“Sustainability done well is freedom”

How can sustainability go from swimming against the current to popular sport? RNE member, sustainability researcher and didactics professor Kai Niebert talks about evil cutlets, self-righteous debates and the freedom to make one’s own decisions.

The German Council for Sustainable Development (RNE) published a paper with the catchy title “It’s the politics, stupid – The Responsibility of State and Society for Sustainable Living Environments”, of which you were the main author. The subject is societal cohesion – or how the already-existing divisions in our society can be stemmed and perhaps even healed. Why did the RNE choose this subject as one of its three working focuses?

Kai Niebert: Because we need a change in thinking. For us, the transformation that we are going through now is much more than simply a technical, industrial transformation. We are saying: we need more than just climate-neutral industry. We need to take society with us on this path towards changing living environments. And as people, we need to change ourselves if climate neutrality is going to work. This is what our recommendations are about: how we can change – and in such a way that this process of change means more empowerment for citizens, not less. After all, it is the RNE’s remit to advise the government. That’s why our recommendations are directed primarily there: we want to make the case to the Chancellor for why it is too short-sighted to simply focus on industry. And we want to demonstrate that it is possible to make citizens the subjects of the transformation instead of the objects …

… which means, specifically?

The situation seems paradoxical: according to surveys, nearly 90 percent of all citizens favour a quick transformation to climate neutrality. At the same time, opposition on the streets is growing. If we look more closely, we can see that dissatisfaction exists in especially those places where citizens have the feeling that they are being powerlessly subjected to change and are not able to shape it themselves. People no longer believe the promise “We’ll make the transformation and nothing will change for you”. And rightly so, since we can’t keep a promise like that. That’s why we recommend making citizens into participants in sustainability. This can mean, for example, that the government no longer prescribes heat pumps and solar cells from the top down; instead, it creates the framework conditions that will motivate people to want a heat pump or a solar roof themselves.

And how will this work?

To sum it up in one sentence: We need more politics and less moralising. At the moment, we mostly appeal for individuals to do the right thing right behaviour through moralistic lectures or accusations – like “Your cutlet kills!” or “How can you keep flying?” Interestingly enough, we also see this in studies on climate education: blame for the climate crisis is socialised, but the responsibility for solutions is personalised – it’s placed on the individual.

Why is this wrong?

First, because it doesn’t work, and second, because it promotes division in society. The scientific evidence on this point is clear: private actions for more climate protection have a minimal effect, and appeals of this kind have even less effect. What we need are joint political actions, on small scales and on large ones. Then if I still show up with a moralising attitude, my bicycle in one hand and my veggie cutlet in the other, and point the finger at my colleague with his sausage and his diesel Golf, the climate debate very quickly becomes a moral debate in which everyone can only lose in the end. With this kind of self-righteous approach, I will only turn other people against me – and against what is actually our shared concern about protecting the climate.

Is it true that changes in individual behaviour really hardly make a difference?

As hard as this message may be: individual consumer decisions don’t make any difference for the climate and the environment – even if they make individuals feel better. What does make a difference are economic, social and political decisions that can steer consumer choices onto more sustainable paths. I’ll give you an example: in one “friends of nature” house for school groups, we made a vegetarian lunch the standard meal. Of course, for a small extra charge, people were allowed to order a piece of meat along with it – but hardly anyone did. This is how you can make a difference on both large and small scales.

In other words, you want to change the framework conditions in such a way that people’s demands also change?

Yes. Because it is a matter of adjusting the economy to produce sustainable products – but not only that: it’s also about creating the right incentives for citizens to ask for more sustainability. We need holistic approaches in order to recast sustainability from an act of swimming against the current to a popular sport.

So what does this kind of holistic solution look like?

We need fewer debates over values and more sustainable infrastructures – infrastructures that make it possible for me to lead a good, successful and just life. That means that the state needs to set guardrails within which people can behave in a more sustainable way; within which it is attractive to behave sustainably – but within which people can, of course, behave differently if they want to. Financial instruments like a CO2 price that gradually makes climate-damaging behaviour more expensive are one way. But this must not and cannot be the only way. If today’s fossil-fuel standard becomes more expensive, I need to have affordable sustainable alternatives. For example, I need sensible mobility options so that I can actually get from A to B safely, affordably and on time using public transportation. Or I need a value-added tax that does not tax climate-friendly, plant-based products like oat milk higher than animal products like cow’s milk.

Isn’t that also manipulative?

Even if I personally find a clear framework of requirements and prohibitions to be freeing – because I am not constantly under pressure to make decisions against climate-damaging alternatives – I understand that there are also certain social groups that feel patronised by it. Therefore, we recommend a mixture of regulatory policy, pricing, funding and also gentle steering – a kind of “nudging” in the direction of climate neutrality, to which we are not only obligated under international law, but which is also desired by our society. It’s a matter of creating incentives for a certain type of behaviour. I can still keep on driving a diesel SUV to get from Point A to Point B, or ordering the cutlet that is now listed somewhat further down on the menu. At the moment, however, this is how it is: we reward and favour climate-damaging behaviour. Meat is the standard; cars are the standard; air travel is the standard. What we want to do is change this baseline. Is the baseline meat with some kind of side dish, or is the baseline the sustainable option? When we change the baseline, we are not forbidding anything – rather, we are offering something.

I know people who would already feel patronised by this.

I do too – even in my own family. My brother is a heating engineer. He owns a heating installation company in Hanover. When the discussion about heat pumps was going on, he first said to me: “People are scared. They’re rushing into my place, and I’m installing gas and oil heaters for them now.” We almost could have had a falling out over it. Then, a little while later he said: “I thought it all through, and I have installed a heat pump in the basement for myself. The gas heater now only runs for two days a year.” That’s exactly the kind of flexibility we need: sustainability is not black or white. There are areas of crossover, and we have to offer these to people and make them possible. Here, the right communication certainly plays a very big role. It could have made things go quite differently with the Building Energy Act (GEG).

… in what way?

First of all, we should have been better prepared. When the smear campaigns started, saying that “Grandma Erna has to invest 150,000 euros because [former Minister for Economic Affairs Robert] Habeck is ripping out her heating system”, even the well-meaning people were speechless. Today we know that even in a poorly insulated house, exchanging an oil heater for a heat pump is worth it. Also, we should have made it clear that we wanted to give people something – not take anything away from them: if the Minister for Economic Affairs had first stood up and said, “People, we have a problem. We don’t have enough gas. CO2 prices are going up. Heating costs are going through the roof. And your home heating is dependent on the whims of autocrats who deliver the gas” – then heat pumps would have been the solution and not the problem. The heat pump would be a freedom pump. That is exactly what we want to demonstrate with our recommendations: sustainability done well is freedom – freedom from fossil-fuel infrastructures, from unhealthy ways of living, from dependency.


Recommendations & statements

It's the politics, stupid: The Responsibility of State and Society for Sustainable Living Environments

Statement by the German Council for Sustainable Development; Berlin, 21.03.2024