Environment Minister Norbert Röttgen says Germany can become world champions in resource efficiency. A recent cabinet paper outlines 20 ways the country can achieve that goal and critics are reacting positively.
Late last month, Germany's environment ministry published a report outlining how the country would slash the amount of resources it uses in its economy. Known as "ProgRess", it's main aim is to double Germany's resource efficiency compared to 1994 by the end of this decade.
Professor Thomas Pretz is Head of the Institute for Processing and Recycling at the University of Aachen, a leading research facility in the area of resources and recycling. He says the cabinet proposal is exciting because it represents an acknowledgment by the government that Germany is responsible for the raw materials it buys from overseas to manufacture its exports.
German Environment Minister Norbert Röttgen launched the new programme at the end of February
Environment Minister Norbert Röttgen said ProgRess was about "global justice." Röttgen said that although raw material consumption in Europe is five times as high as in Africa, the ecological and social impacts affect developing countries disproportionately more.
"We have come to a point where people have realized that this could be a critical problem," said Pretz. "Finally, with this document, politicians are pushing research in this field again - for 20 or 30 years it was off the radar."
Pretz says the new cabinet paper is as much about securing resources as it is about the environment.
"If you look at the worldwide situation today, there are just a handful of huge companies in charge of obtaining raw materials," said the recycling expert. "And there are a few state monopolies too, with huge amounts of money at their disposal."
The most publicized example of this problem in recent times has been China's influence on rare earth metals prices. Rare earths are crucial in the production of a variety of electronic goods and cars. ProgRess hopes to develop ways to recycle rare earths, and find substitute materials.
The paper doesn't, however, tackle Germany's high reliance on coal or gas resources, and how this can best be reduced. When questioned on this issue, the Environment ministry said that Germany's new energy policy was responsible for dealing with that. Germany aims to obtain 20% of its energy needs from renewable sources by 2020.
Generally, environmental organizations are pleased that the German government is focusing on resource efficiency. Ulrike Meinel from NABU, the German chapter of Friends of the Earth, says that it is clever to look at all the aspects of the issue, all in the one document.
"Resource efficiency is a broad topic and it affects different parts of the economy," she said. "Irrespective of whether we buy a car, or whether we go to the cinema, we are using resources everywhere."
But Meinel says some subjects are conspicuously absent from the document, such as an analysis of the current low tax rates on products that are resource-intensive, like meat and air travel.
"That's just counterproductive and it goes against what Minister Röttgen is striving for when he says we want to become world champions in resource efficiency."
Meinel also says there could be more room for international sanctions, like embargoes on countries where the mining industry finances civil wars or engages in human rights abuses.
The government wants to increase recycling efforts, despite Germany's strong efforts already
The Federal Environment Ministry admits that at this stage the program relies on the initiative of relevant industries and some financial support for innovative technologies.
Eric Rehbock from the German Association of Recyclers in Bonn says that, although his members are excited about the policy paper, he still has his doubts.
"For the moment these are just future plans. They need to be coupled with regulations. Recycling costs money and if there is nothing forcing people to tow the line, then they won't."
Rehbock says that, of his 660 member-organizations, many are concerned about the illegal transportation of old electrical goods out of Germany, which allows companies and individuals to avoid recycling costs. The ProgRess paper does set out plans to stop that sort of activities.
"This has to be policed, customs officials need to be tough on this, and that is what we will be demanding from government."
Author: André Leslie
Editor: Nathan Witkop