A German city learns the perks and pitfalls of being a green pioneer in Europe

Source: Umair Irfan, E&E reporter • Posted: Wednesday, September 17, 2014

FREIBURG, Germany — In Platz der Alten Synagoge, a plaza bordering the University of Freiburg, a 12-foot-tall board looms over crowded bicycle racks.

The board displays an artist’s rendering of the planned design for the square, currently a green lawn across from a theater with palm trees outside, next to tramway tracks under renovation.

Several years in the making, the proposal aims to make the downtown area even more pedestrian-friendly, shrinking streets and expanding walking areas.

Already, cars are diverted from the bustling center of the city, home to artisanal shops, renovated gothic buildings and Bächle, small medieval canals that circulate water from the Dreisam River through the city.

But the design has drawn the ire of local activists.

At the bottom of the artist’s rendering of the future square, protestors have attached two signs, depicting a cement mixer with the Green Party’s logo pouring concrete on a grassy field with the caption: “The meadow must go!”

“I hate the idea,” said Craig Morris, a Freiburg resident for more than 20 years and environmental policy researcher. “We had this huge lawn in the middle of town, and they want to pave it over.”

Freiburg, a city of 230,000 people near the French and Swiss borders, was green before it was cool, and when it comes to sustainability, residents refuse to settle for second best.

The city has some of the highest energy efficiency, renewable energy and emissions targets in a country already taking the most ambitious steps in the world to reform its energy systems on a national level.

Greener than thou

But taking the lead means the city is the first to trip over obstacles, creating situations where city officials wonder if there is such a thing as being too bicycle-friendly, where cutting energy use in buildings leads to inefficiencies in district heating and where citizens question the governing Green Party’s green credentials.

Klaus Hoppe, who recently left office as the head of Freiburg’s energy department and is now a sustainability consultant, explained that the renovation plan for Platz der Alten Synagoge initially proposed a paved and tiled surface, akin to Italian city squares. However, during the comment period, some residents objected to the lack of trees.

The city council, where the dominant Green Party holds 11 out of 48 seats, amended the plans, dragging the proposal out for years. Frustrated officials finally decided to push forward with construction, but a new generation of city residents objected to the lack of grass, citing new research about heat islands and their health impacts.

“Now the council doesn’t want to stop again since it’s been in planning for years,” Hoppe said.

The controversy around the renovation plan is just one example of the green back-and-forth in a city not content to rest on its environmental laurels.

Nestled between the pine- and fir-covered hills of the Black Forest, Freiburg is Germany’s sunniest city and holds the country’s peak temperature record.

The city, founded in the year 1120, was built to foster free trade (Freiburg means “free town” in German) and historically has been more receptive to new ideas than the rest of the country. It has happily served as a laboratory for researching and applying green ideas.

Freiburg is home to Europe’s largest solar energy research organization, the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems, which has spawned hundreds of local companies employing more than 2,000 people.

High-rises in the downtown area are adorned with shimmering blue solar panels, while silicon cells top terra cotta tiles on residential rooftops at the city’s outskirts. Kiosks throughout the city display current air quality and carbon dioxide levels.

Will other German cities follow?

Government buildings retain their steeples and crenellations as workers upgrade their viscera to modern standards. “When they retrofit, they retrofit to a standard 30 percent higher than the national [efficiency] standard,” Hoppe said.

Outside City Hall, a sign shows the power generated by the rooftop solar array and the total amount of offset emissions. A couple of blocks away, the Best Western displays its energy efficiency grade on a scorecard above its four-star rating plaque at its entrance.

In 1996, Freiburg set a target of cutting its greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent by 2010. It missed this target, but rather than backing off, the municipal council decided to redouble its efforts, aiming to bring CO2 down 50 percent by 2030 and become climate neutral by 2050.

The question now is whether the rest of the country will follow suit.

Under the Energiewende, Germany’s energy transition, the country aims to cut its greenhouse gas emissions 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020. Germany also aims to get 80 percent of its electricity from renewables by 2050 and shut down all its nuclear reactors by 2022.

However, Germany may miss its carbon targets, with only a 20 percent reduction so far and an increase in emissions last year. Whether the national government will take this as a cue to temper its goals or press ahead is still under contention.

And some are skeptical that Freiburg could be a role model for other German cities, given its unique circumstances and history.

Hoppe said Freiburg’s sunshine, density and layout are serendipitous. Some other German cities in the dreary north can’t count on good weather and a robust solar industry to provide jobs, instead relying on abundant lignite coal for electricity and employment.

A city overflowing with bicycles

Much of the country is still reeling from the financial crisis, and some cities are reluctant to invest big in energy, whether it’s using less or generating their own.

Even in a 900-year-old city, officials have to accommodate the shifting whims of residents, betting on which trends are here to stay.

The main train station is a case in point. Freiburg isn’t directly connected by high-speed rail to some of its neighbors like Munich, so cheap intercity bus lines emerged recently to fill the void. Now buses crowd the platform next to the train tracks, so city officials are considering building a bus terminal, but if gas prices go up or a train line is introduced, it will all be for naught.

Across the street, thickets of bicycles overflow from racks. With so many residents riding, the city has struggled to keep up with racks, and even considered a bicycle exclusion zone to protect pedestrians.

Though the city is willing to experiment, its fundamental concerns — housing, employment, jobs and public services — are the same as they are in other cities, whether teeming metropolises or rural hamlets. In addition, plenty of other cities in Germany like Frankfurt and Hamburg are building sustainable neighborhoods and setting their own aggressive carbon targets. As such, some others think Freiburg isn’t all that unique.

“Freiburg is just another German city,” said Morris. “Other cities will have no problem replicating whatever success Freiburg has had.”

The main challenge, then, according to Hoppe, is maintaining continuity in ambition and policy, so that the city remains on track to cut emissions as administrations change.

“We have to change the system while the system is working,” he said. “It’s like surgery on the open heart.”