We Could Be Doing Five Times Better

Ernst Weizsäcker is co-chair of the U.N.’s International Panel for Sustainable Resource Management. He has served as the policy director at the United Nations Centre for Science and Technology for Development, director of the Institute for European Environmental Policy, and president of the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment, and Energy. He is a member of the Club of Rome, a global think tank devoted to improving society, and he served on the World Commission on the Social Dimensions of Globalization.

He has also served as a member of the Bundestag, the federal parliament of Germany, where he was appointed chairman of the Environmental Committee. Additionally, he has taught as a professor of interdisciplinary biology and was the founding president of the University of Kassel in Germany. Weizsäcker has authored several influential books on the environment, most recently, "Factor Five: Transforming the Global Economy through 80% Improvements in Resource Productivity."
  • Transcript


Question: How much government regulation should there be? 

Ernst Weizsäcker: Typically, in the Anglo-Saxon mindset, there is hardly any role for government.  They think the markets will do all.  And if there is scarcity of resources, markets will react.  But this is wrong because climate disasters happening perhaps 50 years from now are not visible in today’s markets.  So you have to have state intervention, or an international agreement, like the Kyoto Agreement, making it more profitable for companies to be climate friendly then to squander energy.  And one measure that we have taken in my own country at the time I was a member of Parliament, was the Ecological Tax Reform, which let electricity and petrol prices rise in small steps for five consecutive years, and at the same time was reducing indirect labor costs. And in balance, it was calculated that this saved, or created roughly 300,000 jobs.  For a small country like Germany, this is a lot.  Because labor getting cheaper meant that for the employer, it became more profitable to lay off kilowatt hours and hire people than the other way around. 

So, this is a policy measure that worked very well.  It was not exactly popular, but it was very good for the economy of Germany.  And I suggest that America could emulate that scheme, but today it would be so unpopular that I doubt it will be adopted soon.

Question: How much better could we be doing?

Ernst Weizsäcker: We can do five times better.  And that relates to carbon efficiency, but also to metals, water, and energy in general.  So, what we are doing, or considering is, a transport system that is based on very efficient cars.  My friend Amory Lovins talks about the hyper-car revolution that would do something like 120 or 150 miles per gallon, plus much better public transport as we have it in Japan or in most of Europe, plus technological advances in rapid public transport.  Again, in France, in Japan, in Germany, we have those fabulous trains which do roughly 250 kph, and for practical purposes tend to be faster than air transport because you don’t have those terrible waiting time and security checks and all the rest.  So, that is the transport sector. 

It also relates, of course, to good transport.  Wal-Mart, for instance, is renewing their fleet of trucks to be more carbon efficient.  So, it’s a multitude of factors in this one sector of transport.  You could also look at agriculture where water efficiency is perhaps the most important part with irrigation and all the rest, but also energy plays a big role.  And non-carbon greenhouse gasses play a big role in agriculture.  

Or, the housing sector.  My family and I are living in a so-called "passive house," which is roughly ten times more energy efficient than conventional homes are.  So we are saving a lot of energy, have a very good air quality, and at the same time do something for posterity for a better climate. 

Recorded on April 9, 2010