Following the re-entry of the USA into the Paris Climate Agreement and the climate policy developments in recent years, the topic of an efficient implementation of the climate goals is one of great interest. Global Bridges organised a video symposium with Professor Dr. Klaus Töpfer, longstanding Federal Environment Minister of Germany as well as founding director and former executive director at the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (IASS) in Potsdam. Sigmar Gabriel, also a former Environment Minister and former Vice Chancellor and current Chairman of Atlantik-Brücke e.V., and Cem Özdemir, Member of the German Bundestag for Bündnis 90 / Die Grünen and Chairman of the Committee on Transport and Digital Infrastructure, took part as discussants. The symposium was moderated by Professor Dr. Friedbert Pflüger, Managing Partner at Bingmann Pflüger International GmbH and Global Bridges member. On behalf of Global Bridges, Dr. Beate Lindemann, executive chairwoman of the association took part. More than 100 members and young leader alumni had registered their participation.
At the beginning, Dr. Lindemann greeted all participants, explained the importance of the topic and went into the career of Professor Pflüger. He thanked her warmly and mentioned the ambitious goals of the EU, USA and Russia, who want to significantly reduce their CO2 emissions by 2030. He also explained the history of the energy partnership between Germany and Russia, which, despite all the disagreements between East and West, has existed since the early Cold War, and then passed the floor on to Professor Töpfer.
At the beginning of his speech, Professor Töpfer pointed out that President Biden in particular has a strong will to change and that this is why this opportunity should be used to promote climate protection. Climate protection must be understood as a global project in which the EU must work together with Russia and the USA. Incidentally, the EU does not make itself dependent on Russia for its energy imports, on the contrary: exports to Europe make up more than half of all Russian exports, so Russia is more dependent on the EU than vice-versa, also with regard to the very short domestic value chains in the energy sector. Now that less and less oil from Russia is expected to be needed, President Putin is looking for new ways to generate energy, such as hydrogen. The issue of climate change has now also arrived in Russia.
Hydrogen production is still very expensive at the moment, so the further development of this branch is a priority. Cheaper “green” hydrogen, i.e. hydrogen produced with renewable energies, must be the goal. Hydrogen is generated by splitting hydrogen-containing substances such as water or methane. Not only global, but also interdisciplinary cooperation is needed, especially between business and science, but also in conjunction with security policy, which is directly related to the topic.
Sigmar Gabriel noted at the beginning of his speech that he was completely in agreement with Professor Töpfer concerning the urgency of climate protection and would also like better cooperation between the EU, Russia and the USA on the subject. Even during his time as environment minister, he had conveyed to the hesitant side in climate policy that the energy transition would have positive economic and social effects and that it would not be detrimental to the economy. At this point, it is important to switch from finite to infinitely available resources such as wind or solar energy. “Green” hydrogen, on the other hand, which Gabriel described as the “champagne of energy policy”, will first be used in industry in the foreseeable future due to its high price. Electromobility will therefore be limited to battery cells for the foreseeable future.
Russia has great infrastructural and industrial modernisation needs and is also heavily dependent on fossil fuel exports. Since the demand for oil and, in the long term, also that for natural gas, will decrease sharply in the future, the country will have to think about alternatives. The Europeans, who are phasing out coal and nuclear energy at the same time, will in his opinion not have enough capacity to produce green hydrogen and would benefit from an expansion of capacities abroad. Also, because of the importance of good relations with Russia, stable economic relations that are based on binding contracts are desirable. The topic, however, holds great potential for divisions within the EU, as the Eastern European countries feel increasingly threatened by Russia and Russia’s policy is met with unease in the Western European countries as well. Gabriel referred to Nord Stream 2 as an example of this: although it is a small project compared to a potential European-Russian Green Deal, it is being criticised internationally and was at times close to being abandoned. Russian modernisation attempts cennot be subsidised, while the sanctions against Russia are maintained at the same time. The core question of the debate is therefore whether climate and energy policy offers the possibility of improving international relations or whether such attempts would undo the EU’s human rights policy.
Cem Özdemir spoke next and argued in favour of a comprehensive energy transition, but considered a European-Russian solution to be unsuitable due to the human rights situation in Russia and Belarus. Rather, one should team up with partners like the USA who share democratic values. He wanted less “cotton ball throwing” in the Foreign Office; instead, penalties would have to be imposed on states like Belarus, Russia and Turkey because to his mind, this is the only language that dictators like Putin, Lukashenko and Erdoğan speak and understand. The invasion of Crimea, the ongoing civil war in Ukraine as well as the international Russian state terrorism and electoral interference are clear signs that one should not shrink back an inch from Putin. However, one must spare the people who live in such countries and, as Willy Brandt did in the 1970s, work together with partner countries to liberalise these unfree systems.
Germany must set an example when it comes to climate policy. The emergence of economic and social problems in the energy transition must be avoided, because this is the only way such an approach will find imitators in other countries. Hydrogen is a resource that can only be used to a very limited extent due to the inefficient manufacturing process; Especially when it comes to motor vehicles, it would have to be relied on battery-powered cars in the foreseeable future. He noted that hydrogen produced in Russia would inevitably be produced using nuclear energy or even more climate-damaging energy sources, which would negate the positive climate effect.
In response to the discussants’ doubts about the use of hydrogen as an energy carrier, Professor Töpfer replied that solar energy had also been ridiculed in the past, but that the price of solar power has since fallen to a hundredth of the original price as a result of intensive research. He also denied the allegation that he was too focused on cooperation with Russia. He has been campaigning for global cooperation, including with the USA and Africa, for some time. Africa in particular has great potential because the capacities for solar power generation there can be used for the production of hydrogen. Since conventional power cables are inefficient for the transfer of electricity to Europe, this problem can be solved with hydrogen, which is easy to transport.
Ambassador Professor Wolfgang Ischinger, chairman of the Munich Security Conference, spoke briefly. The EU has shown weakness in its behavior towards Russia in recent years, as it has not made a foreign policy that includes all areas of interest. The EU has also let itself be divided by Russia, which makes a common, strong appearance impossible. During the Cold War, Europe could negotiate with the USSR from a position of relative strength and unity, and it could also count on being taken seriously as a negotiating partner. These prerequisites have not been in place for a long time. Before serious negotiations with the Russian Federation could take place, Europe would have to act stronger and more confidently.
Sigmar Gabriel agreed with Wolfgang Ischinger and said that only a solidarity between Europe in negotiations with Russia would lead to lasting respect. Europe sets its goals too low, and even these are not or only partially achieved. An example of this is the free trade agreement with Canada, which has not been ratified for four years. Referring to an article by former Bundestag Vice President Antje Vollmer in the Berliner Zeitung, he called for a certain amount of leeway in dealing with Russia. It is necessary for the EU to come to terms with Russia, only this takes time and patience. Relations with Eastern Europe also developed slowly during the Cold War, but it was only because of it that the West was able to work together with the USSR on problems such as nuclear proliferation. In the long term, reprimanding Russia constantly will only lead to Russia being driven ever further into dependence on China.
Klaus Töpfer joined Sigmar Gabriel and said that the reasons for Europe’s weakness must be explored. The mutual dependence of Russia and Europe in terms of energy exports must be used to improve relations. Joint projects such as hydrogen production could also create a basis for negotiations that would enable us to work towards better relationships. On the subject of nuclear energy, Töpfer said that it was not an energy source that could be used globally, as countries in the global south often do not have the capacity to operate nuclear power plants safely. Therefore one has to use more suitable options such as solar energy. In general, technologies should be functionally adapted to the conditions in the different parts of the world. A second event in a similar setting could be held on these and other topics.
In the end, Professor Pflüger thanked the participants and Global Bridges for hosting this interesting symposium.