Interview with Steffi Lemke

“We need even more research!”

Interview with the German Federal minister for the environment Steffi Lemke

Steffi Lemke, Bundesumweltministerin.
© Foto: Stefan Boness/VISUM
German Federal minister for the environment Steffi Lemke

The climate, droughts, crimes against nature: Steffi Lemke has plenty to deal with. In an interview, the German Federal minister for the environment advocates for true openness toward new technologies. And she reveals how she gets by with little plastic in her own life. 


Another summer, another new record: In May, it was already 44 degrees in Spain, and Germany was seeing drought by June. Ms. Lemke, what do you think the cities of tomorrow will need to look like, if they’re going to be fit to live in?

The cities of tomorrow ideally need to be sponge cities. They will need to be full of green spaces and store rainwater in many different forms. Water reservoirs, green roofs and multifunctional spaces are practical ways to ensure water stays in the cities, and considering the consequences of the climate crisis, this will only become more important in the future. Sponge cities can even provide reserves of usable water for dry periods, and they can create a better buffer for handling extreme weather events such as heavy rain or long droughts. They also provide residents with a better quality of life and are great for protecting biodiversity.

We often talk about waste water that needs to be quickly taken away. But will we need more water supplies coming in, so we can use long-distance pipelines to transport water from wet regions to the dry areas of Germany?

In the future, our aim will still be to have a water supply in the locality as much as possible. That means we need to interlink our water supplies more effectively. In some cases, we will need integrated networks or long-distance pipelines to compensate for differences between regions in terms of how much water is available. The first step for us and the German state governments is to examine the actual need for such systems across the country.

Why is it so difficult for green politicians to win voters’ favor, particularly in eastern Germany?

I can only partly agree with this assessment. After all, we’re governing three of the five new federal states with great success. At the same time, I also believe we need to do better. The people of eastern Germany have achieved a great deal over the course of their lives: They fought for their own freedom and democracy. Most of them then had to quickly turn their lives upside down, with many experiencing unemployment, or starting to work for West German bosses; a large proportion of my generation migrated to the West. So far, we as the Greens, but also we as society, haven’t paid enough attention to these experiences.

Has green politics become the politics of high earners − people who don’t need to worry about the costs of heat pumps, solar panels and insulation?

Actually, it’s the opposite: It may seem paradoxical to you, but the Greens have always made policies for people that don’t yet belong to an interest group. That’s young people and future generations that don’t have a voice yet. And that also includes people that are particularly badly affected by the climate crisis and environmental pollution: older people, people in small, poorly insulated apartments without a balcony or garden, people living along roads with particularly heavy traffic and people that are finding it difficult to pay energy prices due to the Russian war of aggression and the fossil fuel energy crisis. This is why we advocate for proactive, socially balanced politics with staggered funding and protection for tenants. Clinging to fossil-powered heating would make life prohibitively expensive for many people.

As a minister for the environment, does your private life reflect your mission of protecting the environment?

In my personal life, I manage very well. I still live in Dessau and I’m happy to be so close to nature. I generally commute by train from Dessau to Berlin.

How do you yourself handle the issue of packaging?

I try to avoid unnecessary packaging as much as possible. For everyday use, I have a reusable bottle that I fill with tap water. So when I’m traveling, I don’t have to rely on single-use plastic bottles. And in my office, I have a water jug. When I go shopping, I take my backpack or a bag with me.

Plastic production worldwide has doubled in the past 20 years. At a UN conference of 175 member states held in Paris in June, you urged for this production to be curbed. Is that the way forward: recycling plus reduction?

Plastic pollution has reached unprecedented levels worldwide. Without concentrated global efforts and internationally binding limits, this pollution will continue to increase. At the moment, the UN member states are working on a legally binding agreement against plastic waste, which will be signed in 2025. I’m delighted about that, and I’m doing everything in my power to support this agreement. All plastics are made from chemicals that can potentially harm people’s health and the environment. In 2022, Germany joined a group of ambitious states that is campaigning to protect our natural resources. We want to make the production and use of plastic more sustainable, create a global circular economy for plastics and ensure that plastic waste is handled in an environmentally friendly way. In short, improving recycling across the world is important, but we can’t just combat plastic pollution through recycling alone.  

What obstacles do you foresee at an international level?

Working toward a global agreement against plastic waste comes with many challenges: There are over 1,650 participants involved from 169 countries and the EU, as well as 300 monitoring organizations, and the deadline that was set is very tight — just in terms of the formalities involved, a negotiation process of this scale is extremely difficult. I’m very pleased that the negotiating committee in the second negotiating session (INC-2) in Paris showed they can reach collective agreements together on this subject. Some sticking points are expected, including the extent to which the individual measures of the agreement are binding, the interpretation and enforcement of the expanded responsibilities for manufacturers, the question of possibly restricting plastic production and the question of financing.

Which measures are the most urgent?

Our oceans are crucially important to our climate system. They’re areas of phenomenal biodiversity, they’re food sources and yet they are currently hugely polluted with plastic waste. One of the main issues here is the unsustainable use of packaging materials with short life cycles that get into the oceans via rivers. The international agreement on reducing the plastic problem must serve as a worldwide tool for solving countless challenges. Specifically, I believe it’s crucial to have strict obligations across the world that apply to all countries. When it comes to sustainable production and consumption, product design and increasing circularity, for example, the required measures should be put in place at the start and middle of the life cycle. What’s more, we need to build up the global capacities that a true circular economy will require. For example, corporations that operate internationally and sell their products in plastic packaging worldwide must be brought to task a great deal more. They need to ensure their packaging doesn’t end up in the ocean after use.

Numerous Fraunhofer teams are working to make plastics usable for longer, improve recycling systems and develop new biobased alternative materials. In what areas can this research support your work?

We need even more research to make our overall approach to plastic more sustainable. Biobased alternatives must not come at the cost of food production or biodiversity. That’s why I believe we should focus on potentially using by-products from agriculture that can’t be used for any other high-value purposes. When it comes to recycling, I believe there is potential for optimization in the areas of recyclate quality, tracing and sorting technologies, and evaluating alternative methods. I also think a great deal of research is required around the much-discussed issue of chemical decomposition processes − both in regard to technologies and how we evaluate efficiency, and in terms of the energy footprint and the quantities of pollution generated.

How can politicians and researchers collaborate so that scientific solutions are put into practice more quickly?

Through direct dialogue, for example. Without independent research by universities, higher education institutes and research institutes like the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft, knowledge- and fact-based policymaking would be completely impossible. I can’t praise researchers and scientists highly enough for their accomplishments. We would be well-advised to harness their work and consider it in our own policy-making.

How do you feel about the idea of openness to new technologies? Do you think it’s a fig leaf being used to protect the industry, or is it actually the way we will solve future issues?

I don’t have anything against the concept. Unfortunately, people often misuse this phrase to bring technologies into the debate that are obsolete, expensive, inefficient or won’t be affordable in the foreseeable future — with the aim of keeping those technologies alive. That’s often not in the best interest of our citizens, and yet is sold as supposed freedom. If properly understood, this concept would help create a situation where the technologies that prevail were those that best help us achieve our climate protection targets, while also allowing for maximum financial viability and not triggering any other environmental issues. This means that truly being open to new technologies requires us to take a reality check and do a serious technology impact assessment.

It’s been a long time since anything other than the climate and the war made the headlines: Do you feel that there’s a lack of attention for the other environmental issues?

Not at all. After all, the world is much more complicated than some exaggerated comments in the debate might suggest. The climate crisis is putting our ecosystems at risk. At the same time, these ecosystems can make a huge contribution to solving the issue, as a form of natural climate protection. And unfortunately, the war in Ukraine is causing massive environmental pollution that the people there are feeling already: contaminated soil, air pollution, water contamination due to events such as the Kakhovka dam blast. And there’s the danger of nuclear catastrophe at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant hanging over everything.

The problems are enormous, and the German Federal Ministry for the Environment has one of the smallest budgets at 2.4 billion euros. Is the German minister of finance Christian Lindner saving money in the wrong places?

The basic budget for the German Federal Ministry for the Environment is one of the few that has remained at an almost constant level. That’s a good sign, as cutbacks are being made everywhere else − often dramatic ones. And our plan for natural climate protection is in line to receive more money than ever before, with 4 billion euros in financing set to come from the Climate and Transformation fund by 2026.

Natural climate protection constitutes your biggest project. The first measures will be put in place this summer. What’s happening there?

In mid-July, we launched the first funding guidelines for natural climate protection in rural regions and in companies. With these guidelines, we’re reaching a range of important stakeholders that can help restore and better preserve nature’s own climate protection functions. Other funding guidelines will be added in the coming months on capturing and storing CO2 in peat lands, floodplains and forests. Apart from that, in October, a competence center for natural climate protection will be launched to help quickly and effectively implement the funding initiatives laid out in the Action Plan on Nature-based Solutions for Climate and Biodiversity across the board.

You previously worked as a mail carrier. Who would you like to write a few personal words to today, if you could drop them a line?

I’m delighted that I receive so many letters from schoolchildren in my role as minister for the environment − they have very specific questions about protecting the environment and nature, but also suggest solutions. Unfortunately, I often just don’t have enough time to answer them in detail and exchange ideas.