Clearing the Air

"Berlin shows no clear CO2 reduction trend since 2008."
from Soot Free Cities' clean air report, 2015.

Bagger 288, the world's scariest biggest coal-extracting machine. 

I talk a lot on this blog about Berlin's underground, but there is one thing that all the subcultural species who live in this city depend upon that is located firmly above ground: the air.

Air is a priceless commodity, and it is one that is being sidelined in this city.  In 2011, Berlin was ranked the city with the best clean air policy in Europe in a Soot Free Cities report.  In the five years since then, however, the city has fallen to fifth place on the list.  To anyone who's noticed the constant grey-ish haze on the horizon in recent months (a mixture of humidity and increasing air pollution) this probably isn't news.

Yet, expressing concern about the "Himmel Ueber Berlin" still seems to be an underground issue... even in the underground! The overstretched left activist scene tends to focus on more immediate humanitarian issues, except occasionally putting up Stop A-100 anti-motorway posters around town. That is understandable since but the fact is, one doesn't need to join a huge protest movement to help improve the air quality in this city; simply making a few key changes in lifestyle habits will help plenty, as well.

The UnEasyJet Set

Planes account for a growing percentage of smog all across Europe, according to a recent EU report, and Berlin is no exception. Yet the topic of reducing air traffic doesn't get very much airtime in Berlin, perhaps because that kind of pollution is seen as being an acceptable cost of tourism, which contributes so much to Berlin's economy.  When asked about pollution caused by air planes, people here generally mumble that the city needs tourists, as if planes are the only way to bring them into town.

There are, however, plenty of alternative forms of clean travel available in Germany, just as there are all over Europe - they just require a bit more advance planning and time to use. These include: hitchhiking, trains, buses, coaches, even row boats and bicycles. 

This past spring, I put this theory to the test. Instead of taking a cheap flight, I took the train to London using Deutsche Bahn and the Eurostar from Brussels.  The tickets on sale cost 178 Euros return.  That may sound a bit pricey, but I was able to get from my front door to a central London hostel in about nine hours... and I got to see a lot of sights along the way.

By plane, the same journey would have taken about six hours. Yes, you did read that right! When talking about how fast the plane is, many people routinely leave out the amount of time it takes to get to and from airports, go through check-in, clear customs and wait for the plane at the gate.  If you add all of the above factors together, then a plane journey isn't really that fast - nor is it really that cheap. Taking a plane in major cities almost always entails taking an overpriced train, taxi or shuttle to or from the airport (in London these will cost you around 35 Euros extra, not including the price of taking the tube to your hotel once you're in the centre). There are many stealth costs that most people forget to include in their travel budget calculations which push up the price of your flight.

Another stealth cost is food and drink. On the train, not only could I get on and off anywhere I fancied, I could also take as much food or drink as I wanted on board. And finally, there was so much space! On the plane you have to pay just for a few inches extra legroom but, on the train, I could have done yoga in my compartment, it was so spacious.

My verdict? Taking the train was definitely worth the small extra cost in terms of money and time. The added quality of the experience more than made up for it. And that's just one form of alternative travel: ride sharing has its own fringe benefits, such as companionship, affordability and flexibility.

Ironically, most of the people who tell me they're too short on money and time to 'afford' clean transport have never actually tried the alternatives. At the very least, give it a try before deciding that it's not for you.

You could also consider the fact that, if you can afford to fly at all, you fall into the 5% of the world's wealthiest people. Ninety five percent of people on the planet don't earn enough to even take a budget flight. Yet these same people often pay the greatest price for our addiction to air travel, in terms of floods and heatwaves. Taking the plane is as much of a social justice issue as third world poverty or hunger is.

Coal: The Future Is Murky

The declining air quality in Berlin has another source: the increase in the use of coal. Many nuclear plants were shut down as part of the 'Energiewende' (clean energy changeover) - an initiative which, ironically enough, was supposed to help the country convert to a cleaner and greener energy model in the long run. In the short run, however, it has led to more coal being burned as the industry struggles to find new ways of keeping up with our energy demands.   

And then there are the coal stoves. These are still used in Berlin's older residential buildings, despite being outlawed in many other metropolises due to air quality concerns. But don't be deceived: the coal problem is largely an industrial one, associated with energy giants like Vattenfall.  

Luckily, anyone in Berlin can change their energy provider any time they want.  Assuming that you have control over the energy in your flat, you can click over to the Verivox website and, with the help of a German speaking friend, fill in the details about where you live and how much energy you use. The website then shows you all the alternative energy providers in your area, what they offer and how much they cost. When you select one, the website does the rest of the work for you - cancelling your old contract and signing you up for a new one - within a few minutes... no bureaucracy involved!

Cutting down on flights and changing energy providers: these are two things that anyone can do, starting today, to improve the air quality in Berlin... and then we'll all breathe a little easier.


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