By Konstantin Popovic | CEO, Grey Group Singapore | Climate Reality Leader
"I am living in the future of tech. I just returned from the future of sustainability. Germany by no means has a perfect sustainability track record, but it sure is among the countries leading the way. Read my article for examples big and small. "
When I travel overseas from my current home in Singapore, I tell my friends in the US and in Europe: I am living in the future. A quick description of Singapore’s public transport, airport or internet speed are usually enough to impress people. Well, I also stopped carrying any cards since we can pay everything with our phones. It is a tech forward place by all standards.
Technology, though, is not the only future we need, the more important one we will have to create is a sustainable one. Having spent the last 3 weeks in Germany, I can safely say I just returned from that future.
Let’s start with Germany’s net zero commitment. While a very large group of countries have committed to a 2050 net zero target, Germany is one of a handful of countries that aims to beat this target by 5 years. The more fascinating part of the story is that the original 2050 goal was revised in May this year after the German Supreme Court ruled in favor of a group of climate activists who sued the German government for having an insufficient emissions reduction roadmap. Different type of society, one might argue – yes, but the main take away for me is that the collective consciousness about the urgency to fight the climate crisis has penetrated all parts of German society from Gen Z activists to the highest Courts to most parts of the German political class. As if this point needed more proof, I learned that the high school of our friend’s 15-year-old daughter told their students that they were allowing them to miss class and instead join the “Fridays for Future” rally if they chose to do so. Sustainability is not a fringe topic here, it is a dominating topic, and one that by now is touching all parts of daily life.
It is only when you spend a bit of time here, that you fully grasp how advanced Germany is. It has been well documented that Germany already gets over 45% of their electricity consumption from renewable sources, but it is when you take a trip to the countryside, that you see what that means: giant wind turbines are now integral part of many landscapes, entire villages have solar panels on their roofs, in fact some villages produce so much renewable electricity that they are selling it back to the grid. While most people in many countries still believe renewable energy is more expensive, some German households are busy making money with excess electricity.
The next thing you notice is how German inner cities are being redesigned to be a lot more bicycle and pedestrian friendly. Some cities are even playing with the thought of making their city centers car free. Speaking of cars, every German car manufacturer already has multiple EV models on the market, so it should not surprise that every single car ad I saw was for one of their EV models. The Tesla market share is in steep decline given the proliferation of competitive options from local brands. No wonder they are building their next giga-factory outside of Berlin.
What impressed me the most, however, over the last few weeks was the how everyday habits are changing. Everywhere you look, sustainability hits you over the head. Saving energy is an ever-present practice, it is truly considered a sin to waste energy. The mineral water my parents are drinking is carbon neutral certified and comes in a plastic bottle that is 100% recycled, which of course they return to their retailer. Nutella – a breakfast staple you will find in every German household - is getting pressured by an increasing number of palm-oil free competitors. Giant clothing recycling containers across cities make it easy for everyone to make sure their old clothes find new use. My wife’s 23 years old twin God children have stopped buying fast fashion and have switched their entire personal hygiene regimen to sustainable products from solid shampoo to bamboo toothbrushes. All retail banks have posters in their windows inviting their customers to invest responsibly while the German Railway system “Deutsche Bahn” is running a massive campaign explaining to people how much CO2 they can save by traveling by train. More broadly, as a marketing expert, I could not help noticing how many new organic products you could find in supermarkets and how many advertising campaigns were promoting green products, services, and initiatives. It was almost overwhelming.
There is also a new appreciation of nature and nature’s bounty. German youth is going vegan at a rapid rate. One of our friends bought a few livestock chickens and proudly presented me with home-made organic eggs while another friend started doing her own honey - in the middle of Berlin. Speaking of bees: would anyone expect a posh Munich Golf Club to distribute “bee flower seeds” and ask club members to distribute them across public green spaces to #savethebees. Have the Germans gone nuts?
Well, maybe they are onto something. As we head into COP 26, it is becoming abundantly clear that as a global community we are tracking significantly behind our own goals from the Paris agreement. For all the amazing societal and political progress Germany is making (together with several other mostly European countries), the biggest polluter nations are still moving too slowly or are still debating at what speed they want to reduce emissions. In the meantime, each year millions of people are dying because of coal plants, and climate refugees are already surpassing refugees from war or violence. Many parts of the tropics, the Middle East and the Sahel zone will become uninhabitable as warming surpasses 2° Celsius vs. pre-industrial times. Tropical diseases like Dengue and Zika, are traveling to more moderate climates zones. At the current rate of warming, half of the animal and plant species are at risk of extinction by mid-century. Between now and 2030 the amount of people affected by coastal flooding is projected to double. The Great Barrier Reef has already lost 50% of its corals. According to the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, “Climate Change poses a major risk to the stability of the US financial system”. We are accelerating our own demise and yet we are mostly living our lives as if everything was ok. We need everybody, especially in wealthy countries (and wealthy pockets of emerging countries) to actively contribute, not just through daily life-style changes but by building societies that have a collective consciousness of where we are and what needs to be done.
Start where you are, use what you have and do what you can. In the race between countries, let’s make sure that the Germans are not the only ones building the society of the future.