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Opinion: The Dark Side of Germany's Environmental Record

At this week's UN conference on biodiversity, Germany will present itself as a role model when it comes to the environment. DW-WORLD.DE's Thorsten Schäfer says that there's really not much to brag about.

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Lynx, salmon, wolf, sea eagle, beaver, bear and many more -- the list of animals that have returned to Germany during the last couple of years is impressive. It seems as if nature has recovered quickly. But appearances are deceiving: extinction continues. While every wolf appearance makes headlines, the decline of skylark and common swift doesn't. There are some success stories, but not enough.

Waste of space, which is rarely talked about, is partially to blame. A populous state that continues to build on 105 hectares (260 acres) every day cannot preserve habitats in a way that it should -- and likes to claim it does. One should really talk about states in this context, since Germany's federal states are the main players in the country's environmental politics. They decide locally which areas to focus on and where the money will go.

Money's the touchy subject. Without a doubt, Germany spends more on protecting the environment than many other countries. No one can say, though, whether the money's used efficiently, where it goes and how much is invested in total. Individual federal states keep tally of their expenditures to protect the environment in totally different ways. Some do this meticulously, but most do not. Even if budget items get the same name, they include very different things depending on the state. There's very little transparency, but a lot of chaos. A survey of German state governments by magazine GEO recently showed how contradictory expenditures to protect the environment really are.

The financial chaos comes with a price tag: It's impossible to compare what states are doing, let alone identify role models or show where money is wasted. In Switzerland, expenditures to protect the environment are an important early indicator when it comes to policy, which is why they're recorded systematically on all levels. In Germany, states have no interest in coordination. No one wants to lower their guard. The environment ministers don't seem to care that this is really about how tax money is used to protect the public good.

One gets the impression that the states care much less about environmental protection than they frequently say. Sure, the federal and state governments have had to save money everywhere, with environmental policies being hit hardest: Between 1996 and 2007, total environmental protection expenditures fell by 22 percent, according to a report by the German Advisory Council on the Environment. Conservation was cut drastically. Almost all state administrations have massively cut personnel -- especially in the case of North Rhine-Westphalia.

There are also legal problems: By relinquishing some authority -- for example as far as conservation is concerned -- the federal government has regained authority in other areas from the states in connection with Germany's recent federal reform. Experts now complain that Germany's conservation laws have become denser and less transparent than any rainforest. The federal conservation law, which was adopted in 2002, didn't help either. It says, for example, that 10 percent of a state's total area should be protected. This isn't binding, however, and states themselves decide where to set their priorities.

Things were clearer when it came to implementing the EU's Nature 2000 guidelines, which were adopted in 1992. Every member state has to allocate areas for an EU-wide network of protected areas. Germany finally fulfilled its duty to report areas at the beginning of the year. But the EU repeatedly had to drag Germany in front of the European Court of Justice because Germany's federal states didn't do their homework and failed to allocate land for this.

German state governments should get detention for their lack of will to cooperate in many areas and obvious contradictions between what they say and what they do. But politicians will pat each other's backs during the UN conference on biodiversity -- including hymns of praise from one state representative to another.

If Germany wants to live up to its claims on environmental policy, it would be better to get working. Credibility is something that's quickly lost -- and Germany's states are currently doing their part to speed up that process.

Thorsten Schaefer covers environmental issues for DW-WORLD.DE (win)

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