A transformation with many dimensions

Editorial by Jan Peter Schemmel, CEO, Oeko-Institut

The sustainability transformation is one of the biggest tasks that humankind has ever faced. And it’s a challenge in which there is more than one dimension to consider. There is of course the environmental dimension, but the technical, economic and – importantly – the social aspects must not be forgotten. Those who formulate environmental and climate policy must always factor in the social consequences – for people in our own country today, but also for future generations and people of other nations.

A good example of this is provided by hydrogen, which is due to play a pivotal role in the transition to sustainable energy. It will have to be manufactured mainly in places where conditions for producing the necessary renewable energy are more favourable than they are here. But we must not overlook the fact that producing hydrogen in other countries could lead to land-use conflicts or water shortages. In a donation-funded project the Oeko-Institut is currently exploring how imported hydrogen can be sustainable – which includes not causing social problems in the production countries. Similar considerations apply to the expansion of electric transport. E-mobility requires resources the mining of which can lead to environmental and social problems. Here again, action must be accompanied by awareness of the consequences. But we must also not forget that failing to achieve the transformation can have equally undesirable impacts on people here and in other countries.

Discussions of whether the environmental transformation is fair often fail to consider the overall picture. Those who complain that environmental policy operates mainly at the expense of those who are in a weaker position socially should remember that an important lever for social equity is a fiscal and social policy that imposes liabilities on those who can afford it and protects those in positions of hardship. It is also important not to play off social policy and the environment against each other. A sustainability transformation can have particular benefits for disadvantaged people. For example, if we redesign public spaces and create low-traffic neighbourhoods, we are also creating spaces for people who live in small apartments without a balcony or garden and providing them with recreational opportunities. And also an opportunity for more interaction – perhaps for you and me too?


Jan Peter Schemmel