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  6. “We can reach our climate goals - it’s a simple matter of will”

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“We can reach our climate goals - it’s a simple matter of will”

Interview with Professor Volker Quaschning


Volker Quaschning is a professor for regenerative energy systems at the Berlin University of Applied Sciences. He is also a co-initiator of Scientists for Future, a group that calls for effective climate protection. In the following interview, he talks about the threats posed by global warming – and discusses how he thinks sustainable automobile usage can function in the future.

You wanted to conduct this interview on the telephone – because the carbon footprint would be better. Why do you care so much about this issue?

To have effective climate protection, you need government regulations on the one hand – but we also have to change our own behavior as well. I’m talking about things like the vacations we book, the amount of meat we eat and the number of avoidable trips we take for business appointments. In terms of this interview, we can achieve just as much on the telephone as we could in a face-to-face meeting. We do not produce any CO₂ emissions, and we do not experience any sort of negative impact as a result.

How large is the effect?

It depends on the individual case. For a previous interview I did, I determined that a roundtrip between Frankfurt and Berlin would generate about 50 kilograms of CO₂ – if you traveled by train. You would generate much more if you traveled by car.

(By way of comparison: annual per capita CO₂ emissions total 8,600 kilograms in Germany – comment by the editorial staff)

“We will have to act immediately if we intend to limit the rise of global temperatures to 1.5 degrees.”

Professor Volker Quaschning Energy expert at the Berlin University of Applied Sciences

As a member of Scientists for Future, you call over and over again for faster action. How much time do we have to reach the Paris climate goals?

We will have to act immediately if we intend to limit the rise of global temperatures to 1.5 degrees. Today, the average global temperature has already risen 1 degree over its level during the pre-industrial age. And it continues to climb. To reach the 1.5-degree goal, Germany must be climate neutral in no later than 20 years. This means one thing: We will have to stop burning oil, coal and natural gas.

What will happen if we miss the goal?

Global warming is a creeping process. It is not as though the world would be a great place if the temperature rose by just 1.5 degrees and chaos would break out if the level rose by 1.51 degrees. However, every increase has a negative impact on living conditions on Earth. In the worst-case scenario, the average global temperature would rise 4 degrees to 5 degrees by the end of the century. This is the same amount that it has risen since the last Ice Age occurred 20,000 years ago. Back then, the area where Berlin is located today was covered by a 200-meter-thick blanket of ice. This shows just how dramatic the situation is.

What impact would unchecked global warming have?

Huge areas of the Earth would be uninhabitable because of the unbearably high temperatures. Sea levels would also climb significantly. Up to 70 meters is possible over the long term. Up to 2 meters is possible during this century. The living environment for several billion people would be destroyed. Just imagine for a moment what it would like if such a large number of people had to be relocated within a period of 100 years. In Germany, we have just seen what type of social unrest can be caused by the arrival of 1 million refugees. Problems related to global food and water supplies would exacerbate the situation. Some studies have forecast that unchecked climate change would trigger major wars that would eventually destroy our civilization.

What are the most important demands being made by scientists?

We have the technology and the financial means to achieve the climate goals. We just have to roll up our sleeves and tackle them. It’s a simple matter of will. Let’s imagine that the roof of our house is on fire. What would we do? We’d put it out by using every hose at our disposal. It’s the same with climate protection. We may be able to slow the spread of the fire by using a few buckets of water – but we will certainly not be able to save our house with them.

The transportation sector plays a key role in climate protection. What can climate-friendly mobility look like?

I see two major challenges. First: We will have to cut the number of cars in countries like Germany in half. If we were to transfer our current system to all countries, we would have more than 4 billion cars on the road. This is more than the world can handle. This will mean one thing for automakers like Volkswagen: They will not necessarily have to sell significantly fewer vehicles in the future – but someplace else. Second: The cars that remain must be completely emission free. Such a change can be produced only by alternative drive systems.

“As far as passenger cars go, electric vehicles with batteries are clearly the best climate-protection solution”

Professor Volker Quaschning Energy expert at the Berlin University of Applied Sciences

A lively debate is currently being waged, particularly in Germany, over the question about whether there are realistic alternatives to e-drive systems in terms of climate-neutral vehicles. What do you think?

I think that there are no reasonable alternatives. One thing is clear: You certainly cannot achieve climate neutrality by using conventional diesel vehicles or internal combustion engines. The discussion about using biofuels made from plants hit a dead end from the very start. By simply using the rule of three, you could see that we lack the cultivable land. Sun fuels are also a total niche product because of their high costs. That leaves us with just two viable options for sustainable mobility: electric drive systems with batteries or hydrogen. My estimate: In terms of passenger cars, electric cars with batteries are simply the best solution for climate protection.

Why?

E-cars use energy much more efficiently than hydrogen vehicles do. To operate a hydrogen car, you need two to three times more solar units or windmills as you do for e-cars. Right now, Germany is only taking baby steps in its effort to expand wind energy. Setting up a hydrogen economy would be associated with even greater problems. Importing huge of amounts of hydrogen will also not be a realistic option for the foreseeable future. For this reason, hydrogen drive systems are only viable for situations in which very long daily trips are unavoidable. I’m talking about things like passenger and freight trains.

What needs to happen to quickly make e-mobility a success?

We need a clear plan – like the one being used in Norway. Oslo charges a high inner-city toll for cars powered by internal combustion engines. This is certainly a drastic step. But a financial incentive to buy electric cars will not be enough to quickly achieve the transition. We also need a massive expansion program for charging stations. Here’s why: Anyone who can charge his or her e-car at home does not have any problems at all with the vehicle’s range. You simply charge the vehicle when it is not being used and start each day with a full battery. With the exception of a few vacation trips, this is all you need. But car owners who do not have their own parking places have a problem on their hands. They need many more charging stations. I personally wish automakers would be much more radical as they make the transition to e-mobility. The world will soon be driving electrically – regardless of what Germany does. Companies should make the switch as well in their own interest.

For years now, important countries have been unable to agree on climate protection. What do you expect the climate conference in Madrid to produce?

I don’t expect to see any major decisions. The situation has become complicated since the United States pulled out of the Paris environmental agreement. Madrid is also something of an interim conference anyway – I hope to see some efforts next year. But I have to correct the false impression that nothing is happening in terms of climate protection internationally. One good example is China, where e-mobility is catching on much faster than it is here. Entire huge cities there have been equipped with electric buses. On the other hand, we cut a red ribbon when just one e-bus is handed over. China is also No. 1 in the expansion of renewable energies – well ahead of Germany.

  • Professor Volker Quaschning

    • Volker Quaschning has been a professor at the Berlin University of Applied Sciences since 2004. His specialty: renewable energy systems.
    • Before joining the university, he was a project head for solar system analysis at the German Aerospace Center. During his post-doctoral work, he explored the structures of climate-friendly energy supply systems.
    • Quaschning is a co-initiator of Scientists for Future, an organization that supports the international protest for improved climate protection and campaigns like the climate strike.
    • At volker-quaschning.de, he operates an independent portal for renewable energies and climate protection.
    • In 2012 and 2018, he received the award for successful communications about science at the Berlin University of Applied Sciences.