Clearing the Air About Berlin

"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. 

This post isn't about Berlin's underground life, but its overground life: specifically, its trees, crops, water and wildlife (including all the exotic species of human that live here).  What's the one thing that they all depend on?  Air.  Unfortunately, the quality of that priceless commodity is being sidelined in this city, and the reasons why are the same as they ever were: a combination of bad planning and greed.

In 2011, Berlin was ranked the city with the best clean air policy in Europe in a Soot Free Cities report.  In the last five years, however, the city has fallen to fifth place.  To anyone who's noticed the constant grey-ish haze on the horizon in recent months, this probably isn't news.  It is, however, a new trend that you won't hear about in the mass media - which is why I decided to 'clear the air' with this post. 

Despite being about as above-ground as you can get, expressing concern about the "Himmel Ueber Berlin" (Sky Over Berlin) still seems to be an underground issue.  Few people in the left activist scene seem to prioritize it, apart from putting up the odd Stop A-100 anti-motorway poster around town. However, the Stop A-100  movement seems to have, well, stopped now that the motorway is going ahead - with or without the Berlin Brandenburg Airport to justify its existence.  There was a small movement against the expansion of Schoenefeld airport a few years ago which revolved around pollution concerns, but it seems to have vanished into thin air (sorry, pun fully intended).

The Uneasy Jet Set

Despite being a growing and visible problem, the issue of air quality just doesn't seem to stir up as much controversy as things like refugee rights and affordable housing do, in Berlin.  Perhaps that's because the air can't speak up for itself, or complain when an injustice is committed against it... yet, surely anyone who depends upon oxygen to speak up about any injustice should feel concerned.  When asked about pollution, however, Berliners will all too often mumble into their collars about how 'Berlin needs the tourism'  and planes are 'necessary for the growing economy'.

Incredible, isn't it?  Here we are in the 'most alternative' city in the centre of Europe, yet no one seems interested in using the many alternative forms of clean travel that are available right here, right now, to get around. For the record, these include hitchhiking, trains, buses, coaches, even row boats and bicycles.  It baffles me, because using an alternative method of travel isn't even that much more expensive or slower than traveling by plane.

This past spring, I put this theory to the test: 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, with the train, I was able to get from my front door to my London hostel in about nine and a half hours... and there were no extra transport costs involved.  By plane, the same journey would have taken about six and a half hours (this includes the journeys to and from airports, check-in times and time spent in the air). Plus, I would have had to buy Gatwick Express or Heathrow Express tickets to get there.

The difference in quality was incredible: I could take as much food or drink as I wanted, and there was so much space that I could have done cartwheels down the aisle or yoga in my seating compartment... two things that you definitely can't do in a flying bucket!  The train did cost more than the cheapest flight that was available but, hell, the cheapest flights in Berlin are so cheap that even buying a new pair of shoes seems expensive, by comparison!

So, are we all going to keep pretending that we're so short on money and time that we can't afford to spend a couple of more hours or Euros on clean transport?  It's just a matter of spending a bit less down the pub, or in a cinema or restaurant...

If you're still on the fence about giving up air travel, though, consider this: only about 5% of the planet's population is wealthy enough to fly at all... and everyone in Berlin falls into that category.  So when people here say that they're too poor to take the train, I just don't buy it (pun also intended). The poor people whose villages are being washed away by climate change-induced floods probably won't buy it, either.

Coal: The Future Is Murky

The declining air quality in Berlin has another source, besides air travel: there has also been a sharp rise in the use of coal for energy. This is because 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 the demand.   

You've probably noticed that coal stoves are also pretty common in Berlin's old buildings, despite being outlawed in many other metropolises, due to air quality concerns. The largest bulk of the problem is industrial, however. As Yale's School of Forestry and Environmental Economics recently reported,

"[While] CO2 emissions steadily fell from 1,051 million metric tons in 1990 to 813 million tons in 2011, in 2012 and 2013, CO2 emissions rose again to 841 million tons. This can largely be attributed to an increase in the use of lignite (coal) for electricity production."

And as if coal wasn't ugly enough all on its own, it also turns out to be a major source of mercury pollution.  Mercury is incredibly toxic to the brain (see Mad Hatter syndrome, the source of the original Mad Hatter character in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland). Any animal that consumes it becomes unsafe to eat; this is why salmon, tuna and most big fish are off the menu for pregnant women.

Luckily, there's another solution available: everyone in Germany is entitled to convert to a 100% clean energy provider at any time they want.  Assuming that you have control over the energy in your flat (which you will, provided that you're the named tenant on the lease) you can click over to the Verivox website and start by comparing prices of green energy options.

To do this, you fill in details like your postleitzahl (postcode) and current gas and energy providers' names, and then choose one of the providers which offers a "Klimatarife" (environmental tariff).  These are listed on the left. Then you hit the "Jetz Vergleichen" (check now) button, and the site will show you how much the green providers cost, compared to your current tariff.  Best of all, you can switch immediately via the Verivox website - that's what they're there for.  Most of the companies will give you a bonus for switching, too... just be careful to read the conditions of the contract before you sign!

Our vision of Berlin as an environmentally-friendly city may well be a case of people wearing 'green' coloured shades. Yet, protecting the environment isn't something that Berliners can afford to leave up to others, regardless of how little money or time they think they have.  It's up to every person to make smarter decisions, one day at a time. Hopefully, this post will help you do, so everyone in town can breathe a little easier.

And that's the last pun that I intend to make in this post... promise!

Mad Hatter artwork by Ben Heine

No comments:

Post a Comment

All writing & images © A. E. Elliott (unless otherwise specified)

Search This Blog

My photo
Berlin, Germany
...is NOT a fashion blogger! I write about underground music, activism, social media rights. Other publications that I have written for: OpenDemocracy, Urban Challenger, Siegesaeule, Alternative Berlin and Sensanostra.