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Climate summit

At the age of nine, Felix Finkbeiner brought to life an initiative by the name of “Plant for the Planet”. Its aim is to plant one trillion new trees in order to protect Earth from a climate catastrophe. Speaking to the now 17-year-old high school graduate, Dr. Stefan Wolf, CEO of ElringKlinger, discusses whether global warming can still be stopped with the help of modern technology.

Wolf — A year ago I asked several high school graduates how important the issue of climate protection is to them. Their answers: in theory it’s foremost in my mind, but on a day-to-day basis other things take priority.

Finkbeiner — Global warming is a long-term crisis that matters to everyone in my generation. New studies show that three-quarters of children and teenagers from the industrialized nations consider the crisis relating to climate change and social justice to be the greatest challenge they have to face.

Wolf — That is indeed the case, and therefore it is important to take action. ElringKlinger is committed to making a contribution to climate protection. We believe that mobility will play a significant role in this quest. The technical possibilities available to us are far from exhausted. Therefore, it is essential that we put every effort into reducing CO2. If no one acts, nothing will change.

Finkbeiner — In the long term, we can only solve such problems through cooperation at a global level. Therefore, international dialog aimed at reaching agreements on climate protection is a key prerequisite. However, these negotiations are protracted, stretching back to a time before I was born. The recurrent mantra is that progress will be made within five years. That’s frustrating – but there is still no alternative to a global solution.

Wolf — The task of tackling CO2 reduction can’t be restricted to Germany or Europe. We won't be able to save our climate by pursuing such a regional approach, quite simply because our contribution is too small. After all, the entire planet is affected. That is why I find the “Plant for the Planet” initiative so interesting.

Finkbeiner — Regardless of this, a country such as Germany should take a lead role at an international level, e.g. as regards its “Energy Transition” project. This is a tremendous opportunity, as the entire world is looking to Germany. If we can achieve this as an industrialized nation, no other country can come up with excuses as to why energy conservation and a push towards renewable energy cannot be implemented.

Wolf — It is also important to ensure that the move towards sustainable energy is financially viable. Only if we achieve this transition and are successful economically will other nations around the globe acknowledge Germany as a benchmark and perhaps even copy our approach. The automotive industry serves as a good example in this area. Europe has defined the strictest emission thresholds. These standards are now gradually being "exported", with China looking to phase in our emission policies by the end of the decade. In the United States it will probably take until 2025, but there, too, the automobile industry will be faced with increasingly strict emission standards. For ElringKlinger, this represents a tremendous opportunity, as we have the technologies needed to make engines and vehicles more efficient.

Finkbeiner — That’s really impressive. At the same time, in the long term I believe we should still be looking to expand public transport much more widely. What is more, cars around the globe should become even more environmentally friendly and, ultimately, their overall number should be scaled back.

Wolf — For my generation, the most important thing was to have a car as soon as you turned eighteen. But today, this no longer seems to be as important to youngsters, at least not here in Germany. By contrast, the car remains a status symbol in the rapidly growing economies of Asia. Therefore, it is important that the cars being driven can operate with lower CO2 emissions.

“It would be possible, in essence, to reduce our CO2 emissions by 75 percent. The European vehicle industry has already shown the possible extent of technological progress over the course of the last ten years.“


Dr. Stefan Wolf

“If everyone producing CO2 incurred a cost for doing so, there would be an incentive for all branches of industry to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.“


Felix Finkbeiner

Finkbeiner — The best solution to achieve this would be a system of global emissions trading. If everyone producing CO2 incurred a cost for doing so, there would be an incentive for all branches of industry to reduce carbon dioxide emissions — not just the automobile industry.

Wolf — Indeed, there is enormous potential to make savings in other areas, too. For example, when it comes to heating residential properties. We have developed a fuel cell system that can achieve efficiency levels of almost 90% by means of cogeneration. If we simply replaced all oil-fueled heating systems in Germany with fuel cells or combined heat and power generation units, the CO2 savings in this area alone would be enormous.

Finkbeiner — On the whole, there is still a strong correlation between the level of wealth and CO2 emissions. Emissions have been increasing in line with our standard of living for more than 200 years. It is precisely this interrelationship that we need to tackle. I am confident that it is possible. If a price were to be attached to CO2, each branch of industry would invest in new, better technologies.

Wolf — Ultimately, the onus will be on policymakers to introduce laws and standards within this area. One example is shipping, where the level of pollutants emitted is much higher than that associated with passenger cars and commercial vehicles. ElringKlinger is able to supply highly effective exhaust gas purifi­cation systems, but it will take appropriate legislation to ensure that shipping companies actually install them. Imagine ocean liners only being allowed to visit European ports if they meet specific emission standards; the requisite systems would be fitted almost immediately. We need stricter regulations, and these should apply not only to the automobile industry but also to many other areas of business.

Finkbeiner — The light bulb is a prime example. For 135 years there was no incentive at all to invest in new technology. It was only when the EU introduced new laws that LED technology became marketable within a very short period of time. One can argue about the details of specific regulations and directives, but not about the fact that we are in urgent need of such rules to ensure that CO2 levels are cut back.

Wolf — Your campaign is not just restricted to talking about climate protection, you’re actually doing something about it too: planting trees. How big is the contribution we can realistically make in this area?

Finkbeiner — We conducted a study together with Yale University. Its findings were that Earth can accommodate 1 trillion trees in addition to the 3 trillion trees already here. Essentially, this relates to areas previously forested but subsequently cleared and now lying fallow. If we succeed in planting this volume of new trees, these additional trees will absorb one-quarter of the global CO2 emissions produced by humans each year. Of course, this alone will not be sufficient to solve the climate problem, but it would give us a little more time for the transition towards low-CO2 technologies and statutory regulations that include specific obligatory thresholds.

Wolf — That would be fantastic. It would be possible, in essence, to reduce our CO2 emissions by 75 percent. I’m sure of that. The European vehicle industry has already shown the possible extent of technological progress over the course of the last ten years. Now we have to transfer this experience to other industries. But this will require a change in awareness.

Finkbeiner — We want to contribute to this change in awareness. Planting trees illustrates that everyone can make their mark. It’s easy. We don't have to wait for the government or even the United Nations to act. And each tree that has already been planted isn’t just an absorber of CO2. It also serves to show that we can and must do much, much more.

Wolf — This sense of change is much more apparent in your generation than it was back in the days when I graduated from high school. And with this in mind, I am confident that we will achieve a new consensus in society. This is essential if we are to introduce alternative drive systems to the market. For example, the fuel cell is essentially a very attractive form of propulsion — but we have to cover many more aspects than vehicle technology itself. At present, for instance, the process of producing hydrogen requires far too much energy; we need new methods. Additionally, we need the fueling infrastructure for hydrogen.

Finkbeiner — I am convinced that, fundamentally, we are already in possession of or can develop the full range of technologies needed to achieve a zero CO2 emissions target by 2050. What we need is the determination at the political level to implement this accordingly. In other words, I am confident that it can be achieved, but I'm not at all certain that it will be achieved.

Wolf — If we look at what we have already accomplished in the automotive industry, I think we can be optimistic that this can be transferred to other branches of industry. I am also encouraged by the level of dedication shown within the younger generation. After all, you will be shaping the world of the future. Admittedly, there’s a long way to go, but I’m sure we can succeed if we make a concerted effort.