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Former environment senator Fritz Vahrenholt: “We are threatened by a dramatic loss of prosperity”

Hamburger Abendblatt

Fritz Vahrenholt was a mastermind of Germany’s ecological movement, Senator for the environment and wind manager. Today he questions Germany’s costly climate policy.

Fritz Vahrenholt

Hamburg. Fritz Vahrenholt has shaped the environmental debate in Germany like hardly anyone else: His book “Seveso ist überall” (1976) denounced the conditions in the chemical industry, his atlas “Die Lage der Nation” (1983) assessed the environmental policy in the country.

In 1984, he joined the Hamburg environmental authority as a state councillor, and was the Senator for Environment from 1991 to 1997. The social democrat and SPD politician then moved into the business world and, from 2001, built up the wind energy manufacturer Repower. From 2008 to 2012, Vahrenholt worked as managing director of the newly founded RWE Innogy GmbH.

In recent years, the doctor of chemistry has become one of the sharpest critics of German climate protection policy. Since being fired from the Wildlife Foundation because of his views, he has made the topic his “main activity”, as he says. In his new book Unerwünschte Wahrheiten (Unwanted Truths) and on his blog, the 71-year-old deals with climate development and the consequences of climate policy.

Hamburger Abendblatt: Do you actually like arguing, Mr. Vahrenholt?

Fritz Vahrenholt No, not really. What makes you think so?

HA: In your new book “Unwanted Truths” you are taking on the entire climate science…

FV: Do I? I am not denying the need for action or climate change itself – I am just coming to different conclusions about the scale or pace of it. I believe that it is not only humans who are responsible for climate change, but that natural factors are also at work. So we have more time than is often said.

HA: How did you come up with that?

FV: There is one aspect in the climate debate that I find far too brief. Our reference value is always the year 1850, the beginning of the industrial age. But what hardly anyone knows is that the Little Ice Age, the coldest period in the last 2000 years, ended then. The average value of the last 2000 years alone is about 0.4 degrees higher than in 1850 – completely without the greenhouse effect.

HA: You represent a minority position …

FV: Maybe, but that doesn’t mean it has to be wrong. Compare that with the subject of dying forests. At the beginning of the 1980s there was a consensus that the German forest would disappear because of acid rain. I suspected as much. Almost forty years later we know that the science was wrong. Science must be open to question. But that is no longer possible because of the intertwining of science and politics.

HA: Now it can be argued that because of the horrifying forecasts, political action was taken and the forest was saved.

FV: It is quite possible to believe, as many climate scientists do, that a little exaggeration would help. This it is acceptable, within limits, to shake up a society. It was similar with my book “Seveso ist überall” – we have ¬achieved a lot in the chemical ¬industry. But we must not send society into disaster by taking incorrect or exaggerated measures. Today we live in a climate of fear.

HA: Where do you think the debate has been distorted?

FV: Take the Greenland ice sheet, for example: many people believe that it will thaw out in the near future. Even with the continuing temperatures, it will continue to exist for thousands of years. By the way, 8000 years ago there was a period of about 3000 years warmer than today. Even then the ice sheet survived. And the Sahara was green. That is the positive news even now: the earth is becoming greener.

HA: This does not apply to all regions – in many places people fear drought.

FV: In the last 100 years, neither the frequency of droughts nor heavy precipitation has increased globally. However, due to warming and increasing CO2, the area of foliage worldwide is growing by the size of the Federal Republic of Germany every year. Over the past 50 years, plant biomass has increased by 30 percent. And because of the increase in CO2, the yields of wheat, rice and other fruits have grown by 15 percent, and the world’s food situation has been significantly improved. I do not want to trivialise CO2, it is a greenhouse gas. But it is also not desirable to return to pre-1850 levels.

HA: We are far from returning there. The Paris Climate Change Agreement has set itself the goal of limiting global warming to a maximum of two degrees. Is that wrong?

FV: No. But the Paris Agreement has structural shortcomings. It has stipulated that China, as a developing country, may still emit 50% more CO2 in coming years. If we halve our emissions in Germany from 0.8 billion to 0.4 billion tonnes, than that is equivalent to China’s annual increase. There, 245 coal-fired power plants will still be connected to the grid, and there are 1600 coal-fired power plants worldwide, most of them with Chinese assistance. India is happy because 56 coal mines have been opened there and now every village is supplied with electricity.

HA: That can’t be an argument for doing nothing here!

FV: Of course not, but it shows the relation. We are not making a difference with our phase-out, and nobody will follow us if we phase out coal and nuclear power within ten years, which will mean a dramatic loss of prosperity in Germany. We cannot sustain a highly developed industrial society with wind and sun. We are threatened with deindustrialisation and loss of prosperity. We discuss hysterically: it is claimed that if we do not phase out diesel and petrol engines now, the climate will tip over. What that means for hundreds of thousands of jobs is of no further interest. We must stop the sorcerer’s apprentices: Fear is a bad advisor.

HA: These are also horror scenarios …

FV: No. Our energy system transformation has a structural flaw: we are concentrating what three energy sources have done so far – natural gas for heating, oil for transport and electricity for industry and households – into a single energy source: electricity. The Academy of Engineering Sciences expects electricity demand to double. I think it will triple. The generation capacities of wind and sun will never be sufficient for this. Moreover, the problem of the dark lull remains – there are many days and weeks without sun and wind. So where will our electricity come from? From pumped storage? There are calculations according to which we would have to fill all valleys from Norway to Austria with pumped storage lakes in order to store it. That is absurd.

HA: You underestimate the possibilities offered by technological progress. Green hydrogen, for example, could be used to store energy.

HA: Two thirds of the energy is lost in the wind-hydrogen-electricity generation chain. That is physics. The energy is lost during electrolysis, storage and conversion into electricity. So we would have to build more plants to compensate for this loss. The cost of electricity would multiply.

HA: We have just seen what efficiency gains are possible with solar cells.

FV: That’s true of solar energy, when I think back to my first solar cells at Shell. We can produce electricity for just a few cents at sunny locations, but the cost decline is not as significant when it comes to wind. But that doesn’t solve the problem of intermediate storage, which becomes unaffordable given the amount of electricity to be stored.

HA: Do you have something against renewable energies?

FV: No, not at all – I helped make it big, photovoltaics at Shell, wind power at Repower. RWE Innogy’s first offshore plant in the North Sea bears my name: Fritz. But it would never have occurred to me to make such a fluctuating energy the sole source of electricity, heat and mobility.

HA: What do you think should happen?

FV: If the situation is as dramatic as it is claimed, I wonder why we are not rethinking. Why are we not prepared to think about capturing CO2 from coal-fired power stations? And why are we refusing to look at new nuclear energy technologies with an open mind? Even the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change considers them to be an alternative. But we in Germany wear blinkers.

HA: Our chancellor is a natural scientist …

FV: Yes, but she lets herself be driven by moods. This has been demonstrated by her U-turn on nuclear power.

HA: When it comes to deindustrialisation, let’s talk about your party – the SPD.

FV: Unfortunately, the SPD no longer has its core base in mind. There is already a party for the hip, green urban clientele, but employees in the steel, chemical or car industries have been lost sight of. The little people will now be punished with a CO2 tax from January onwards. In the first year this will cost the average household €270, and this amount is set to rise steadily to over €600.

HA: Your party sees this in a positive light.

FV: Yes, unfortunately. A climate and energy policy geared to the interests of employees looks different. Helmut Schmidt was interested in this. In my last conversation with him about the causes of climate change, he told me: “Fritz, I don’t believe a word the UN says.”

HA: In your book you start with a comparison to Corona. Why?

FV: The restrictions we have made have hardly any effect on the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere. Despite the shutdown, global emissions will fall by less than ten percent in 2020. So to achieve a halving, we need five shutdowns. China emits more than 30 percent and, after a brief lockdown, continues to do so unabated and more.

HA: You accuse experts and the media of hyping news that links events to climate change. Are you not doing the same in your book? You look for news that the situation isn’t as bad.

FV: If a hurricane rages somewhere in the world today, many people see it as evidence of climate change, but hurricanes have not increased in number for decades. We had a heatwave in Siberia in summer, which was a big issue everywhere. At the same time, Brazil was the coldest in 50 years, yet nobody spoke about it. We have a selective perception. In the book we show that the number of hurricanes, heavy rainfall events or droughts has not increased. In fact, they have levelled out.

HA: In your last book, “The Neglected Sun” from 2012, you predicted cooling soon – in reality it was getting warmer. Were you wrong?

FV: We timed the cooling a little too early. Let’s wait and see. Since 2017 we have had a sideways movement in global temperature. Even the medium-term ¬climate forecast by the Federal Research Ministry does not expect significant warming in the next five years. There are other influences on the climate, such as fluctuating solar radiation, cloud cover or the 60-year cold and warm phases of the oceans.

HA: Your book could be misinterpreted as an invitation to carry on like business as usual …

FV: The book doesn’t say that. I am saying that we must phase out fossil fuels as far as possible by 2100. We are talking about 200 years of human history, during which we have used oil, natural gas and coal. Even if no one wants to hear it: these were the centuries of greatest progress in civilisation in terms of health, nutrition, life expectancy and living standards. The majority of humanity is hungry for prosperity. If we preach renunciation to them, we will not get far. We must show a technical path that combines prosperity and climate protection. Only then will we be pioneers. We will achieve a sensible energy transition in three generations, but not in three legislative periods. After that, CO2 concentrations will drop quite quickly and that will be it.

HA: How has your book been received?

FV: Our publishing house has just printed the fourth edition. Eight years ago there was a storm of discussion about our book “The Neglected Sun”. Today the corridor of opinion has narrowed, a debate is not taking place, certainly not in public broadcasting.

HA: Do you long for the debate?

FV: Yes, of course, because the stakes are high.

HA: What do you actually think about the environmentalist Greta Thunberg and the Fridays for Future movement?

FV: I agree with Norbert Bolz: prophets of doom have always been the most virulent enemies of the Enlightenment.

Full interview (in German)