What are we doing anyway? This is the question I kept asking myself after going to this year’s UN Climate Change Conference (COP25) in Madrid. Last weekend the COP25 drew to a close, once again without any real results or ambition to show for its efforts. After three days at the conference, this came as no surprise. But instead of shying away from this painful topic, it is now time for some honesty and openness.
In Madrid, the mood in the Blue Zone (where the negotiations were held) was at first widely divergent. On the one side were morale-boosting calls for ‘action now’ and self-promotion on the part of the participating countries and environmental groups. On the other, there were more and more urgent demands from developing nations and the soft-soaped, politically correct statements of the so-called industrialised nations.
Maybe the expectations were also too high. After all, these are hardly trivial issues. Which means we should finally have learnt that this problem is so wide-reaching and so profound that it would be more than appropriate for the world community to work together and solve it. But maybe this is the fundamental problem. When it comes to climate conferences, consensus only works if everyone is in the same boat and really means it. The idea of a democratic majority just doesn’t work here.
Which makes it all the worse that the supposedly ambitious nations didn’t do much to set themselves apart from the crowd in Madrid. By leading the way. By exerting pressure and demanding positive change. And, even more importantly, by simply starting to act. You can’t cut global emissions at the touch of a button. Which makes it even more disastrous to put things off for another year. Hoping the problem will go away only renders the whole issue even more unsolvable. As a result, the remaining options for action are becoming more and more radical, the impacts more painful.
Germany’s crucial role
Even after digesting what happened at COP25 for a few days, I can still only shake my head in disbelief. It’s time to urgently examine what ‘we’ are actually doing – and what ‘we’ are not. It’s time to be self-critical and ask why we are not finally doing what is necessary and right.
In the past months, we have unfortunately had to bear witness to the fact that the German government is hardly a pioneer when it comes to climate protection. The disastrous signal this sends to the world community was as clear as daylight in Madrid. If one of the wealthiest nations in the world isn’t doing enough, how are the others supposed to? The question here isn’t ‘why’ nothing is happening – which popular opinion keeps coming back to. Germany doesn’t necessarily have as much leverage to change things compared to the really big producers of carbon emissions like India and China. But what we mustn’t forget is that Germany also stands for innovation and technology. And thus the signal we’re sending to the rest of the world is fatal. What people take out of this is ‘if Germany doesn’t know how it should be done – which can only be the real reason they say something like that – then how should we know how to do it?’
A renovation is not an end in itself, it’s not necessarily the same as climate protection
Which brings us back to my initial question: what are we doing anyway? Why are we acting this way? In the construction industry, climate and environmental protection has a lot to do with the growing demand for quality in the environment we build around ourselves. And at the end of the day, improving the quality of our buildings is good for human beings, because we will be healthier and happier, so we can live in a world that we’ve had a positive impact on. But unfortunately, all of the decision-makers in government and society seem to have completely forgotten that they also spend the majority of their lives inside buildings.
In addition, at a fundamental level we seem to live in a world driven by statistics and numerical potential. So in the end, there’s a lot of ‘obstructionism’ going on with people constantly pointing to the worst-case scenario. Again, we could ask ourselves since when have we been basing rules on exceptions?
What remains is a never-ending call for more renovations. But a renovation is not an end in itself. It doesn’t automatically mean someone is protecting the climate. So if we are really serious about all this, we will need to remain focused and adopt a systematic approach based on the requirements of different target groups and types of building use.
The way forward: blazing trails in new construction, more monitoring of existing buildings
Let’s take new buildings. Buildings are how we reach people. Positive experiences are a fundamental ingredient of how we learn, which is why public buildings like conference centres, administration buildings, schools and universities play such an important role. The federal and state governments must finally set a radical example and require that such buildings meet the highest possible standards in areas such as climate-neutrality, recyclability and genuine comfort.
Or existing buildings. If we are ever going to optimise existing buildings, we need to finally know where we stand, and for this to happen we need mandatory monitoring of the energy consumption of all buildings. This is the only way to identify the most economically effective solutions and see real progress.
If we were to achieve both of these things, we could finally start to make some headway. But it would also be necessary for politicians to finally toss the concerns planted by lobbyists overboard. Perhaps they could even seek advice from people who are really familiar with the issues and methods, because they studied them – that means planners and architects!
Some Christmas wishes for our politicians and decision-makers
As it’s almost Christmas, I’m going to make a wish:
Dear politicians and decision-makers, please just keep your eyes open when you walk or drive through our cities. Ask yourselves if we couldn’t be doing a lot of things better here. Ask yourselves if you honestly feel comfortable here and like spending time here with things the way they are now. Often it’s enough to sit in a suburban train or walk from an underground station to the bike stands or bus stop. And then start to ask questions – and be honest about it. So don’t just sit there staring at statistics and forecasts. Ask when we’re finally going to start doing something. Why? Because we’ve got to save the world. And one good idea would be to start by changing the environment we build directly around ourselves in such a way that we can stay here – and enjoy it – for a long time!