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Day Number Four

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Updated: 5/19 9:48 pm

Wednesday, December 11th began with a frühstück presentation by Omid Nouripour, a member of the Bundestag from Alliance 90/The Green Party (Bündnis 90/Die Grünen).  This is the party led by Cem Özdemir, who was our dinner guest on the second day of the Climate/Energy Tour.  While functioning as one party now, this is a combination of the orignal Green Party that started in West Germany in 1980, and Alliance 90, which had its beginnings in the unrest of East Germany in 1989 and 1990.  The Greens are a minority in the Bundestag with 8.4% of the vote in the most recent elections.  But with 10% of the seats in the Bundestag (63 out of 630), they are able to wield considerable influence--especially when forming coalitions with other parties. 

As an Iranian by birth, Nouripour represents a minority witin a minority. And in fact, it was his unusual background which brought Nouripour to the Greens.  When entering politics, he considereed joining the SDP, but found the Greens were not nearly so concerned with where he came from, as what ideas he brought to the table.  As a member of the Green Party, Nouripour is involved and committed to environmental issues, but he is better known for his work with immigration European Security.

After frühstück, we loaded up the bus and headed for Potsdam, which is just outside the city of Berlin and is capital of the surrounding state of Brandenburg.  If Americans have only heard the name Potsdam in one context, it's probably "the Potsdam Conference", where the United States' Harry Truman, the Soviet Union's Josef Stalin and Great Britain's Winston Churchill (replaced midway through by the newly elected Clement Atlee) met to decide how to rebuild postwar Europe in July of 1945.  It's also the home of Sans Souci ("Without Worries"), the Summer Palace of Frederick the Great.  You can find a brief 2009 report of mine about Sans Souci on the upper left side of this page.

But in the environmental world, these days this city is known for the "Potsdam Institute of Climate Impact Research" (PIK).  Their home page states that "PIK addresses crucial scientific questions in the fields of global change, climate impacts and sustainable development.  Researchers from the natural and social sciences work together to generate interdisciplinary insights and to provide society with sound information for decision making."

While not quite Sanssouci, PIK is nonetheless a visually impressive facility, built on the grounds of Telgrafenburg and part of the Albert Einstein Science Park.  The building we entered was a former observatory.  As we ascended the stairs, we realized we were entering the actual observation dome.  The telescope equipment was long gone, and it had been repurposed as a magnificent conference room.  This is where we met the Head of Science Coordination Dr. Ingo Brauer and Deputy Head of Sustainable Research Solutions Dr. Brigitte Knopfe.

The theme of the presentation was "The German Energiewende and climate change mitigation – A promising avenue or only a green dream?"  While we had heard differing degrees in confidence about the Energiewende thus far, PIK embraced the program wholeheartedly.  Dr. Knopf believes that it is critical to address climate control as quickly as possible, while the problem is ever worsening around the globe.  Attempts at global regulation (i.e. the Kyoto Protocol) have not been accepted by some of the world's largest producers of greenhouse gasses (including the United States).  A more successful approach may be for the individual countries to act first to set the framework for an international agreement.

Knopf says that the schedule for switching to renewables has been very successful thus far, due in large part to the Feed-in Tariff discussed earlier, and that it has gained widespread support from the general public.  However, the side effect of the Feed-in Tariff has been significantly higher energy bills for the general public, which has been problematic.  You can hear a brief statement by Dr. Knopf concerning the challenges of the Energiewende by clicking the link on the upper left part of this page.

From PIK, it was on to lunch at Krongut Bornstedt, locacted on the grounds of a former royal estate that is now part of the ensemble of palaces and gardens that make up Sans Souci Park.  Krongut Bornstedt was the only real German Beer Hall we visited as a group, and a couple of our members decided to sample the local brews.  This was one of our few meal stops where the menu was not preordained, and everyone was given a speisekarte.  This presented a slight problem for me in making a choice.  For someone who loves Germany as much as I do, I really don't care that much for the food.  I am not a fan of sauerkraut, beets, cabbage or horseradish...and most main courses seem to feature at least one of those somewhere in the mix.  Nevertheless, I opted for the Curry Wurst (a popular snack commonly found as a kiosk food in parks and festivals around Germany), which proved perfectly satisfactory.

Back on the bus for a short drive to Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies, where we heard from Secretary General Dr. Mario Tobias. The IASS has a stated mission of "promoting at international level interdisciplinary science and research for global sustainability, particularly in the areas of climate change, the earth system and the development of new technologies."

IASS is a think tank funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research.  Their goal seems to be essentially making the best of what we have.  Taking current programs and activities and finding ways to reduce pollution and energy waste, and finding ways to make systems more productive.  IASS is trying to be realistic about the goals of the Energiewende, and pragmatic about what can be done.  One of the problems they are tackling is the German government's goal of building the 3600 kilometres of power lines required to meet transport capacity needs for the period 2015-2025.  That's what it would take for a grid that would support the plan to increase renewables to 80% of the power supply by 2050. It also means dealing with local opposition to new infrastructure being built in rural areas, where the Energiewende is not always warmly embraced.

There was considerable discussion of carbon capture.  The plan to phase out nuclear energy has resulted in a rise in coal production and consumption in the short term--particularly less efficient and dirtier Lignite, and especially in Eastern European countries.  Technology currently exists to capture and clean the emissions from coal power plants, but it is under-utilized.  The IASS is studying ways to make this process less expensive and more efficient.

Our final visit in Potsdam was the Hasso Plattner Institute.  I noted to one of my companions as we approached, that these buildings seemed much newer than others we had seen.  This was explained once we were inside.  During the Cold War, "the Wall" did not just separate East and West Berlin.  It separated the entire city of West Berlin on all sides from the surrounding East Germany.  And it was not just a simple wall, but rather two walls, with various methods of discouraging attempts to cross located in a "No Man's Land" between the two.  When Germany was re-united in 1990, these "No Man's Lands" became available (and often valuable) real estate.  The Hasso Plattner Instut was built in the 1990s in one of these previously vacant areas.

Hasso Plattner is an extremely wealthy businessman and founder of the software company SAP AG.  Think of a German Bill Gates.  OK, he's not quite in that financial realm, but Plattner has some money to throw around, and like Bill Gates, he has a keen interest in philanthropy and using his wealth to better the world.

HPI is not a four-year university university with a degree, but rather an IT design institute that offers a certificate of completion.  In addition to the Potsdam campus, they have a design school at Standford University in Palo Alto, California. They eschew formal classroom settings, and in fact our presentation from HPI Director Dr. Christoph Meinel and one of his assistants was in a casual lecture spot with four levels to seat around 30 people on thin cushions, with no walls to separate us from the classrooms.  In fact, there were no classrooms, per se.  Rather, each study area was mobile, with a dry-erase board and lightweight chairs to be positioned as needed.  It looked more like a child's arts and crafts area than what most of us are used to seeing in a college setting.

The whole idea, Dr. Meinel explained, was to foster new ways of thinking.  And to that end, they have been approached by some very large corporations and governmental groups to find innovative solutions to problems.  Two of the assignments we were shown, were how to improve a simple shopping bag, and how to improve the experience of looking for a parking space.  But the primary area of research seems to be Internet security, and controlling access and content effectively.

Why were we here?  I kept waiting to hear the word "Energiewende"...or anything at all to do with energy or climate.  It did not happen.  The purpose of the visit was never explained--not that I asked--but in thinking about it later and talking with my fellow group members, we decided it was just to expose us to a different mindset and new approach to problems.  With the vast set of viewpoints and interests concerning energy, some creativity and alternative ideas certainly can't hurt!

It was about an hour's bus ride back to Berlin Mitte, where we reconvened for dinner at Restuarant Malatesta with Special Guests Karsten Voigt and Dr. Maria Flachsbarth.  Dr. Flachsbarth is a CDU Energy Expert of the Bundestag and Member of the Government Coalition Task Force on Energy. 

Speaking through Sarmad Hussain as an interpreter, Flachsbarth was enthusiastic about the task confronting the pending coalition governnment in terms of making the Energiewende work.  And indeed, when Chancellor Merkel was sworn in for a third term a week later, she said in an interview that Energy is the most pressing problem facing the German people right now.

Karsten Voigt is a former SPD member of the Bundestag and Coordinator for German-American Cooperation at the German Fenderal Foriegn Office.  I had heard Mr. Voigt speak before on one of my visits with the RIAS-Berlin Komission.  His talk this time seemed more personal, much of which stemmed from his explanation of why the NSA wiretap issue resonates so strongly with the general public in Germany these days.  Voigt started his political career in the turmoil of the 60s and 70s.  As Voigt put it, he was on the right side of the far left.  That is, he worked for a more moderate pragmatic approach to achieving left-wing goals. 

Voigt explained that German people take this personally.  They have seen the United States from being initially a postwar protector, to becoming an ally and friend.  There was a great deal of empathy toward the United States following 9/11, and many Germans now feel betrayed.  Nevertheless, Voigt reasons that Germany needs the relationship with the United States more than the other way around right now, and that Germany needs to find a way to move past this issue. 

In talking about the American Government, Voigt continually used the word "You" while addressing the mostly American group assembled at the table.  I am not sure about my fellow travelers, but this made me slightly uncomfortable at times.  While I support my country and am proud to be a citizen of the United States, I am not in any way an official representative, and don't feel like taking credit or blame for government activities.  Perhaps it's just a cultural difference in use of the word "you".  We would hear more about this issue the next day.

But first, a good night's sleep.  Thursday promised to be busy.


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