Interview with Barbara Hendricks

“We will see huge changes in our economic model and lifestyle”

Interviewed by Astrid Dähn and Jörg-Rainer Zimmermann, 23.05.18
A conversation with Barbara Hendricks about her experience as Germany's Federal Minister for the Environment, the new government’s climate plans and the social changes that go hand in hand with a decisive stance against global warming.

new energy: Rising carbon emissions, discord over the diesel scandal, renewed debate on the coal phase-out and a ban on the weed-killer glyphosate – how do you feel when you see the debates about core issues from your tenure as environment minister flaring up again?

Barbara Hendricks: Yes, we missed the 2020 climate targets. However, the coalition agreement states that the targets for 2030 are to be implemented as soon as possible. We still have some real blind spots with regard to transport, and a lot of catching up to do in the buildings sector, especially where existing buildings are concerned. As for glyphosate, I was rather bewildered – to put it mildly – by the recent remarks of the new agriculture minister, Klöckner: the coalition agreement plainly calls for the use of glyphosate to be ended as soon as possible, rather than simply researching alternatives.

ne: When you hear this kind of talk from Ms Klöckner, doesn’t it make you want to get back in the thick of it? Or do you find it easy to sit back and say “leave it to them!”?

Hendricks: I deliberately stay out of the discussion. I think it’s better that way. I have decided to pursue completely different issues in the future, including where my work in the Bundestag is concerned. I am now on the Foreign Affairs Committee, with a focus on foreign cultural policy. I don’t think it’s a good idea to publicly dole out advice to one’s successors.

ne: Did you want to give up your position?

Hendricks: No, I would absolutely have liked to carry on, and I made that quite clear. I enjoyed my job a great deal. However, my party’s regional branch in North Rhine-Westphalia in particular was of the opinion that renewal is partly a matter of age.

ne: Your successor, Svenja Schulze, is 16 years younger than you, but in other respects the renewal doesn’t seem especially radical: Ms Schulze is also an SPD politician from North Rhine-Westphalia and – just like you when you took up office – has little prior experience in environmental policy. Does age really matter that much?

Hendricks: I’m not the one to ask. That’s a question for the North Rhine-Westphalia regional branch.

ne: Was it really just a question of age? Might it not also have been about a shift in policy?

Hendricks: I don’t think so. I don’t share the opinion held by some people that my successor will adopt a tamer approach to her job.

Barbara Hendricks interviewed by Astrid Dähn and Jörg-Rainer Zimmermann

Barbara Hendricks interviewed by Astrid Dähn and Jörg-Rainer Zimmermann. (Photo: Roland Horn)                                                   

ne: Do you think you were too vigorous in pursuing your concerns in the field of climate and environmental action? It sometimes seemed that you were pushing the limits of your leeway within the Federal Government...

Hendricks: Yes, but that’s the job of any responsible politician: you have to try to make as much progress as you can in the department you represent. Of course this gives rise to a natural tension between the interests of the environment ministry on one hand, and the economics, transport or agriculture ministries on the other. I came up against resistance, and had to overcome it. But that’s just politics; it’s something you deal with.

ne: Are you satisfied with what you accomplished in the end?

Hendricks: I am satisfied insofar as I don’t believe that we could have achieved more in those four years. But of course that doesn’t mean there is nothing more to be done.

ne: What were your most important achievements?

Hendricks: Key accomplishments in climate policy were the Paris agreement and the 2050 Climate Action Plan. This was the first time that concrete figures, expressed in millions of tonnes of CO2, were calculated to quantify the carbon savings needed by 2030 in five sectors: energy, industry, transport, buildings and agriculture. These figures laid the groundwork for implementation this and next year. That is something I am very satisfied with – German climate policy has never been formulated in such concrete terms before.

ne: And what about areas other than climate action?

Hendricks: I am also very proud of how we transformed the issue of nuclear waste storage. We finally have clearly defined criteria to guide the search for a final repository for highly radioactive nuclear waste, and a deadline on when such a repository must be found. I am the kind of person who likes to think in the long term, so I am also very pleased that we were able to launch a national flood prevention programme, which will receive EUR 100 million in funding every year. The programme will run for at least 20 years, expanding the natural flood plains of Germany’s major rivers by a total of 20,000 hectares. As well as counteracting the growing flood risk associated with climate change, this is also a major achievement from an ecological perspective, for instance in terms of preserving biodiversity in river basins.

"I would absolutely have liked to carry on, and I made that quite clear."

ne: In the second half of your term as environment minister you seemed to become more assertive, and better able to get people’s attention. Do you agree with this impression?

Hendricks: I don’t know if I became more assertive, but it certainly took some time for me to make an impact on the public awareness outside of a small circle of interested parties. It is true that I received more attention in the second half of the legislative period, undoubtedly due to the Paris climate agreement in late 2015.

ne: Did the negotiations surrounding the Paris agreement help strengthen your resolve?

Hendricks: Yes, probably. The event the first time that I met people from the Small Island Developing States – small island countries in the South Pacific or the Caribbean with fewer than a million inhabitants, whose existence is already under threat from climate change. Tony de Brum, the foreign minister of the Marshall Islands who sadly passed away last year, made me acutely aware of the implications of this threat for his country and his fellow citizens in personal conversations that made a lasting impression on me.

ne: Where did things not go so well in your time as environment minister? Where would you have liked to make more progress?

Hendricks: We did not accomplish enough in terms of agricultural policy. I have always been very concerned with ensuring a good future for agriculture. And quite simply, I think that the way in which large parts of the farming industry are managed is not sustainable in the long term. This stance earned me a great deal of hostility from some – though not all – farmers.

ne: So where is improvement needed?

Hendricks: The way I see it, German agriculture’s focus on exports is not really a sensible strategy. It doesn’t make sense to produce such a surplus of meat. For one thing, it means that too much manure ends up on Germany’s fields, exacerbating the nitrate pollution problem. When I was environment minister we succeeded in getting new fertilizer regulations off the ground, but although this is better than nothing, it is certainly not enough in the long run. In my opinion, the crucial issue is establishing new regulations restricting the number of animals that can be raised in a given area in Germany. This would mean reorganising the agricultural sector, however – not exactly a simple matter.

ne: What about climate action? Didn’t the coalition give up too soon and too easily on the 2020 target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent compared to 1990?

Hendricks: I don’t think it happened too soon or too easily; in fact, the opposite might be more accurate: it would have been better to come clean at an earlier stage. I always said that the target would be very difficult to achieve. What is more, I came up with an action plan which at least helped save a few percentage points. But even that was very difficult.

ne: Why? Who was holding things up?

Hendricks: On one hand, there were objective reasons that couldn’t really be influenced. For instance, no one could have predicted that we would see stable economic growth for so long, or that the population would rise. Both of these factors lead to higher emissions, and neither is something that we can – or want to – change.

ne: But surely those were not the sole causes…

Hendricks: No. It is also the case that not enough efforts were made to cut carbon emissions in all areas. The transport sector, for instance, has taken no action whatsoever in this regard in recent years. Of course we can’t go on like this. The Federal Government has to realise that meeting climate targets is a job for the entire cabinet, with all ministries assuming their share of the responsibility.

ne: So the transport ministry just sat back and did nothing?

Hendricks: Yes, this ministry has so far taken absolutely no measures to curb carbon emissions anywhere. In fact, emissions in the transport sector have actually risen compared to 1990.

ne: In your experience, can the environment ministry exert pressure on other ministries in a case like this?

Hendricks: Not really. If the Federal Government as a whole, including the Chancellor, whose responsibility it is to issue guidelines, does not act, then there is not much the environment ministry can do by itself.

ne: Did you feel you had enough support from Ms Merkel?

Hendricks: Concerning international climate issues, I received a great deal of support from Ms Merkel, including with regard to funding. But at the domestic level the chancellery was not very helpful.

ne: Why is that?

Hendricks: That’s not a question for me, but for Frau Merkel or Mr Altmaier, who was head of the chancellery at the time.

"The Federal Government has to realise that meeting climate targets is a job for the entire cabinet."

ne: In his new position as economics minister, Peter Altmaier has taken over the helm of the Energiewende from Sigmar Gabriel. Do you think that you could have achieved more if you had had Mr Altmaier to work with instead of your SPD colleague Gabriel, who often made life difficult for you – with regard to the coal phase-out, for example?

Hendricks: No, I don’t think so. Being determines consciousness. An economics minister will always take a different approach to the issues at hand than an environment minister. I don’t see why Mr Altmaier should be any different to Mr Gabriel in this respect.

ne: Would it help the environmental cause if responsibility for climate action and the Energiewende were no longer split among various ministries, but concentrated in a single Energiewende ministry, as many people have suggested?

Hendricks: I don’t think that would necessarily be advantageous. I’m OK with the economics ministry being responsible for the Energiewende since the last legislative period. As far as climate action is concerned, the environment ministry is in charge. It goes without saying that as environment minister you also have to deal with issues affecting the economy, agriculture or transport. But the fact that each minister is responsible for running their own department does not necessarily equate to fragmentation. What ultimately matters is that the ministries are united behind a common goal. Ensuring that this goal is pursued with all available resources is a task for the federal government as a whole.

ne: And does the new government really have a common goal for climate action?

Hendricks: When we submitted the 2050 Climate Action Plan as our national contribution to carbon saving efforts under the Paris agreement at the 2016 climate conference in Marrakesh, it became binding under international law. The new government must therefore take its cues from the plan. Furthermore, the coalition agreement requires a climate action act, or “omnibus act” as the Union prefers to call it, to be passed by 2019 at the latest. This act will modify and adapt existing laws so as to ensure that the savings prescribed by the Climate Action Plan for the various sectors are achieved and the climate targets for 2030 are actually met this time round. However, there will be a need for rigorous scrutiny as to whether the parties involved actually stick to what has been agreed.

ne: The coalition agreement also states that a committee will be formed to draft proposals for a coal phase-out by the end of the year. Why not simply shut down the dirtiest coal plants? Would you have preferred to see a different approach?

Hendricks: No, I think that this is the best way for us to achieve the coal phase-out. There are two sides to coal-fired power generation. On one hand there is hard coal, for which we rely on imports in any case. A phase-out will have economic consequences here too, such as for municipal utilities with large coal plants. But the consequences will be much more serious for lignite, which is mined in Rhineland and Lusatia. We have to offer these regions new prospects. The coalition agreement pledges – and I consider this a breakthrough – EUR 1.5 billion in federal funds for the structural transformation in the lignite regions. This is an acknowledgement by the Federal Government of its financial responsibility for the forthcoming changes.

ne: Nevertheless, this does not mean that a rapid end to coal-fired power generation is in sight. It seems that the SPD in particular is dragging its feet over the phase-out. After all, the lignite mining regions are traditional SPD strongholds, and the party has repeatedly pledged solidarity to its “pals”. You yourself are a member of the mining union IG BCE, which vigorously campaigns for Germany’s coal industry to be kept in place for as long as possible…

Hendricks: I joined IG BCE because I wanted to belong to a trade union. I was originally with Verdi. However, when I became treasurer of the SPD, my role became that of an employer in wage negotiations, making me a counterpart to the Verdi representatives, so I switched to IG BCE. Fundamentally, my intention was to clarify my position rather than support the coal industry. I don’t agree that the SPD is dragging its feet over the coal phase-out, but we do acknowledge that there is a responsibility towards the affected regions. The Rhineland coal district, which is located in the wealthy region between Düsseldorf, Cologne and Aachen, won’t have much trouble finding new opportunities. Things won’t be so easy for Lusatia, which is a peripheral region. I have a great deal of sympathy for people’s fears of being left with nothing. Besides, one thing is quite clear: climate action cannot succeed without the coal phase-out, but the energy industry cannot foot the bill for decarbonisation on its own.

ne: So what needs to happen?

Hendricks: This is a transformation process involving society as a whole, and must be conceived as such. For instance, we need a completely new approach to mobility.

ne: In what sense?

Hendricks: We need to think in a much more holistic manner. It’s not just about how we power cars or trucks, but the entire vehicle fleet – including shipping, for instance. Cities have to find ways to move away from private transport. On average, a privately-owned car is only used for an hour each day, and is idle for the rest of the time. This highlights the need to replace private transport with other options: we have to make cycling safer with new cycle paths, raise the frequency of local public transport, and boost car-sharing opportunities – particularly in conjunction with the rollout of electromobility. The auto industry has long recognised that this is the way forward: many car-sharing providers are owned by auto manufacturers.

"Of course we need a faster rollout of renewables."

ne: How quickly do we need to get rid of the combustion engine?

Hendricks: I don’t think it makes any sense at all to say that all cars with a combustion engines must be taken off the roads by a given date. But merely based on falling demand, particularly in China, I expect the number of newly registered combustion cars to fall sharply between 2025 and 2030.

ne: Nevertheless, the electric cars that are supposed to replace them will need green electricity in order to be a low-carbon solution. Where will all this eco-friendly power come from? Don’t we need to speed up the energy transition, for instance by stepping up the expansion of renewables?

Hendricks: Of course we need a faster rollout of renewables. Solar power in particular offers a growing range of promising opportunities for private electricity generation from solar panels on household roofs or foils applied to walls. It is crucial that political support is given to this kind of decentralised electricity production. As regards wind power, I think offshore farms will play an increasingly important role.

ne: That means upgrading the transmission grid to carry the electricity from the coast to the industrial centres in the south. However, power line expansion is something we have been struggling with for years. Do you think we will be able to upgrade the grid in time to meet our climate targets for 2030?

Hendricks: I assume so. Anything else would be contrary to Germany’s interests, both ecologically and economically speaking. The way I see it, we can’t afford any more delays if we want to remain at the technological forefront of the energy transition.

ne: How will that work?

Hendricks: Both the government and the federal states need to start expediting grid expansion right now. They also need to convince citizens that there is no other way. We must overcome the mentality that renewables and power lines are all well and good so long as they’re not in my back yard.

ne: But in order for citizens to be convinced, the idea needs the full support of policymakers. Do you think that the government genuinely wants the extensive cross-sector system transformation that is needed for the fight against climate change to succeed?

Hendricks: Well, I do think that we’re fundamentally on the right track, despite all the setbacks. On the other hand, I don’t think that everyone in politics has fully grasped just how far-reaching the transformation is going to be. Otherwise they would be telling voters: “If we want to take the fight against climate change seriously, then from the middle of this century, people in Central Europe – and all over the world – will see huge changes in their economic model and lifestyle.”

ne: Such as?

Hendricks: There are two far-reaching transformations ahead of us, which will take place in parallel: one is the trend towards digitalisation and the deployment of artificial intelligence, and the other is the fight against climate change. Each of these developments will influence the other, leading to a fundamental structural shift greater than any we have experienced since the industrial revolution. Steering these two processes will be the key political challenge of the coming years.

ne: Do you think it will work?

The conditions are there, at least. Even the Federation of German Industries recently pledged its ongoing support to the fight against climate change, and commissioned extensive assessments relating to the structural transformation it entails. The speed with which these changes have to take place is a matter of debate, but there is no mainstream opposition to them. And I don’t think they are something anyone should be afraid of, as long as we play an active part in shaping the transformation.

ne: Will you be involved in these efforts, or will you really have nothing more to do with climate action and sustainability in future?

Hendricks: Yes, of course – in my foreign policy role I will also deal with aspects of international climate and resource policy, but that won’t be my main focus.

ne: Is there anything that you will carry over to your private life from your time as environment minister?

Hendricks: Yes, I believe that everyone should look at how they can contribute to climate action in their personal life. It doesn’t have to be some huge sacrifice. I am convinced that everyone can find a way to make a difference that comes relatively easily to them. For example, I don’t go on private long-haul trips. Lying on a beach somewhere in Thailand is something I can do without.


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