Shared pleasure over the German Environmental Award (from left): Moderator Judith Rakers, DBU General Secretary Alexander Bonde, award winner Prof. Dr. Ingrid Kögel-Knabner, Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, award winner Reinhard Schneider, DBU Chair of the Board of Trustees Rita Schwarzelühr-Sutter and Baden-Wurttemberg Environment Minister Franz Untersteller © DBU/Peter Himsel
Make bold decisions today for positive interactions tomorrow
Mannheim. Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier called on citizens to “make bold decisions today” in environmental and climate protection to trigger “positive interactions for tomorrow”. “The future is not predestined. It’s up to us what we make of it,” he said at the presentation of the German Environmental Award of the Deutsche Bundesstiftung Umwelt (DBU) in Mannheim. “The plastic bottle that is recycled today or not even produced will not end up in the oceans tomorrow. It will be back in the raw material cycle the day after tomorrow. The soil, which is protected from erosion today, binds carbon. And it can still be used tomorrow as farmland to feed people.” Steinmeier presented the highest endowed independent environmental award in Europe with a total of 500,000 EUR to the soil scientist Prof. Dr. Ingrid Kögel-Knabner from the Technical University of Munich and Werner & Mertz CEO Reinhard Schneider.
Ecological transformation presents opportunities to Germany
With an audience of around 1,200 guests, including Baden-Wuerttemberg’s Environment Minister Franz Untersteller, Steinmeier said that the award winners encouraged others by providing solutions and promoting ecological transformation as an opportunity for Germany. As inventors and engineers, as scientists or entrepreneurs, they would find new solutions. Award winner Kögel-Knabner is a role model for future generations of researchers. She adds the puzzle piece of soil use to a much larger picture of the global climate and its “truly alarming change”. Factories and power plants alone are not responsible for climate change; another contributor is how the world’s people manage soil, the planet’s major carbon sinks. Depending on its use, soil accelerates or slows down climate change. Months of droughts, torrential floods, and destructive storms can be observed in countries in the southern hemisphere. In Europe, too, heat waves are on the rise. The environmental award winner’s research is so important because soil science can help people adapt their agriculture to such extremes.
Products and production designed for sustainability
According to the Federal President, award winner Schneider was a responsible business leader before many others took any action at all. He showed with true pioneering achievements that environmental awareness and profitable business are not mutually exclusive and made the combination his recipe for success. Schneider “designed products and production for sustainability”. Examples include surfactants with a high degradation rate and packaging made of recycled plastic. If more people looked more critically at products on supermarket shelves, they might put pressure on manufacturers to be more environmentally friendly. Consumer activism, however, does not relieve politicians of their responsibility to intervene with regulations when the market does too little or nothing at all to benefit environmental and climate protection. Authorities can use instruments such as transparency, consumer protection with seals of quality, prices that reflect the true costs to the environment and, if necessary, bans on ingredients.
Hundreds of thousands of young people have already made a difference
The head of state went on to say that protection of the environment, climate and biodiversity has rarely been as important to society as it is today. The remarkable civil commitment of hundreds of thousands of young people has had a decisive impact and has “given a tremendous push” to climate and environmental policy. It has reminded Germans of the vigor and ambition that can be found in this country, the social and technological forces that have been built up in the area of environment and climate, and “the contribution that Germany owes the world”. We also are reminded of the ambitious goals the international community has committed to under international law. Young people are justified in saying that what counts now is courage and political will to achieve the goals that have been set. Steinmeier: “Climate policy has to be measured against that yardstick.” Public awareness of this extraordinary social movement has created previously unimagined opportunities that politicians are now called on to utilize.
Trust in democracy’s ability to act should not be underestimated
Federal President Steinmeier said he was aware of the criticism of the climate package. Nevertheless, he added, there is no reason to lose confidence in democracy’s ability to act just because the challenges are so great. Above all, he warned against playing off the participants in this debate against each other: the passion and determination of the young people on the street against the supposed sobriety and sluggishness of political procedure. The democratic process, which is now entering a decisive phase of negotiation, requires passion and determination, a willingness to communicate and fervent rationalism.
“No self-proclaimed strong man will ever be able to match the strength of democracy.”
Steinmeier challenged those who want to sow doubts about democracy to name another form of government that possesses such power of renewal. He stated, “No lone warrior, no autocrat, no self-proclaimed strong man will ever be able to match the strength of democracy!” No cabinet of experts and scientists, no group of climate researchers – despite all their irrefutable findings – can free society from having to deal with the conflicting goals, painful considerations and negotiations it now faces. An ecological transformation that is based on accepted climate science is, of course, necessary. As with every far-reaching structural change, some people will be affected more than others. They might be people who are worried about losing their jobs or about their children not finding jobs if their homes are in regions touched by the changes. Those in power should neither ignore their concerns nor use them as an excuse for not taking required action to protect the climate. Protection of the environment and the climate should not lead to a split between auto industry laborers and blockers of road building, between farmers and nature conservationists, between those who can afford to pay extra and those who cannot. After all, climate protection is an ecological and social issue that concerns everyone and climate policy is much more effective when a lot of people get involved.
Jury praises award winners’ commitment
As members of the jury of the German Environmental Award, on whose recommendation the Board of Trustees selects the winner of the year, Prof. Dr. med. Heidi Foth, Director of the Institute for Environmental Toxicology at Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg, and Katharina Reuter, founder and managing director of UnternehmensGrün, spoke about the achievements of the 2019 winners. Foth paid tribute to the outstanding research work of the award winner Kögel-Knabner. With new research methods and unquestionably solid data, the soil scientist, she said, showed how important soil protection is. Reuter praised Schneider for his consistent focus on the topic of sustainable management. The jury was impressed specifically by his Recyclate Initiative, the creation of environmentally friendly products for the mass market, early European Union EMAS certification of his company, the steadily increasing proportion of used plastics in product packaging, and the company’s early entry to the “”Entrepreneurs for Future”” initiative.
Kögel-Knabner: the organisms in a handful of soil outnumber the world’s population
The award winners made their positions clear once again in films that were screened during the ceremony and in conversations with moderator Judith Rakers. Kögel-Knabner said that one way soils counteract climate change is by storing carbon. Moreover, she said, soils have to be fertile in order to meet global food requirements of a growing world population. The general public has not yet grasped how important soils are for climate protection, Kögel-Knabner said. The organisms found in a handful of soil outnumber the people on Earth. Climate-related problems that look regional – like the thawing of permafrost soils in Siberia – are in fact global because they result from the release of greenhouse gases.
Schneider: Plastic could be one of the most ecological materials of our time
Award winner Schneider said that companies should commit themselves to sustainability and accept the responsibility for making attractive offers to consumers without pushing them to do without expected quality and features. That cannot yet be reasonably expected of many, but it is possible to do so without compromising on ecology. Schneider said it is important in the development phase to make sure products will be recyclable. Different types of plastics should not be bonded in such a way that they cannot be separated. The paradox is that plastic could be one of the most ecological materials of our time “if we learn to handle it properly,” he said. With a minimum of energy and practically no material loss, plastic can be put into a closed cycle. Then no more waste is produced.