Ich Bin Ein Freiburger

by Richard T. Stuebi

Earlier this month, I had the privilege of joining a delegation led by Cleveland Mayor Frank G. Jackson to visit Baden-Wurttemberg, the southwestern-most state in Germany. The aim of the trip was to begin building stronger commercial bridges between the Cleveland area and Baden-Wurttemberg – two heavy industrial economies of similar size. I was there to represent our region’s interests and activities in advanced energy, in an aim to identify and explore potential collaborations in the academic, civic and private sectors.

As part of our tour, we spent a day in Freiburg, a delightful university city nestled in the corner where Switzerland and France abut Germany. And, in their lovely city hall, we had the privilege of meeting with Freiburg’s dynamic Mayor Dr. Dieter Salomon and the city’s environmental minister, Dr. Dieter Worner.

Though I had previously heard of Freiburg, the two Dieters opened my eyes to what Freiburg had been able to accomplish – and, alas, what also remained to be accomplished – in the realm of sustainability, with their Freiburg Green City plan.

Freiburg frequently hosts public sector leaders from around the world to learn how to put a city on a low-carbon trajectory, as it is widely recognized to be the foremost green city in Germany, which in turn is widely recognized to be the country farthest down the sustainability path in Europe, which in turn is widely recognized to be far ahead of other continents in dealing substantively with the climate change threat.

We were humbled by what we learned. Way back in 1996, before climate change was much of a concern in the U.S., Freiburg officials decreed that it would aim to reduce CO2 emissions by 25% by the year 2010. To achieve this, Freiburg pursued two priorities.

First, it established very ambitious building energy efficiency standards – 20% below already-stringent German national levels. Yes, building professionals (architects, engineers, contractors) initially objected to this stance as being too hard or too costly. However, over time, the building community learned how to meet these tough standards at a minimal 1% cost premium over conventional buildings not meeting the standard. Now, the Freiburg-based businesses have a substantial competitive advantage in the German building marketplace. This goes to show that good policy can drive private sector innovation and subsequently economic health of a key sector of the economy.

Second, Freiburg seized upon its natural advantage – it is the sunniest place in all of Germany – to become the leading player in the soon-to-be-booming German solar market. With a major investment to establish the Fraunhofer Institute of Solar Energy, affiliated with the University of Freiburg, the city became Ground Zero for R&D on new solar technologies. This, in turn, spawned many businesses – either spun-out from Fraunhofer or founded by people who worked or studied in Freiburg – that were able to catch the wave as the solar market in Germany took off.

The net result: Freiburg now lays claim to an environmental business cluster of 1500 companies, employing 15,000, generating over 500 million euros of annual revenues. For a city of roughly 200,000 population, this is green economic development writ large.

We were also surprised by what we learned: namely, that Freiburg was really struggling to achieve significant emission reductions. Despite strong mechanisms to drive reduced emissions in the economy, Freiburg had only been able to achieve a 7% reduction in CO2 emissions since 1996. Freiburg readily admits that it won’t be able to attain the 25% reduction target it had set for itself by 2010.

So, Freiburg is finding out it’s not so easy to be as green as it wanted to be, as we all need to be.

That being said, I did take heart in noting that Freiburg wasn’t giving up in the face of adversity, as it is ratcheting its goal for 2030 to reduce CO2 emissions by 40%.

I also noted that a key reason for Freiburg failing to achieve its emission reductions was economic/population growth. Although aggregate CO2 emissions had only fallen by 7%, on a per capita basis, CO2 emissions had declined by about 30%. In other words, Freiburg’s population had grown substantially – one of the few places in Germany to experience population growth.

It’s hard to escape the conclusion that Freiburg’s environmental posture and ambitions are key attractors for this growth. The best and the brightest of Germany seem to be flocking to Freiburg to be part of the vanguard in moving to a low-carbon economy.

Lastly, I am inspired by Freiburg’s civic motto. By my transcription (and excuse my lack of knowledge of German), Freiburg’s credo is “Gut leben stadt viel haben”, which translates approximately to “A good life is more important than lots of possessions.”

A lovely city, Freiburg is living proof that one can live a good life and be at the forefront of sustainability.

Richard T. Stuebi is the BP Fellow for Energy and Environmental Advancement at The Cleveland Foundation, and is also the Founder and President at NextWave Energy, Inc. In 2009, he will also become a Managing Director of Early Stage Partners.

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