Impressions from the 20th Anniversary Conference of the Wuppertal Institute

Update 19.10.2011

Some of the conference presentations (all in German) can now be viewed at the conference website or at the Wuppertal Institutes YouTube channel. Photos from the conference are now available on the Wuppertal Institute’s Flickr stream.

Video: Wuppertal Institute in 60 Seconds

Original Post

The Wuppertal Institute was founded 20 years ago and yesterday hosted a major conference to celebrate. The conference took place in Wuppertal’s Historische Stadthalle, an opulent building from 1900. One of the jewels Wuppertal has left from it’s glory days of being one of the first centres of industrialisation in Germany and home to companies such as Bayer.

Töpfer: The process is key

The keynote was delivered by former German environment minister and former UNEP executive director Klaus Töpfer. Among other things he highlighted that democracy means to think in alternatives – the opposite of the claim that “there is no alternative (TINA)” which policy makers frequently like to employ to ram through their favoured approaches. But he also expressed a dislike for holistic approaches because these might also quickly turn into TINA. Instead, approaches should be scaled down and small iterative steps be taken in order to be able to quickly change course if necessary.

Töpfer pointed out that the German “energy turnaround”, the decision to phase out nuclear, is actually only an electricity turnaround. The heat and transport sectors are still hardly being tackled. In line with his advocacy for iterative approaches he emphasised the process as such as being the most important part for the nuclear phaseout. He advocated for a dedicated monitoring process, including a Parliamentary Commissioner and a forum for constant debate between government, civil society and businesses.

Making Progress?

Another highlight was the panel discussion between Walter Hirche, former government minister in the federal states of Lower Saxony and Brandenburg, Claudia Langer, founder of the German internet platform Utopia, Dirk Messner, director of the German Development Institute, and Angelika Zahrnt, former president of Friends of the Earth Germany (BUND).

Zahrnt asked why 20 years after the Earth Summit in Rio things are still getting worse rather than better and posited that the key barrier is our equation of sustainability and economic growth. She argued that we need a policy of having enough, accepting that we cannot do everything we are able to do.

Messner highlighted that we have made great progress in describing the problems and the possibilities to solve them, a necessary prerequisite for action. By contrast, 20 years ago there was a widespread mood that the problems might be too big to solve. He also highlighted that transformation and in particular the necessary change in public awareness is a process that takes time – but this process has been underway for 40 years already. In his view, the elements we need for a phase shift are increasingly falling into place.

Langer recounted how five years ago her initiative was of the opinion that as people are increasingly aware of the problems it should be a piece of cake to “seduce” them into changing their lifestyles. They thought that all that was necessary was to get sustainability out of the anti-fun corner and make it sexy as hell. Five years later they have come to the conclusion that they have failed grandly. The platform gives space to both businesses and people and what they see is that people demand a lot from businesses and politicians but are hardly prepared to give anything. Most people prefer to block out the problems instead of thinking about what they might do about them. When asked whether she was not demanding too much from individuals, she highlighted that taking action was not only about consumer choices but also about the political choices of people. By contrast, according to her a lot is happening in business, there is an entire new generation of business leaders who actually get sustainability.

Hirche pointed out the problem of people’s positions being determined by their institutional affiliation. The economic ministry takes the position of business, the consumer protection ministry takes the position of consumers and so on. And frequently the administrative staff is dug in even more strongly in their positions than their ministers. There is therefore an urgent need for more openness and shifting areas of responsibility from one ministry to another can therefore have a great impact.

He also emphasised the need for strongly integrating sustainability into school’s curricula and highlighted the experience from Lower Saxony that this can even improve overall school performance. According to him, making pupils work on sustainability issues had the effect of strongly re-motivating pupils who had been considered lost causes.

He also took up Töpfer’s call for a public monitoring process. According to him, such a process should be established for the whole process of transitioning to a sustainable society but it might be useful to take the nuclear phaseout as starting point.

In the second round Zahrnt highlighted that a lot is already happening, for example there is an enormous number of local round tables addressing the question of how the local community may achieve a shift to renewables. Instead of trying to “bring society on board” the issue is therefore rather to give space to such initiatives so that they can flourish.

Messner added that this “virus” is also spreading in developing countries. According to him the belief that fossil fuels are the future has been shaken to the core, and not only among the “good guys” but increasingly also in institutions such as the World Bank. He was confident that while we have not yet reached the tipping point, there now is a broadly shared perception of the problem as well as a rough idea of where we want to go.

Langer pointed out that a critical mass gathers when there is awareness that there is a critical mass. Individuals as well as business leaders are much more ready to take action if they see that others among their peers have the same opinions and are going to support them. But currently many business leaders are still afraid of being ridiculed by their peers. To her it is therefore crucial to make visible that a critical mass is emerging.

Shrinking Cities – Exploding Cities

In the afternoon, the Korean artist Kyong Park showcased pieces of his work on shrinking cities and exploding cities. His video “Detroit : Making It Better for You” showcases the amazing decline of this city that has lost 63% of its population in 50 years, from formerly 1.8 million to now about 700,000. According to Park Detroit was the first city after ancient Rome to go above and then back below 1 million inhabitants. 200,000 houses were demolished in Detroit from 1960 to 1995 and downtown Detroit now has as much green as the suburbs. The video narrates a fictional corporate conspiracy to destroy the city.

His project “New Silk Roads” explores the rapidly growing cities of Asia and the connections between them.

Visions for and shaping of urban mobility

Later there was a series of workshops, out of which I attended the one on visions for and shaping of urban mobility.

Georg Wilke of the Wuppertal Institute laid out two scenarios. In the positive scenario privately-owned cars cease to be the central point of refence, getting replaced by new mobility concepts that are mostly based on mobility services and where car manufacturers become mobility service providers. Multi- and intermodality increases and the electric car does not only make a contribution to greening mobility, but in addition the technically determined limitations of the electric car regarding reach and battery charging time promotes the development of a new mobility culture. There has in fact for some time been a trend towards less car ownership and use among youths. The symbolic value of the car is decreasing, being replaced by smartphones, the internet and social networks.

In the other scenario the car stays the central fixture due to the autonomy and flexibility it provides. Improved mobility services cannot provide the standard set by the car and there is no money to expand public transport as the responsibility for public transport is being shifted to cash-strapped cities. The decrease of the symbolic value of the car is only temporary and electric cars will stay a niche. The greening of transport is only possible in the long term due to the need to shift to renewables as oil is running out.

John Whitelegg from the Stockholm Environment Institute at the University of York noted that our species has engaged in a very significant shift in its behaviour, having embarked on an experiment which rewards moving around as much as possible. He pointed out that there is enormous creativity and many best practice examples, such as:

  • The London congestion charge reduced congestion by 30%.
  • The modal split in Vienna is 36% public transport, 5% bicycles, 28% foot, 9% car use as passenger, and 22% car use as driver – a “city of thirds”, while in most other cities car use has a share of about 70%.
  • In Copenhagen spatial development is closely tied to the availability of public transport.
  • In Tokyo the streets are narrow and congested and traffic signals are designed to delay rather than speed up vehicles. In addition, owning a car is tied to making available or purchasing an off-street parking place, which has a price tag of ca. 2,700 Euros p.a. As a result the modal share of bikes in Tokyo is 16%.

Whitelegg also highlighted how urban density and transport-related energy consumption are highly correlated. Urban sprawls induce an enormously high energy consumption for transport while the transport systems of dense cities are highly energy efficient.

According to Whitelegg citizens’ preference is overwhelmingly for environmentally friendly transport, yet politicians usually deliver the opposite. His recipe for moving towards sustainable transport revolves around paying attention to urban structures and deleting all subsidies for fossil fuel mobility.

He also urged the need to redefine the street. According to him the street of the future is for people, children and local trips. Car traffic will need to be reduced by 50% and the rest will need to be entirely electric.

Yvonne Meir-Bukowiecki form the city of Zürich related how her city had become a “city of thirds” similar to Vienna. She highlighted that the process had started in the 1970s already and had been repeatedly confirmed in referenda, confirming the point about citizens’ preferences made by Whitelegg.

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