Famed for having the steepest wine-growing mountains in Europe, the Rhineland county of Cochem-Zell is engaged in an uphill climb to ward off climate change - by working to become a carbon-neutral region by 2050.
Germany's rural areas recognize their carbon-cutting potential
Cochem-Zell's 2008 declaration that it intended to become a zero-emissions county generated great regional fanfare in southwestern Germany.
Curiously, this county of 65,000 residents in the Mosel River Valley just south of Cologne has attracted surprisingly little national, much less international, attention.
The initiative is well-known, however, within the insular community of climate change researchers and policy-makers. It is also playing a starring role in the rapidly growing effort by rural communities throughout Europe to reduce CO2 emissions.
Big carbon-cutting potential
In the village of Alflen, rapeseed and corn are converted into fuel at this biogas plant
When it comes to helping the EU reach its goal of reducing emissions by 20 percent by 2020, these village-level projects can have potentially more of an impact than bigger-ticket items such as wind farms and mass-transit systems, says Hans-Josef Fell from Germany's Green Party, "but we need both kinds of projects if we want to meet climate goals."
From a biomass heating plant in the remote Czech village of Hostetin in the White Carpathians to a Spanish company that makes fertilizer from food waste, and from wetland restoration projects in Sweden and Finland to a geothermal-heated orchid greenhouse in Slovenia - rural areas are undergoing an environmental transformation that is also reshaping economic, social and cultural models throughout Europe's countryside, according to the EU's European Network for Rural Development.
For a variety of unique and complementary reasons, Germany is among Europe's leaders in rural climate-friendly development.
Many of the country's small towns and villages possess an enviable combination of pristine farmland and forests, technical skills and ingenuity steeped in both tradition and the latest advances, and a tenacious desire to maintain their village lifestyles in the face of changing demographics and splintering cultures.
Public buildings have solar panels on their roofs
Rural thinking - rural solutions
This spirit is evidenced by the fact that Germany already generates 16 percent of its energy from renewable resources, within easy reach of its EU-mandated goal of 18 percent by 2020.
For its own part, Cochem-Zell has been formally working toward environmentally sustainable development since 2003, when it joined the United Nations-sponsored Local Agenda 21 program.
In keeping with this interdisciplinary effort, the county's zero-emission initiative has three interlocking pillars: renewable energy, biofuels, and energy conservation and efficiency.
The county's many carbon-cutting projects include installing photovoltaic cells and a covered carport at the heavily touristed Fort Pyrmont, renewable energy equipment at the Astrid Lindgren School and Elfenmaar Medical Clinic, a heating network in the city of Cochem, residential-level solar energy and geothermal units, LED lighting in commercial buildings and heat pumps along the Mosel River.
Cochem-Zell receives 400,000 euros ($565,000) of federal support per year for biomass and other bioenergy projects, said Hermann Johann, the county's development and climate protection specialist, in an interview with Deutsche Welle.
Cochem-Zell can already meet its entire energy demand with renewables - with a mix of hydropower (56 percent), wind (36 percent), biomass (six percent) and solar (one percent). The county is slashing its annual CO2 emissions by 150,000 metric tons per year, with an eventual goal of cutting emissions by 74 percent by 2020, and 136 percent by 2050 (compared to 1990 levels).
Follow the money and the money will follow
Climate planners are big on mottos. One of the favorites in Cochem-Zell is 'Climate protection pays for itself.'
Money, of course, is very important to the region. The rocky cliffs flanking the Mosel River, the hiker-luring Eifel and Hunsrück Mountains, and the many varieties of Riesling wine draw millions of tourists per year. With so much at stake, environmental policy has to go hand-in-hand with economic development.
So Cochem-Zell, along with 38 partner agencies and companies that operate under the 'Cochemer Protocol', believe climate-friendly development - that also includes public transportation and a solid-waste industry - will attract 3 billion euros in investment over the next 40 years, while stimulating 200 million euros a year in new business.
Cochem-Zell is not alone.
More than 100 communities, counties and regional associations in Germany are working to convert to 100 percent renewable energy - and the number is steadily growing.
According to a map assembled by the Kassel-based Authority Network of Decentralized Energy Technologies, these regions span the entire country, from Bavaria in the south to the Baltic Sea in the north.
"For decades, there has been a major movement in Germany toward renewable energy. This movement is made up of people, not the old energy industry," Hans-Josef Fell from Germany's Green party told Deutsche Welle.
German municipalities are increasingly opting for climate-friendly projects
'Potential is enough'
Fell, who wrote Germany's Renewable Energy Sources Act, which supports wind, solar and biomass power, has also taken matters into his own hands.
His family home, which won the 'Solar Oscar' award, was built according to ecological criteria and runs completely on renewable energy.
"The people themselves recognize that renewables are the solution for the environment and for energy security. Today there are movements in local areas all over Germany that are supporting these goals," Fell said.
"We have a lot of potential - and potential is enough."
This same phenomenon is spreading throughout Europe. Recognizing the collective potential of rural climate projects, the EU has dedicated a sizable portion of farm-support funding from the Common Agricultural Policy to subsidize these efforts.
These investments are assisting such carbon-cutting initiatives as reducing the use of nitrogen-based fertilizers, improving energy efficiency, planting new forests and encouraging environmentally-friendly farming, says Roger Waite of the European Commission's Directorate-General for Agriculture and Rural Development.
"Rural areas represent more than half of Europe's territory, and it is clear that they need support to address major economic and environmental challenges such as climate change, biodiversity losses, and a sustainable use of soils and water," Waite told Deutsche Welle.
"We want to encourage exchange of good ideas emerging all around Europe in order to inspire new projects."
Author: Mark Worth
Editor: Cyrus Farivar