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Speech by Federal Minister Barbara Hendricks at the China Council

Speech by Federal Minister Barbara Hendricks at the China Council

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Dear Excellencies, Colleagues, Ladies and Gentlemen, and Friends,

It gives me great pleasure to participate in this year’s meeting of the CCICED. The CCICED is a truly impressive advisory body. Its work since the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992 has been instrumental in incorporating concepts such as the circular economy into China’s environmental legislation. The CCICED also played a key role in establishing China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection by upgrading the State Environmental Protection Agency, SEPA. In my opinion, this was a very important step for environmental protection in China. And it shows how relevant the work of the CCICED can be.

During this meeting we will discuss ways of strengthening the administration so as to allow it to facilitate the transformation towards more environmentally sound economic development. Before I became Minister for the Environment and Building, I spent many years working in various regional and national authorities in my country. One of my positions was that of State Secretary at the Ministry of Finance. This is why I know from my own experience that wise, strategic governance generates huge opportunities for sustainable development. But I am also well aware of the challenges of implementing the necessary changes in the administration – and paying for them.

Currently, environmental policy is experiencing a boost due to the Sustainable Development Summit in New York at the end of September: there we adopted the 2030 Agenda, which calls for a change of course towards a truly sustainable development. We have given ourselves 15 years to implement the agenda and steer development in the right direction. 15 years to change our course.

The Sustainable Development Goals we agreed on are ambitious, indivisible and universal. I am convinced that the agenda will help us to address the key challenges facing humanity today. One of its goals is “a world free of poverty, hunger, disease and want, where all life can thrive.”

There can be no doubt that we will only be able to achieve this goal if our planet and its ecosystems are healthy. And there is no time to lose. We must change course as quickly as possible, for we cannot deny the truth: Our current economic practices are destroying our planet. We have already exceeded the planetary boundaries in many ways. Climate change is the most obvious sign that things are getting out of hand.

The time has come to reconsider our economic practices and our lifestyles. We need a different kind of growth – one which does not create social divides and which respects the planetary boundaries. Only thorough change can make the national economy of every country more sustainable and resilient.

But how can we bring about this change in direction towards a more intelligent, sustainable economic model? One key factor in this process is good governance. This is why I am very happy that during this meeting we will intensively discuss how governments can make an effective contribution to this change of course. China, with its concept of ecological civilisation and Germany with its social and ecological market economy, have already developed social concepts which point the way to a sustainable future.

In Germany, for example, we have decided to focus on renewable energies, phase out nuclear power and do without fossil energy sources in the medium term. We are calling this transformation the Energiewende – a term I am sure many of you are familiar with by now. For we agree with our partners in the G7 – and Brazil has joined this consensus – that unless we decarbonise the global economy before the end of this century we will not succeed in limiting global warming to less than two degrees Celsius. And if we do not succeed in this, we will face climate change that is no longer calculable and that makes life impossible in many places on this planet.

Therefore, we should give absolute priority to decoupling economic growth from the use of natural resources and environmental destruction as far as possible. The key to achieving this is increased resource efficiency. We must also considerably increase raw material productivity and become even better at reusing waste. We need to adopt more stringent standards for the durability and repairability of electronic devices, for example. And we need to give targeted support to businesses that develop particularly innovative, resource efficient production methods.

I am therefore very happy that the Sustainable Development Goals address exactly these areas. By adopting them, the international community has sent a very clear signal. We all agree where we want to go, or more precisely, where we need to go if we want to enable all people to live in dignity and prosperity. This consensus is a historic milestone. Implementing these goals is a challenge for all countries, and we will do well to learn from each other while we tackle this task.

I would like to take this opportunity to talk about some governance instruments which have proven to be effective in Germany. Of course there are also some areas where we still need to step up our efforts.

We have learned from experience that those who will be particularly affected by a legislative provision and those who have a particular expertise in the area to be regulated should be involved in the legislative process from an early stage. This is why the Joint Rules of Procedure of the Federal Ministries stipulate that when draft laws and ordinances are prepared, one element of the regulatory impact assessment to be carried out is ensuring the participation of associations and the expert community concerned. This includes representatives of industry, science, environmental associations and other relevant associations. In addition, legislative drafts are increasingly being published on the internet to give the general public an opportunity to comment as well. The same goes for regulatory drafts that fall into the legislative competence of the federal states.

This increases the acceptance of new laws, and it often also helps to make these laws better.

But even the best law is useless if there is no compliance. This is why the effective enforcement of laws is extremely important. In the environmental sector, we have learned that it is not sufficient to impose penalties for infringements of our laws. Under such a penalty system, the owner of a factory may have to pay a fine or even go to prison, but that does not solve the actual problem. The operator of a factory must be forced to modernise the facilities to become more environmentally friendly, or the factory will be closed down. Only this approach has the desired consequence. For our primary goal is not to punish factory owners, but to protect the environment.

On the other hand, it must be possible for companies and other players to challenge a decision taken by the public authorities in court. This prevents arbitrary acts on the part of the authorities, and it is also an effective means of combating corruption. No decision taken by an authority should be sacrosanct. If there is a possibility to have a decision reviewed by an independent court, people will accept that decision as being fair and objective.

Of course there are still infringements of our environmental laws in Germany, and sometimes it takes us years to find out. This is what happened in the Volkswagen case. It has shown us that it makes sense to at least carry out spot checks on the implementation of regulations. We are still in a learning process here.

But good laws and effective enforcement are not enough. In Germany we place great emphasis on the industry’s own responsibility. It helps that sustainable economic practices are increasingly becoming a strategic goal for businesses. For environmental protection measures can go hand in hand with reduced costs, an improved image and increased sales. Many companies realise that sustainable corporate governance will give them a true competitive edge and they are voluntarily agreeing to undergo eco-audits.

In Europe institutions of all kinds, such as companies, authorities, service providers and even private households, can be certified under the European Eco-Management and Audit Scheme, EMAS. The openness of German industry to this European environmental audit scheme has been exemplary. In no other country are there more EMAS participants. My ministry, too, has been EMAS certified since 2006.

Another key aspect is what kind of incentives we as governments are providing to influence investments. All investment decisions taken by governments should be carefully reviewed to ensure that they facilitate sustainable development. For the structures we are establishing now will determine our production and consumption patterns for decades to come. We therefore need to reflect very thoroughly on what foundations we want to lay for future generations, for example efficient grids for electricity from renewable energies, charging stations for electric cars, energy efficient housing, sustainable agriculture, and greener cities.

What, specifically, can the government do to steer investments into the right direction? I will explain our approach using the example of the goal I mentioned earlier - decoupling growth from resource consumption. One important step towards achieving this is Germany’s Resource Efficiency Programme, which aims to double resource productivity by 2020 compared with 1994.

Which concrete measures have we taken in this context? We have set incentives and created innovation awards for new business models which are based on energy efficient technologies or which facilitate multiple uses, for example chemical leasing. We are creating markets for secondary raw materials by introducing quality standards, e.g. for recycled steel. And we are making sure that those who produce waste must now finally bear the costs for this waste themselves. All this helps us to boost the circular economy.

So far I have only talked about government decisions as a steering instrument. But governments are always dealing with many different individuals who together influence the course a country takes.

So we should not only focus on issues such as economic efficiency, infrastructure and knowledge, but also highlight the importance of awareness and awareness-raising.

We need to talk about what people really need to enjoy a decent life. We, the wealthier people everywhere in the world, need to prove that we are willing to adopt a lifestyle that, if copied by people around the world, would respect the planetary boundaries and reduce global imbalances.

Policy-makers must become much more courageous in this regard. Ultimately, however, it is the duty of each and every citizen to do his or her share. Everyone can make a very concrete contribution in day-to-day life.

However, we can only ask citizens to play their part if we put them in the position to assess their decisions in terms of their impacts on environmental and social standards. The credibility of information, the development of relevant criteria and easy access to information are key aids for enabling citizens to live up to their responsibility as consumers. Environmental labels can be an essential instrument for this. With the Blue Angel environmental label, the German Environment Ministry has a strong instrument that people perceive as reliable. For more than three decades, the Blue Angel has been an effective information and marketing tool to promote the most environmentally friendly products on the market. I am therefore very pleased that there is also an environmental label in China.

We are all united in the will to resolutely tackle the key challenges of our time. In this spirit, I wish us all a successful meeting.

Thank you.

16.11.2015 | Speech International Environmental Policy | Beijing (China)