We need to “meet them head-on”, said RNE Chairman Werner Schnappauf, and instead ignite “a bonfire of enthusiasm throughout the country”. Schnappauf called on people to start “sustainability projects everywhere: we now need the innovative capacity of business and a new cooperation between society, politics and the economy”. This is the duty of each and every one of us.

For this very reason, Minister of State Sarah Ryglewski and Minister-President of North Rhine-Westphalia and current Chair of the Conference of Minister-Presidents Hendrik Wüst launched the Joint Action for Sustainable Development at the annual conference. With the motto “All together now”, the joint federal and Länder initiative is coordinated by the RNE. Organisations can sign up on an online platform and register their sustainability activities and points of contact. The aim, explained Lisi Maier, RNE member and Director of the Federal Foundation for Gender Equality, is to bring together actors who have not worked together before and gather ideas.

Wood instead of concrete

This is where, for example, the idea of climate scientist Schellnhuber comes in, which gives us a perspective to focus on in uncertain times. Like the Bauhaus movement of the 20th century, he wants to transform our built-up environment sustainably. So far, it’s “dysfunctionally ugly”, he says: “We are building in the wrong way, where the human spirit cannot feel at ease”. His alternative model is to “Reforest the planet, retimber the city”. Woodland around the world is being reforested to suit the climate; likewise, architecture is changing over from reinforced concrete and brick to organic materials. Schellnhuber refers to the system of a “forest-building pump”, which can even lower the CO2 content of the atmosphere, because trees absorb large amounts of carbon dioxide as they grow.

Politics is starting to get to grips with this. In 2020, Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, launched the New European Bauhaus initiative, an idea being further developed by Ruth Reichstein in the Commission’s internal think tank I.D.E.A. Many voices are calling for “technological neutrality, treating everything as of equal value”, but that hasn’t been applied to wood and clay for a long time, she pointed out at the annual conference. Concrete has been the material of choice up to now. According to Cansel Kiziltepe, Parliamentary State Secretary in the Federal Ministry for Housing, Urban Development and Building, her department is currently working on a timber construction strategy together with the Ministry of Agriculture.

The building transition will not be a walk in the park. There is “enormous demand for affordable housing”, said Martin Horn, mayor of the city of Freiburg im Breisgau. And local governments with ambitious plans for socioecological building need support in the form of federal and state funding. Theresa Keilhacker, president of the Chamber of Architects Berlin, sees great potential in maintaining existing buildings. This had “been lost sight of in recent years”. Only recently, the Association of German Architects wrote an open letter (in German) to federal building minister Klara Geywitz demanding a moratorium on demolition.

In the Global North the ecological renovation of old buildings should take centre stage, along with the addition of storeys, urged Schellnhuber. In the Global South, however, with its fast-growing population, new housing needs to be built. How to build more sustainably – this question needs to be given priority in the coming months, not least through the Joint Action for Sustainable Development. Schellnhuber promised: “We are on the threshold of a new architectural era, where we will build sustainably, for all – and we will do it in style.”