Given the extent of current environmental damage we need to “reduce sharply our consumption of raw materials”. In future, it will simply not be sufficient to allow resource consumption, decoupled from growth, to rise less steeply than economic performance.

This was the key message on 24 September 2012 of Dr Hermann Ott (Bündnis 90/The Greens) at the opening of the parliamentary inquiry commission of the German Bundestag dedicated to Growth, Prosperity and Quality of Life, under the chairmanship of Daniela Kolbe (SPD- Social Democrats).

In his presentation of the final report of sub committee, dealing with raw material consumption and its reduction, Dr Ott said that successful reductions of consumption of natural resources and toxic emissions could be “crucially important for mankind.”

“Boundaries Have Already Been Breached”

He went on to illustrate how in some areas, such as climate change, biodiversity and nitrogen pollution, natural cycles “had already gone beyond the limits of the environment”.

Dr Ott spoke of “incalculable global consequences” such as the “fragile eco system” of the Arctic sea becoming completely ice free in summer as a result of climate change.  The Sub committee had not, however, completed a list of recommended future policy options to tackle the consequences of this alarming inventory but he indicated they would contain some ‘explosive material’.

He warned against the presumption that the problem would go away by itself as natural resources started to run out. He indicated that this would not be the case as reserves of coal, for example, would continue to last for many years to come. What was required was the “setting of political limits” to natural resource consumption. In his opinion, environmental change could only be achieved if the social ramifications of such a strategy were taken into consideration. The social system would need “safety features” and require “judicious shaping.”

Saving Leads to Increased Consumption

One of the greatest barriers to reducing the consumption of raw materials was, according to Ott, the so-called rebound effect that appeared to be greater than previously thought. The rebound effect is the process whereby increased technical efficiency leads to reduced use of resources but any savings are cancelled out by increased overall consumption.

One example of this can be seen in the auto industry. Today’s cars require less fuel than in the past but increased mileage or faster cars cancel out this economy. Ott’s other example concerned the homeowner, who, saving heating costs by better insulating his house, then spent the extra money on environmentally suspect airline tickets.

Willingness to Cooperate is Required

Professor Marc Oliver Bettzüge, expert nominated by the CDU/CSU (Christian-Democrats) drew the conclusion from the sub committee’s findings that the problem of raw material consumption could no longer by tackled simply at national level. What was actually required was more cooperation between individual states.

For Edelgard Bulmahn (SPD) the report illustrated the “urgency” of the need to act, which many did not seem to appreciate. Florian Bernschneider (FDP – Liberal Party) warned against “hostility to growth” as this could not provide an answer to the challenges we face. In addition one should not just look to technical solutions to reduce resource consumption.

Professor Ulrich Brand, expert nominated by the “Linke” (Left), was critical of the fact that, to date, there had been no real will to reduce raw material use. Professor Uwe Scheidewind, expert nominated by The Greens, said that a “crucial challenge” would be to organise environmental change against the backdrop of globalisation.

The Final Report – Foreseen for May 2013

With discussion and approval of sub committee’s report now completed, the parliamentary commission of enquiry will move in November to deal with the difficult chapter on the political conclusions. There also still needs to be a debate on the expert reports being prepared by the four other groups.

Commission chair Kolbe announced that the final report of the parliamentary enquiry, based on the five individual studies, would be debated in a plenary session in May 2013.

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