Composed of Cologne, Düsseldorf, Dortmund, and Essen, the North Rhine-Westphalia region in Germany is known to be the most populous region in Germany, making up almost 25 percent of Germany’s population and economy. At the 23rd Conference of the Parties (COP23) in Bonn, which is a federal city in the North Rhine-Westphalia region, the North Rhine-Westphalian State Agency for Nature, Environment and Consumer Protection held a seminar at the Cities and Regions Pavilion illustrating how their state monitoring program works.

North Rhine-Westphalia

Courtesy of Roads to Ruins

Since its establishment a decade ago, the Agency has released statistics of the potential for renewable energy in the federal state; it has also been involved in tracking greenhouse gas emissions by corporations and institutions. In their presentation, Agency representatives expressed their ambition to decarbonize North Rhine-Westphalia by 2030.

The data is generated from three existing monitoring programs from state agencies, including data about the water sector and air quality control. In 2013, the climate protection act was enacted, and one article of it concerned monitoring climate change and adaptation. Since then, the monitoring program has been adaptation-based, because the North Rhine-Westphalia has reached a further key milestone in climate protection and climate change adaptation policy. In 2016, the state agency already had 23 indicators in seven fields of action.

According to the agency’s 2016 environmental report, North Rhine-Westphalia’s footprint in 2012 was roughly nine percent higher than the German federal average of 5.3 global hectare per capita. At the same time, North Rhine-Westphalia’s footprint was 5.4 times larger than the biocapacity available in the state. It was also 3.3 times higher than the biocapacity available globally per capita. In 2012, it would have taken the biocapacity of more than three earths to enable the global population to live the lifestyle of North Rhine-Westphalians.

North Rhine-Westphalia needs more than five times the amount of resources that its own ecosystems are able to renew. Known as the “Land of Coal and Steel,” North Rhine-Westphalia is Germany’s strongest economic power, armed with a nominal GDP of ‎€670 ($787) billion, and can use its money to buy what it does not have from elsewhere. In 2012, the region produced 305 million tons of carbon dioxide. “The greenhouse gases that [NRW] emits into the Earth’s atmosphere only incur seemingly negligible costs since we do not pay monetarily for carbon dioxide emissions,” reads the report; explaining that the global ecological footprint is 2.8 global hectare per capita with a biocapacity of 1.7 global hectare per capita. This means that the world’s citizens are now using roughly 60 percent more than the Earth can regenerate. The competition for resource access might increase, or lead to disruptions in supply chains. This global over-demand leads to increases in the atmosphere’s carbon dioxide levels, the depletion of groundwater reserves, overexploited soils, and the disappearance of tropical rain forests.

North Rhine-Westphalia

The moderator introduces the presentation of the North Rhine-Westphalian State Agency for Nature, Environment and Consumer Protection. Photo by Leena ElDeeb.

progrss spoke with Nicole Müller about the environmental concerns of the region and how state executives have acted upon their work. According to her, there are two main environmental concerns in the North Rhine-Westphalia region: the ground often doesn’t absorb rainwater, resulting in flash floods. The other challenge is heat stress; so if there’s a heat wave in the summer, there is no relief phase at night for the region to recover from the heat. The city corners and inner cities are the ones which suffer the most.

“We had a project with the city of Cologne, where they made an adaptation plan and analyzed the points of heat stress and water management, and the result was they made a lot of measurements they can [follow] to improve the situation,” Müller tells progrss. “It often stops at this point; we know what to do, but we don’t have the money for it.”

Similarly, the affordability argument always comes up at the mention of Germany’s coal consumption. German At COP23, Chancellor Angela Merkel tried to dodge a question about the coal phaseout, which remains a very sensitive topic in German negotiations and is tensing the relationship between environmentalists and the German government. “We know we have a long way yet to go,” Merkel said in her speech on the tenth day of COP23; adding her concern about the social issues that would rise by ending coal. “Is such a scheme economically viable, is it affordable?”

Germany – a country that is known for its climate action leadership – continues to be one of Europe’s leading coal-based economies – which is entirely based in the NRW region. On November 25, 2017, an administrative court in Cologne gave the green light to a major coal mine operator, RWE, to chop down an ancient forest, turning down a lawsuit brought by the environmental group Bund für Umwelt und Naturschutz Deutschland (BUND). BUND tried to stop the clearcutting of most of what remains of the old growth Hambach forest, one of the last remaining ancient forests of its kind in Europe.

The country still gets 40 percent of its energy from coal, a bigger share than Europe, with the exception of France, which gets 75 percent of its energy from coal. Adding to the struggle, much of Germany’s coal is lignite, the dirtiest kind of coal.

Germany has pledged to meet greenhouse gas reduction goals set out in the Paris Agreement, but it will only be able to do so if the country makes a coal exit. Chancellor Merkel disappointed local environmentalists present at COP23 – especially those concerned with the coal mine based just 30 kilometers (18.6 miles) away from premises. “This message from the host of a world climate conference must sound cruel to the poorest countries most strongly affected by climate change,” said Oxfam Germany’s climate expert Jan Kowalzig.