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How green is Berlin?

Exberliner · 28 Oct 2008, 17:17

Published: 28 Oct 2008 17:17 GMT+01:00

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Since last October, Berliners can’t go boasting about their city’s environmental credentials anymore. It was then that the British consumer magazine The Reader’s Digest published a study that put Berlin 32nd on a list of the world’s greenest cities. That’s behind almost every major city you can think of - Paris, New York, London, Barcelona, Tokyo, even Glasgow. It makes you wonder what all the anarchists and hippies are actually doing here. The survey had even more humiliation for us: there were four German cities in the top 10 – Munich, Frankfurt, Stuttgart, and Düsseldorf – and no others behind Berlin. In the country charts, Germany came in 31st, only two places above the alleged environmental-assassin, the USA.

Some of the blame can be put on the criteria of the survey. Based on two vast indexes of data collected by the UN and the World Economic Forum, the survey did not simply focus on environmental issues like cleanliness and air quality, but cross-referenced these with living standards – affluence, cost of living - in each country and city. The idea, according to the magazine, was to find “the perfect balance between what’s green and what’s liveable. Just because a place is environmentally ‘fit’ doesn’t mean you’d want to spend your life there,” it said.

Therefore the list is not so much a chart of the world’s greenest places, but the world’s greenest and richest. Berlin’s relative poverty compared to other western cities dragged it down. Plus, the study was too general to take into account the special environmental conditions of each city. Some cities obviously have to do more to maintain their water and air qualities – others are naturally clean. Berlin has naturally clean water, but is plagued by a relatively dry climate, which affects air quality. The local government’s policies in caring for the local environment is therefore very important, something the survey ignores. By extension, the local government’s zeal for global issues is also relevant. ‘Greenness’ can also be measured in political attitude as well as actual material conditions.

We took four criteria and assessed how healthy Berlin’s environment is, and tried to find out how deep the political will is do something about it. Carmen Schultze, spokesman for the Berlin department of BUND, Germany’s leading environmental pressure group, offered some expert opinion.


According to the Berlin government, Berlin has some of the best air of any major city in Europe - if you measure carbon monoxide, sulphur monoxide, petrol fumes, and metals in the atmosphere. This is mainly because there are only around 360 cars for every 1,000 Berliners - one of the lowest rates in Europe. “In some ways, it’s better for the environment if the people are poorer,” says Schultze.

Berlin was also the first German city to introduce an Umweltzone, or ‘Environmental Zone’, which restricts highly-polluting vehicles from entering the city centre. Though this was widely criticised in the tabloid press, it will further improve air quality in the long term, and BUND approves of the initiative the Berlin government showed in implementing the measure despite much opposition. Also, 16 percent of journeys in Berlin are completed by bicycle – another model statistic compared to other European cities.

But, according to official measurements, there are ‘very serious problems’ with Feinstaub or ‘particulate matter’ – a dangerous fine dust made by industry, dust from heating systems, and pollen. There are also ‘serious problems’ with ozone, nitrogen dioxides, and ‘Benzpyren’, a weird poisonous carbon oxide. Archaic heating systems have long been an environmental disaster in Berlin –many coal heaters in East Berlin have only recently been replaced.

Still, Berlin’s politicians are clearly working actively to improve Berlin’s air – they are bringing in new speed limits, and pushing for more cycle lanes in the outer suburbs. “Berlin has made it its business to keep to EU regulations before the EU has to deliver warnings,” says Schultze.

Green grade: A-


Since Berlin is surrounded by lakes and rivers and has a comparatively high underground water table, most of Berlin has actually been designated a ‘Water Protection Area’ – which prevents pollution of the city’s drinking water. The water quality in Berlin is naturally good, and doesn’t take much filtration to make it drinkable. The Berliner Wasserbetriebe, Berlin’s water provider, also offers a facility on its website for you to check the current water quality measurements in your postcode. Still, there are some questions over the state of the water pipes, especially in older buildings. The water filtration shop H20 cheerfully gives all kinds of warnings about Berlin’s old pipelines on its website. “Almost everywhere there is evidence of medical residues and other chemical impurities ... plus there are heavy metals and rust ... and sometimes added chlorine for disinfection.” BUND’s advice: if you live in an old house, get your water checked – a call to your Bezirksamt is all it takes. If you’re not happy with the water quality, buy a filter. “Generally though, most people in the world would be grateful for Berlin’s water,” Schultze says.

But there are problems with Berlin’s water policy. Since it is cheaper to pump water from the less built-up outer areas of Berlin, the water company has caused an imbalance in Berlin’s water table – floods have been reported in cellars in the city centres, while outlying land is drying out – threatening marshlands and wildlife.

Green grade: B-


That most eco-conscious of royals Prince Charles visited the rubbish-burning plant in Ruhleben in 1993 to get some tips on how to get rid of waste. And he wasn’t the last. The plant receives visits every year from organisations around the world, who wonder how Berlin manages to deal with its waste so efficiently, cleanly, and, according to our waste authority the BSR (Berliner Stadtreinigung), at the lowest cost in Germany. Burning rubbish was originally considered an ecological sin, but thanks to modern filtration techniques, CO2, sulphur dioxide and carbon monoxide are all removed from the smoke. In fact, there is barely any visible smoke coming from the chimney in Ruhleben at any time. A little lightheadedly, the official BSR tour guide even claims that the air they pump out is cleaner than what they draw in. “Sooner or later we’ll open a spa round here,” he joshes.

This, combined with this year’s plans to build fermentation plants to make biofuel from Berlin’s kitchen scraps, seems to suggest that Berlin has an excellent waste disposal situation. “I have a couple of quibbles with the BSR, but basically I think we’re in a good position,” says Daniel Buchholz, environmental spokesman for the SPD.

And yet, according to BUND, the BSR keeps a dirty secret: as much as 50 percent of Berlin’s household waste is not actually burned on this ultra-clean site in Ruhleben, but is sold to a coal power station in Jänschwalde, near Cottbus. Here there is no modern filtration technology, and no government regulations on exhaust fumes, and all kinds of dangerous chemicals – including mercury vapour - are released into the atmosphere. The money they earn from this helps keep the BSR’s books balanced, and possibly keeps waste costs down for the average Berliner – but the scheme is shocking nonetheless.

As for recycling, a symptom of German eco-fatigue can be detected in a new study, published this August, which found that despite the new deposits (Pfand) introduced in 2003, fewer and fewer bottles and cans are being put back into circulation. Since 2003, the number of returned bottles of water, soda and fruit juice has sunk from more than half to 27.2 percent. Now that practically every liquid container has a deposit on it, the findings suggest that Berliners – like Germans as a whole - are not bothering to save them, or are deliberately buying disposable bottles.

Green grade: C


Big cities heat up quicker than open spaces. You should probably keep this in mind when you read the next alarmist news story saying that Berlin will have ‘a climate like southern Italy.’ According to BUND, the higher temperatures that we can expect in the next couple of years will be felt not in the averages, but in the extremes – and this means city-dwellers will feel the summer heat more (although it didn’t feel that way last summer). Another direct effect of global warming will be the wasp colonies sharing your ice cream – a mild winter like the last one allows more insects to survive.

So is Berlin doing its part to slow climate change? Interestingly, Berlin has a unique advantage in its energy efficiency – it boasts one of the largest heating distribution networks in the world. Many of Berlin’s power stations actually conserve the heat they produce, and pump it, in the form of hot water, directly into buildings around the city. There are 1300 kilometres of such distribution pipes all over town.

But most of Berlin’s energy is produced by coal power stations. Even worse, Berlin is dependent on the particularly inefficient and dirty form of coal known as lignite lignite .

Schultze says, “Other German cities, like Frankfurt and Hamburg, are way ahead of Berlin. Hamburg has around 50 or 60 wind power stations. Berlin now has one, and that took a lot of political effort. That is partly because it’s windier in Hamburg, but it’s also because the wind power industry is more developed, and because the Hamburg government is more open to building new ones.”

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Schultze betrays a little despair talking about Berlin’s climate change policy. “Some of the best alternative energy technology is actually researched and developed in scientific centres in Berlin, but we simply don’t implement it.”

Solon, one of the largest developers and manufacturers of solar energy systems in the world, is based in Berlin, but they sell their panels almost anywhere but Berlin, because the city did not implement its planned regulations to force public buildings to have them installed. Barcelona, for example, actually took Berlin’s example and now has such regulations.

Schultze sees a fundamental disorganisation among Berlin’s environmental politicians: “They simply do not show enough initiative,” she says. “Even if, for example, they’re opposed to the building of a new power station, they have no clear plan on how else energy can be produced. If they did, they’d be able to argue against it more effectively.”

Green grade: C


Berlin is literally a green city – with more parks, trees and green spaces than almost every other European city – but it is clearly not making much of an effort to keep it that way.

Click here for more from Berlin's leading monthly magazine in English.

Exberliner (editor@exberliner.com)

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