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Renewable Energy is a Reality and not a Vision

Germany gains more energy from solar technology than Japan gains from all its nuclear reactors. Development in this area occurred much faster in the last years than many expected. Ten years ago no one would have believed we could gain 17 percent of our electricity supply from renewable energy. In the US the gigantic oil and nuclear industries dominate funding and research

Klaus Topfer on the Nuclear Exodus

The catastrophe in Japan calls us to reflect about the energy concept of our government, ex-environmental minister Klaus Topfer says. Renewable energy is already a "reality."

[This interview published in: Die Tagesanzeiger, 3/26/2011 is translated from the German on the Internet,  link to www.taz.de.]

Taz: Mr. Topfer, as director of the Ethics commission, what advice can you give the political decision-makers on the nuclear exodus?

Klaus Topfer: In many areas acceptance of technology is derived from technical criteria. The effects of technology on readiness to take risks in society play a great role. The question is: do we want our prosperity based on technologies that when they fail have tremendous negative effects that can hardly be controlled?

Wasn't this ethical question answered long ago in relation to nuclear energy?

These controversial questions have been discussed again and again. The catastrophe in Japan demands peremptorily that we reflect how nuclear energy in the past ended up putting in question other important goals of society. The exodus- and bridging process may not lead to additional emissions of CO2. This also may not put in question the economic competitiveness that is crucial for jobs and has been very successful in export. This must be seriously discussed in a broad social dialogue: how the bridging can be organized so an environmentally-friendly and competitive energy supply can be achieved with renewable energy. Setting up our commission could be a good signal for that bridging.

Do you see a possibility for compromise between the profit mongering of operators and the desire for exodus of a broad population?

I do not see arbitration proceedings between operators and the public as a task of the commission.

Is there really a desire to alight in the government or is this only an election tactic?

That is not my worry. For all participants in this commission, I can say this will not be misused for a tactical election maneuver. A tactical election maneuver would already be over on Monday.

The German government presented its energy concept not long ago. Must a new concept be offered now?

The energy concept of the German government must be revised by the events in Japan and the drama of the collapse of this nuclear power plant. This challenge must be faced. Germany has a unique position worldwide. Come with me to China, India, Russia and France. In no country using nuclear energy is the society agreed that this energy is a discontinued technology. All these countries are convinced - even after the drama in Japan - that nuclear energy is a future technology. Happily this is not the case in Germany. This is also a hard lesson from Chernobyl drummed into our heads. Therefore Germany has become a world leader in renewable energy.

Is Germany an energy pioneer?

I do not like that term. I think we must make a down-to-earth analysis and emphasize that we can gain advantages from a restructuring without nuclear energy. Nuclear energy is not a cheap technology. On the contrary, enormous costs are involved in ensuring security. An uncontrollable residual risk cannot be excluded. Other energy technologies gain a much greater attractiveness. It would be excellent if the work of the commission triggers a wide social discussion, a discussion that is not poisoned right from the start.

Hasn't this discussion been underway for 30 years?

Yes, but the alternatives must be worked out again instead of waging the old trench wars. A new chance is now given. Saying we alight and proving we can alight from nuclear energy without abandoning stability and prosperity is a necessity. This is also a question beyond our borders and not only for us. If we don't successfully demonstrate our exodus, we will give other countries a reason for remaining with nuclear energy in the long run.

Do such future projects include the Desertec mega-project that will gain energy from the desert?

Not actively pursuing a realistic technology using renewable energy would be a mistake for a leading technological country like Germany. The technology of solar thermal current is free of risk and is very real and not visionary. In my opinion, it would be reprehensible not to pursue this energy production in Europe and North Africa as a contribution to a stable economic development after the social-political upheavals in these countries.

Has your urgency intensified on the exodus from nuclear energy theme after Japan?

From the first day of my activity as German environmental minister when I had political responsibility, we needed a future without nuclear energy. After Chernobyl there weren't concrete alternatives for an energy supply without nuclear energy. What opens my eyes and is very impressive in today's discussion is the fact that much has been achieved in the area of renewable energy. The development and massive use of renewable energy is a reality and not a vision any more. Development in this area occurred much faster in the last years than many expected. Ten years ago no one would have believed we could gain 17 percent of our electricity supply from renewable energy.

Elmar Altvater on Problems of the Auto Society and Possible Alternatives

[Sales buzz. German automakers announce higher profits. Is there no auto-crisis? Was there an auto-crisis? Certainly, Elmar Altvater says. The emeritus professor of political science who is active in the advisory council of attac regards the car ecologically and economically as a discontinued model. At the "Auto-Mobility-Crisis" at the end of October 2011 in Stuttgart (cf. ak 553), he discussed ways out of the crisis. AK spoke with him about gas-guzzlers, electric cars and alternatives to cars. This interview published in: ak-analyse & kritik - journal for left debate and praxis Nr. 554/ 10/15/2010 is translated from the German on the Internet,  http://www.akweb.de/ak_s/ak554/34.htm.]

Ak: Two years ago the following sentence was printed in ZEIT: "The car is a successful invention that shapes our environment according to the needs of the person in the car." How do you explain the success story of individual automobile transportation?

Elmar Altvater: The car obviously relieves life enormously. Whether as a means of production, a truck or a tractor, work is incredibly eased and becomes more productive. Profits grow and wages can rise. Thus it is good for all classes. For personal transportation, it is also very practical since one can live out one's mobility completely unhindered. What a mobility this is - to drive 35 miles from a city into the surrounding countryside and return a few hours later! That is a tremendous individual progress. For that reason it is hard to imagine life without the car.

In 2009 at the peak of the economic crisis in a conversation with Raul Zelik "Surveying Utopia," you said the car was in its final crisis. Auto companies report profits again today. How can we come out of this crisis of the auto society?

A year later I am still convinced of that statement. The car depends on fossil energy, above all on oil, which is running low as everybody knows. Moreover the car and the way of life connected with it are mainly responsible for the climate collapse.

The destructive consequences of auto transportation have been known for a long time. But in the crisis the governments of the big auto producers support their industries with clunker bonuses and similar measures.

In these countries many jobs depend on automobile production. The clunker bonus was a means to counter the sales crisis. One can ask whether it accomplished anything. The early purchases of 2009 may be absent in 2010 or 2011. A little interim recovery is now occurring - not in the US - but this is a short-term fire.

Can you imagine a recovery of auto sales?

No. Firstly, the financial crisis is in no way weathered or over. New bubbles are inflated that will burst some time or other. Secondly, the real economy is not bringing the growth from which the profits for the financial markets can be branched off. A new wave of investment is lacking and will not occur in the automobile industry. Perhaps it will arise in biotechnology, genetic engineering, electronics or resources could be plundered in the deep sea. Mega-projects with renewable energy like the Desertec project are possible. One can speculate where a new field for massive investments could open up but no area will be directly involved withy the automobile.

The auto industry is experimenting with smaller models, new fuels and electric motors.

Still the industry produces these gas-guzzlers, the SUVs (sport utility vehicles). The huge models of Audi, BMW, VW and so forth are all gas-guzzlers. Nothing will happen with electric motors because such heavy boxes cannot travel long distances.

Moreover a central problem with electric cars is not yet solved, namely what happens when there is an accident. Electric cars are rolling chemical bombs. The storage batteries are full of chemicals. What happens when one breaks in a crash and its horrible emissions are released? Therefore an across-the-board conversion to electric cars will be impossible in the foreseeable future.

What about other fuels?

If cars were changed over to renewable sources of energy, the crisis would probably intensify. For example, if biomass were used as a fuel, the agricultural fields needed to produce bio-fuel would not be available for food production. A report of the UN Food organization (FAO) was titled "Food or Fuel." This is a great problem that is coming to us and will cause great conflicts.

In addition biomass involves fertilizers, machinery and long transport routes. A whole chain of negative consequences is started. The large-scale cultivation of monocultures also removes biological diversity. Bees die because they can't find nourishment any more. Plants disappear and there is less for people to eat. Thus it is a lie or self-deception to say one could replace fossil fuel with bio-fuel. This cannot happen with the applied technology, social organization and the underlying economic interests.

What is the alternative?

I am not a car-hater. But there is only one alternative: away from the car. One has to adjust lifestyle, which is the only possibility. Interface concepts must be tested that intelligently combine pedestrian- and bicycle paths, local public transportation, long distance rail transportation and using the car where it is hard to replace.

At the same time a certain form of mobility has to be abandoned. Shopping centers built on green meadows all over Germany increase auto traffic. They diminish quality of life since the downtown areas become deserted. Another development policy must be discussed about how cities and communities should be organized. Quality of life should be raised. This is obvious to many people. Older people who do not drive cars only experience the negative sides of road traffic.

What stands in the way of these mobility concepts?

We live in a capitalist society and decisions are made according to what one can earn, not according to reason. When capital is fixated in the auto industry, the auto industry cannot be simply shut down because the return flow from the sale of automobiles would be lost. Businesses do not cooperate voluntarily. They must be forced by the state. However the government, the parties and the population are not ready for this.

Who are the supporters of such reorganization?

A whole series of social movements champion another mobility. Bicycle clubs have developed very intelligent concepts of transportation. Unions emphasize industrial conversion strategies as they did in the 1970s in the area of armament production. Embarking on another path of development away from the car will not succeed overnight. Much work and permanent political pressure are necessary.

Can bicycle clubs and automobile conferences bid farewell to the car despite all resistance?

Yes, definitely. All movements start from the present that cannot be sidestepped. There is no great political movement that writes abolition of cars on its banner. This will have to develop experimentally. Society must recognize the limits of the auto society. Oil will not simply run out but will become much more expensive. People in many countries and world regions today can simply not afford mobility. People in industrial countries are also experiencing this.

When you look to the next years, what conflicts around mobility will be important?

In the foreseeable future, air travel will be more important than the automobile question. The increased rates of the last years are so unbearably great that a stop is imperative. This means drastic cuts in the profitability calculations of the big airlines and for everyone involved with air traffic. A tax on kerosene, another development- and transportation policy and perhaps even the prohibition of short-distance flights in Germany or Europe may be necessary. A fight with the lobby groups must be started. It is hard to get anywhere in this fight but it is necessary.

Where do you see glimmers of hope?

I hope for enlightened impulses, as I said at the auto conference in Stuttgart. The automobile has a cultural significance and is a life form. Like the cell phone, it is hard to imagine life without it. However the present generation will witness that oil runs low, that we have to pay dearly for climate collapse and our life becomes very uncomfortable. The problem is: we do very little although we know our use of the automobile is a cause of climate collapse.

Perhaps the cultural side will play a role here, the car as a status symbol.

The car is not a status symbol any more. Everyone can afford a big car today. The financial markets make sure of that. This principle is one of the causes for the current crisis. People gain a credit, become indebted and the car they buy is security. When they cannot pay the installments, the cars are simply taken away.

In the past the car was very important as a status symbol for the self-esteem or exaggerated opinions of the drivers. Today it is a consumer good marked by functionality. This change is clear when car advertisements from then and today are compared. People are less interested in a replacement- or compensation-symbol. A replacement for the function of the car has to be found. This is a difficult challenge. For the car, there is really only a single solution: fewer car trips, fewer cars and instead more rational locomotion- and transportation systems. Such a conversion requires interventions in capital exploitation. This means serious conflicts with the auto industry. There is no other way.
Altvater, Elmar, "Risk Development and Dollar Inflation"
Duchrow, Ulrich, "Can a Person Own His/Her Mother?"
Hensche, Detlief, "There is only one economy"

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