„We on the sustainability scene must reach those beyond the usual suspects"

As founding Secretary-General of the German Council for Sustainable Development from 2001 to 2020, Günther Bachmann advanced the topic of sustainability on all levels and in all areas of politics. He could hardly have dreamt of the changes that would be achieved – but in his opinion they are still not enough. We asked him for his personal view on the developments, successes and failures of those two decades.

Mr Bachmann, you had a formative influence on the Council for Sustainable Development (RNE) for 19 years. The RNE has been around for 20 years. As Secretary-General until March 2020, you spent almost two decades right in the engine room of federal politics. Has Germany really made progress towards sustainability? And enough to solve the global crises like climate change and species extinction?

Günther Bachmann: Yes and no. Of course there has been some progress. That’s undeniable. Back when we started, not even 13 percent of people had even heard of the term sustainability. When we approached policymakers with this career-ending topic, they just laughed at us. Now the banks are falling over themselves to sell sustainable funds, and discounters are pushing better animal welfare. Germany wants to achieve climate neutrality by 2045. Today, 80 percent of people know what sustainability is.

And the no?

We are a long, long way off solving the climate crisis and the loss of biodiversity. And now with the backward steps taken because of the pandemic, we’re even further away, in Europe and worldwide.

You once said that sustainability is a journey of very many small steps by very many people. Was that the guiding theme of your work over the last 20 years?

Yes, but the people who take these steps have to see themselves within a bigger picture and as part of a movement. That makes you stronger, gives you self-efficacy. And the picture, these benchmarks, have to be established. Otherwise the small steps lead to nowhere.

Does the RNE’s role also involve advising?

The RNE has a mandate to advise, but it differs from a purely scientific advisory board, a “council of professors”, if you will, in that it has never put a book on the table and said: “These are the solutions”. The Council aspired to also act in its own right, to actively operate – that’s the only way you can change things. And that’s why it ran its own projects right from day one.

Let’s take a couple of examples: the Regional Hubs for Sustainability Strategies (RENN), which connect all parties campaigning for sustainability on a regional basis; or the German Sustainability Action Days, which illustrate how people are engaging with the topic. These were all things that showed people what we can do if we all pull together.

The Council and its office want to make a difference. A purely advisory board, even if it has really good ideas, is just a lightweight in the cut and thrust of politics. But you become more of a heavy hitter, the more people on the outside listen to you and understand your topic and take action themselves. That’s why we did all that. We needed a response outside of Berlin. Besides, I fundamentally believe that people grow stronger when the right demands are made of them.

Even so, isn’t discourse around sustainability often just “nerdy”?

We always wanted to shake off this nerdy image. That’s why at the very first annual conference in 2001 we hired three musicians to compose a song for us and play it at the event – but with instructions to alter it to reflect how they had experienced the discussions in our work groups. Because they found the discussions so dreadful, they completely took the song apart and played it in a really jarring way. So we tried to hold a mirror up to ourselves through the medium of art. I have no idea whether people understood it, but today everyone’s forgotten what we said about mobility at the first annual conference, whereas lots of attendees remember that three musicians changed the whole atmosphere.

The four Regional Hubs for Sustainability Strategies, the RENN, were also your idea. Now they’re kick-starting sustainability discourses and activities all over the country.

The idea behind the RENN was to scoop up the lost souls of the sustainability movement. The ones who tried to make towns and communities sustainable after the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992. At the time, more than 2,500 local groups were formed in Germany alone. But over time they have pretty much disappeared. So we invited mayors from all over Germany to Berlin and said: “We’re going to refresh, regenerate this Agenda movement, but we’re no longer calling it that”. We didn’t want anyone to come along and think they now had to resurrect it. We decided to call them regional hubs or somehow rename them, and that’s how the word RENN came about. And because we are a federal nation, I offered the Länder the opportunity to be a part of it. The Länder put forward existing charitable institutions in the realm of civil society as regional partners, and we, the RNE office, then set up the hubs with them. This also led to completely new sociotopes being addressed, which were rarely present with the Local Agenda, if at all. For example, sport, the maritime economy, the hotel sector.

So have the RENN managed to break out of the sphere of the standard sustainability scene?

There’s still a lot missing. You would also need to attract farmers and foresters, include the startup scene more. But overall the RENN already have a lot to show. In the north they got lots of business representatives to come to the table. In many places they’re doing some great educational work outside of schools. Altogether in Germany there are many people who can really make things happen on the sustainability front. Put a bit of money their way and you’ll soon see the possibilities double and treble.

You also founded the Open SDGclub.Berlin for international sustainability actors. So that also brings together representatives looking to create sustainability policy in autocratic states.

At the first meeting we had someone from Iran and someone from Egypt. So of course the question was how much freedom do they actually have to act. But I didn’t set up the Open SDGclub as an event for countries. To my mind it depends on the individual and what kind of difference a person can make in their context. And so I consider a Guatemalan women’s rights campaigner just as important as someone from the tax department in Benin, or from some kind of government accountability office in Sudan. I started out thinking we could just bring together all the sustainability councils in the world, but of course they don’t have such organizations everywhere. Now the Global Forum for National SDG Advisory Bodies does that job. For us it was primarily about people, their agency, and about interacting in order to grow stronger together.

Perhaps also to take courage?

Yes, I once gave a talk about that, about SDG 18. There are 17 SDGs, 17 global Sustainable Development Goals, all technical and carefully considered, but the 18th is missing: hope and courage. And we need that.

Let’s come to a mammoth task – the question of how to transform the economy. It’s one of the Council’s biggest ambitions, via the German Sustainability Code, the DNK, to apply an accounting price tag to ecological and social activities or at some stage secure a cost benefit in a capitalist system for companies with good sustainability practice. How is that coming along?

It’s still early days. Incidentally, I was sceptical when we first started out. When we pitched our idea to the federal government, the response was: “Best leave well alone, you’ll never manage that”. I took their doubt as a challenge and thought: “Let’s see about that”. And then I went to Frankfurt umpteen times with my colleague Yvonne Zwick to speak to the financial industry and a few companies. It took us a while to find out what was bothering them about it. Where’s the lever we can apply? What they felt was missing was comparability in reporting. So we developed a reporting standard, the DNK, also because the global reporting standard, the GRI – many internationally operating companies will of course still use it – doesn’t fit all that well with the structure and needs of the German economy. We’ve now had the DNK for ten years and also in the meantime a number of other standards that many companies use. So far though, we haven’t touched the intrinsic logic of capitalism, that is to say perpetual growth, with it. But in our society there is at least a certain basic consensus that things can’t continue exactly as they have been, as we can see from terms like ‘stakeholder capitalism’ or ‘woke capitalism’.

So approaches whereby shareholders attempt to change the companies from within.

Exactly. I see some good approaches there. You can say with a good conscience that not all companies are based on trickery, like the automotive industry was for a long time. It’s still going to take a long time, but the idea of climate neutrality is firmly anchored in the economy. Now the state would have to provide more support to help companies become climate-neutral. From my point of view, a next step could be a new trust agency, but not one that would sell off the companies and real estate.

One that buys up brown companies and tries to salvage their green aspects?

No, a new trust like that would buy up climate services worldwide, check them for authenticity in a public due diligence check and then sell them on to German and European companies. It would all be done with good standards and eco and social criteria. Any company today that wants to do something for the climate is on its own and perhaps buys a few trees somewhere, in the worst case eucalyptus. There’s massive uncertainty as to what exactly the road to climate neutrality looks like. The question of how climate neutrality works on the balance sheet is also unclear. What can companies offset elsewhere, what provisions do they have to make in advance, what real, transformative changes do they need to make? There’s a lack of market regulations that put climate and the environment centre stage. For me that’s also a future issue for the German Sustainability Code.

A big debate around the Sustainability Code was always how a carbon footprint can be expressed in the quarterly reports on an equal footing with the financial result. Do we still need that or is it perhaps obsolete now because we have carbon pricing?

It’s not obsolete and carbon pricing doesn’t cut it. Take biodiversity: it’ll be a long time before we have a price mechanism that makes companies pay the costs of species extinction. The same goes for land degradation or the social issues of sustainability. So a price mechanism is no substitute for proper reporting and for making companies realise internally what effect their own assets have. The supply chain law is a clear indication that sustainability reporting is still a long way off where it needs to be.

Raising awareness is the key when it comes to culture. How can culture help bring about social transformation?

It can change our thinking, our mental infrastructure, our gut instinct, and give us deeper insights. Take the example of coal: we can talk for ages about phasing out coal. In technical, economic, social terms. With the usual rhetoric in politics. That’s good, but not good enough. What I mean is: before the phase-out was decided, we were at an annual conference one time when suddenly in the big hall the lights went out. It was pitch black in a hall with a thousand people. And then a woman stood up and started singing a cappella, a song about the closing of an opencast coal mine in the GDR. The song described the positives – no more earthquakes, no more work-related deaths. But also the negatives – the loss of jobs, of identity. It’s not the coal that impacts the whole system, it’s how we pull out of it. Bringing that home in a song makes it easy to grasp; other people would need to talk for an hour to get it across. This other way of accessing people is what’s important about culture.

The Sustainability Culture Fund has funded many cultural projects. Which ones impressed you?

A church in Bonn was completely covered in plastic and the minister appeared in a plastic dress and gave her sermon. Those are strong images. In Frankfurt we once handed out Fairtrade chocolate among the people and then put on a festival around chocolate and the working conditions for cocoa farmers. The author Susanne Brandt told children stories of sustainability with fold-out pictures in the state library in Flensburg, about mushrooms in the forest or about water. I’ve always been intrigued by strong images. I always used to watch the audience at our annual conferences very closely. Many of them would be looking at their phones while someone was up front giving a talk. But with the cultural or artistic contributions they were not distracted; they were either horrified or impressed. Linking sustainability with emotions – that’s a great skill. We can all do science and lectures, that’s what we’ve learned. That’s why I was on board from day one when we launched the German Sustainability Award.

An award that is today considered the Oscar of sustainability and is presented as part of a grand ceremony. Didn’t Bob Dylan play there once?

No, it wasn’t him, but we had world-famous artists like, for example, Abdullah Ibrahim, formerly known as Cat Stevens, Art Garfunkel or Annie Lennox. We on the sustainability scene must leave our comfort zone and reach those beyond the usual suspects, we’re too concerned with our own interests. And plus, you need to emotionalise the issue.

How emotional is the German Sustainable Development Strategy then?

It’s not.

The German Sustainable Development Strategy is in fact based around putting sustainability front and centre in policy. Has that worked over the last 20 years?

The German Sustainable Development Strategy has become more and more a mainstream instrument. But it’s still not where it should be by a long chalk. And everyone involved knows it. We as a council – that was in 2001 – wrote the first blueprint for the Sustainability Strategy. The then Chancellor Gerhard Schröder said: “Don’t make so many indicators, I need to retain an overview”. At the time there were 21, today there are 75.

What does that mean?

That now all ministries want to get involved. They’re spewing out indicators just so that they can be a part of the German Sustainable Development Strategy. Back then, the departments with the biggest problems in terms of sustainability – transport, agriculture – steered clear of the strategy where possible. Today, they all want to be on board. This moaning that sustainability is boring, just hollow words, they’re yesterday’s battles; the fault-finding has stopped because the Federal Chancellery managed to include the departments more and hold them to account for their topics. That has to do with the State Secretaries’ Committee for Sustainable Development, but also a bit to do with the work of the Council. They achieved something that you don’t often see in other countries. But has mainstream policy changed as a result? In all probability not yet.

Every few years there’s a peer review of the strategy. A high-ranking delegation from all over the world comes and looks at where sustainability is at in Germany. The last one was led by the former Prime Minister of New Zealand, Helen Clark. There was some praise, but there was also definite criticism. Did it accomplish anything at all?

We, the RNE, organised three peer reviews. They had a very powerful effect. The government had to acknowledge, for example, that there were also indicators that were off-track, and they then had to do something about it. The criticism in 2018 was basically that the nitrate content in the groundwater was too high, the final energy consumption in passenger traffic was as well, too many people were overweight, just to name three examples. That’s why the ministries concerned had to come up with plans of action to rectify this. But I want to tell you another story about the peer reviews.

Sure, please do.

In 2006, I and the then Chairman of the Council Volker Hauff were sitting with the Head of the Chancellery of the first Merkel government, Thomas de Maizière. We told him we would have to change the governance of the RNE. Our proposal was for the government to appoint the chairperson and the new chair would then have the right to nominate the members of the Council, who would then be countersigned again by the government. Then you could have had a kind of application process. De Maizière said no. He didn’t want to hand over the appointment of the Council members. He asked if we had any other ideas for strengthening the Council. And we replied: “Okay, then we’ll have an independent peer review, with international members”. That’s how the mechanism came about in the first place. And so far no one in the world has dared to copy it. At the OECD and the EU they do peer learning, where experts swap a few ideas. And that’s useful, but it doesn’t have the political parity you need to produce an impact.

So, looking abroad, what inspired you the most in your 20 years as Secretary General of the Council?

That was individual conversations. If a colleague from the Mozambiquan environment ministry comes and asks: “Can you help me?”. And then you say three or four things and you notice: “Okay, you can forget two of them for a start. But one idea is suitable.” And then she acts on it and reports back to you later and it’s worked. That’s a lovely result. On the other hand, of course, you also learn a lot about situations and conditions in other countries. How does sustainability work in Colombia and how fragile is it there? How fragile is even the social structure in Columbian society? In Germany we live in a moral, integrated, stable, highly democratized country. And yet we still know how fragile our system is. How on earth must they feel?

The Colombians led the development of the SDGs together with Costa Rica, didn’t they.

Yes indeed. They came up with the idea. Against all odds.

What was the RNE’s greatest success?

One thing’s for sure: without us, the subject of sustainability would not have remained on the table with five governments of different stripes.

The greatest success of RNE was the sustainability of the subject of sustainability?

Yes, pretty much. Our contribution was to keep it on the daily political agenda. And in so doing, we created scope for people who wanted to change something off their own bat. The people who take the initiative all over the country, they were our greatest success. Or the many mayors we invited. They sat down with us, without their colleagues, looked us in the eye and said: “What you’re doing there won’t work, but we might have an idea of what would work”. Then again, we also had to accept defeats, or we went through things that didn’t work.

Such as?

For instance, with CCS – carbon capture and storage – so, separating CO2 from exhaust air and storing it deep underground. We broached the issue in the early 2000s and were lambasted for it. Nobody wanted CCS. Today, even the Agora Energiewende think tank or the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research are saying we need this technology. But for 20 years, we in Germany did nothing to bring in the technology. Shame on us. Another example is the green tax reform. In Germany we failed spectacularly on that. We, the Council, were tasked in 2005, still under the red-green government coalition, with developing a recommendation to reform the green tax.

Today there are fewer green taxes than when you first started in office.

Yes, at the time the ADAC and Bild newspaper shot Gerhard Schröder’s proposed green tax to pieces. The Council couldn’t accomplish anything there either, because suddenly conflicting side issues were brought up, which the members couldn’t agree on. It still annoys me to this day that that happened to us.

Did you often get angry during your time in office about hollow compromises, lazy thinking or just plain lack of action?

Yes, of course. But I wasn’t paid to be angry. I was paid to find ways and means.

How much scope for action did you have personally?

In terms of developing the Council projects, my people in the RNE office and I had ample freedom of action. But in the Council discussions, a fair bit would also get chipped away. Right at the start, I had a fantastic idea – or so I thought – for the Council to have a stronger, more public presence. But the Council members didn’t agree. We could also have become the promoter of the German Sustainability Award. But the Council members didn’t want that either.

There’s one topic we’ve neglected to mention so far: consumption. It’s the reason the RNE came up with the Sustainable Shopping Basket, which aims to address people personally: you have to change and it’s best to start with what you buy, and the Council tells you what to look out for. How did the Shopping Basket come about in the first place?

From a defeat. We actually wanted an indicator of sustainable consumption to be built into the German Sustainability Strategy.

But it has one.

There’s now a much-reduced version of it. The minimal counting of CO2 from consumption is not a good substitute for what we wanted: a proper, tough policy that increases the share of sustainable products. And we wanted to show that people who consume sustainably also live better. That’s why, over 15 years ago in 2005, together with Council member Edda Müller, who was then head of the Consumer Association, we suggested to the Federal Statistical Office of Germany that they make a change to the way they compile the basket of goods – that’s the price index that’s used as the basis for calculating inflation. We asked if they could run a partial survey in parallel to record all sustainably labelled food products and consumables. We hoped to show through that how little sustainable consumption there is. We wanted this to create policy. But the mandate to the Federal Statistical Office would have had to come from the Federal Ministry of the Interior, and that didn’t happen. After that, we developed the Sustainable Shopping Basket ourselves. Without the statistics, just for the attention of consumers.

And what effect has it had?

A great deal. You can already tell from how routinely the industry has approached us to complain about something we’ve put or haven’t put in the Shopping Basket. Wood, meat, tap water. The mineral water people complained over and over again that we recommend drinking tap water. The meat industry criticised us for recommending less meat consumption. A lot of it has been taken up by consumer policy in the meantime.

You can now get organic products in every discounter. Is this the big wave you were hoping for?

Is the glass half full or half empty? Ten years ago, I wouldn’t have thought that Aldi would have bold advertising campaigns for animal welfare, that companies would promote consuming less, that IKEA would take back furniture and recycle it. A lot has happened. Partly because companies want to enhance their reputation, but I don’t see it as dishonourable. Sustainability is a market advantage, you have to capitalise on that. But a lot is also changing because young people are working in the companies and asking themselves: “Why am I actually working here?”.

These young people might have joined in with the German Sustainability Action Days and discovered the topic that way.

Yes, maybe. We once invited the 100 youngest local politicians in Germany. I just wanted to get an idea of who they were. Then we worked with them for three days. One of them now sits in the Bundestag for the Greens. She told me later how the three days with us had changed her.

Germany wants to be climate-neutral by 2045, and the EU by 2050. Will the groundwork be laid for this in the next ten years?

I’m always horrified when Johan Rockström of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research calculates how much has to happen in order to reach the climate targets. Minus six percent CO2 per year. I’m not sure whether that will work all over the world. But for an industrial country like ours, I wouldn’t just consider it possible, it’s actually our ethical duty to do everything we can to avert the climate catastrophe. I think in our society it’s clicked. But we can’t tell people the fairy tale that the climate targets are compatible with the traditional growth-focused approach. We have to fight this focus on growth. And we have to stop telling people this complete nonsense that everything will stay the same for them, that all social hardships will be made good.

You are now an essayist and publicist. In your latest book you write: “Sustainability politics must become power politics”. What do you mean by that?

That if you run for the Bundestag, you must be able to believe that your chances are good with sustainability. We need to get to that stage. Anyone who wants to become a mayor has to base their election campaign on how they will make their town sustainable. This awareness of the power the topic has is still lacking. Sustainability must have an impact on public opinion like in a cultural hegemony. That is the case when there’s no longer any way of getting around the subject of sustainability. The Council will have to play an important part in this, because only with surprises, good ideas and also sometimes by venturing off the beaten track, can the Council open up the safe (and necessary) action space to regulate, protest, think and do. I wish everyone involved a good hand.