The Environment

Germany Table of Contents

Unification abruptly transformed the Federal Republic from a country with a solid, even excellent, environmental record to one facing a whole range of ecological disasters--the result of the GDR's decades-long abuse of its natural habitat. The estimated costs of restoring the environment in the new Länder grew as information became available about how much damage it had sustained. Expert estimates of from DM130 billion to DM220 billion (for value of the deutsche mark--see Glossary) in the spring of 1990 had increased to a possible DM400 billion two years later.

The two Germanys differed greatly in their approaches toward protecting the environment. Beginning in the late 1960s, ecological concerns had become increasingly common in West Germany, as was repeatedly demonstrated in opinion polls. A 1990 poll, for example, found that more than 70 percent of those West Germans questioned held that environmental protection should be the highest priority for the government and the economy.

In East Germany, environmental activism was minimal. For decades the GDR had followed standard Soviet practices in regard to industrial and urban development, scrimping on or avoiding entirely key infrastructure investments such as water-treatment facilities and air-pollution abatement. The comprehensive and intelligent Socialist Environmental Management Act of 1968 was poorly implemented and, more important, largely ignored after the late 1970s when East German authorities decided that Western economic growth could only be matched by sacrificing the environment. This policy was followed throughout the 1980s.

West German environmental legislation initially lagged behind that of East Germany. For the first decades after World War II, West Germans were concerned with reconstructing their country and its economy. Early efforts to deal with the environment met with little interest. The attainment of widespread prosperity and the coming to maturity of a new generation with so-called postmaterialist values led to an interest in protecting the environment. The late 1960s and the early 1970s saw the passage of several dozen laws relating to the environment, the most important of which were the Waste Disposal Law and the Emission Protection Law, both passed in 1972. In 1974 the Federal Environmental Agency was established. The new legislation established the principles of Germany's environmental policies, still in effect in the mid-1990s: preventing pollution by monitoring new products and projects; requiring the polluter, rather than society at large, to pay damages; and relying on cooperation among government, industry, and society to protect the environment.

The oil crisis of 1973-74 and the ensuing worldwide recession led to a tapering off of environmental activism on the part of the West German government and the political parties. However, numerous citizens' groups formed and pressed for increased environmental protection (see Citizens' Initiative Associations, ch. 7). The accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in the United States in 1979 also spurred the growth of such groups. Elements of the environmental movement formed a political party, the Greens (Die Grünen) in 1980, which in 1983 won seats in the Bundestag (see The Greens, ch. 7). Of greatest importance were domestic ecological problems such as pollution in the Baltic Sea and the Rhine and Main rivers and damage to the country's forests from acid rain.

During the early 1980s, concerns about the environment became widespread in the general population, and all political parties were forced to address them. These concerns were raised still higher by a series of ecological disasters in 1986: the accident at the nuclear plant at Chernobyl in the Soviet Union and serious spills of dangerous chemicals into the Rhine at Basel in Switzerland. Immediately after the Chernobyl disaster, Chancellor Helmut Kohl created the Ministry of the Environment, Nature Conservation, and Reactor Safety.

Stricter environmental controls led to marked improvements in air quality. Between 1966 and 1988, sulfur dioxide emissions in West Germany fell by one-third. Dust levels, which stood at 3.2 million tons in 1980, fell to 550,000 tons by the late 1980s. The quality of river water also improved. The Rhine and Main rivers, nearly "biologically dead" in the 1960s, supported several species of fish by the early 1990s. The Ruhr River, located in the heart of the country's largest manufacturing region, became the cleanest "industrial" river in West Germany after the construction of a series of dams and the reforestation of slag heaps and wastelands.

At unification, the ecological situation in the new Länder was quite different. Because 95 percent of industrial wastewater had been discharged without treatment and 32 percent of households were not connected to sewerage systems, more than 40 percent of the rivers of the new Länder and 24 percent of their lakes were totally unfit as sources of drinking water; only 3 percent of their rivers and 1 percent of their lakes were considered ecologically healthy. Some rivers had pollution levels 200 times higher than that permitted by European Community (EC--see Glossary) environmental standards. The widespread use of brown coal had resulted in record emissions of sulfur dioxide, which rose by one-fifth between 1980 and 1988. Moreover, decades of brown coal strip mining had left some eastern areas resembling a lunar landscape. Other areas had been contaminated by the mining and processing of uranium, primarily to service the Soviet nuclear sector.

Although East German per capita waste production had been much lower than that of West Germany, the East German government had negotiated away this advantage and jeopardized ecological security in the bargain. In the 1980s, the GDR had earned hard currency by importing and carelessly disposing of millions of tons of West Germany's trash, exacerbating soil degradation and groundwater contamination. Some 60 percent of industrial waste had been deposited without controls. Of about 11,000 landfill sites, more than 10,000 were uncontrolled. With more than 28,000 potentially hazardous sites, the cleanup effort required in the east appears comparable in scope to the Superfund campaign in the United States.

The Cold War had also damaged East Germany's environment and to a lesser extent that of West Germany. For nearly five decades, millions of troops from the East and the West had made intensive use of the territory of the two Germanys as military bases and training sites. Cleanup costs were estimated in the hundreds of millions of dollars. In recognition of this situation, the United States Department of Defense allocated funds to repair environmental damage in the Federal Republic. In contrast, Soviet and later Russian forces, although they reportedly occupied as much as 2.5 percent of East German territory, were paid to leave the country and did so without compensating Germany for the extreme environmental damage they had caused.

With unification in 1990, the new Länder became subject to the environmental laws of the Federal Republic and the EC, although both sets of laws were to be applied gradually. Standards in some areas, such as emissions control, would not come into effect until after 2000. The ecological situation in the new Länder soon changed for the better, although much of the improvement stemmed less from the imposition of new standards than from the closing, for economic reasons, of outmoded plants that had caused much pollution. Projects such as constructing new air, water, and soil treatment plants and modernizing old ones, reducing the amounts of brown coal consumed, and cleaning up dump sites will gradually undo decades of ecological damage. Some environmental policies in the new Länder , like those in the old Länder , are preventive in nature. Because of the irresponsible practices of the former GDR, however, a great number are also restorative.

Serious environmental problems continue to confront Germany. Despite the efforts begun in the early 1970s, the "death of the forest" (Waldsterben ) caused by acid rain continues. In 1992 about 68 percent of the country's trees had suffered significant ecological damage. Forests in northwestern Germany had suffered the least damage from acid rain, those in the south and east the most. Chemical emissions from automobiles are a serious cause of this problem. Only since 1993, however, have new vehicles been required to have catalytic converters. Germany's farmers also cause much pollution through intensive use of fertilizers. Because they are a powerful interest group, it has been difficult to pass legislation to regulate their farming methods.

Nuclear power presents a special dilemma for Germany. In western Germany, support for that power source, which in the mid-1990s supplied about 35 percent of the country's energy requirement, has fluctuated depending upon international events and crises. As of the mid-1990s, however, there appeared little chance that any more nuclear plants would be constructed in the near future.

Upon unification, the Federal Republic inherited East Germany's two nuclear power plants, which had been built to Soviet specifications. Decommissioning these plants would increase reliance on polluting coal-fired power plants. Despite this prospect, the likelihood of a Chernobyl-like disaster prompted the shutdown of these unsafe nuclear power plants. As of 1995, new, more ecologically friendly power plants are being built in the new Länder to replace nuclear power and brown coal-fired plants.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress