Local differences and new social costs: from the neighbourhoods of Berlin to geopolitics and to the pursuit of an approach to ensure a socially fair ecological transition in the unpublished survey of Lorenzo Monfregola. 

“My partner and I have no car, we use public means to move, which makes us quite ecological. But if we ever buy a car, it will surely not be an electric one. I don’t know why, but I don’t like this story of electric cars.”

This is what we hear from Simone R., 35, who lives at Marzahn North, an urban area that makes up the outermost north-east suburbs of Berlin, at the margins of the suburban Marzahn-Hellersdorf district and on the border with the Brandenburger Land.
Marzahn North is known for the huge concrete buildings of the Plattenbau and its population is mostly made up of what used to be called white proletarians. One out of four inhabitants of Marzahn North lives on the minimum long-term unemployment subsidies known as Hartz IV, and more than 40% of children aged 0 to 6 are members of households that depend on such subsidies.

Marzahn North is different from a banlieue, though. The streets are clean, so clean that they seem to have been emptied. And everything is in order, in such perfect order as to seem motionless. The district is the emblem of both the successes and the challenges of the German social state. Marzahn North is the ideal place to get a taste of some instinctive hostility towards the Energiewende, the great German “energy transition.”

“This environmental transition is making everything more expensive. You realize, for example, from the power bill,” says Simone. “I really can’t say how it works, but I think it is the Energiewende that brings prices up. However, everything is set. We, as ordinary citizens, will be thrown into this change and will have to live inside it. This is it.”

While Germany strives to become the avant-garde of the European Green Deal and to change from the first in ranking in globalization to a champion of green neo-productivism, the periphery of the ecological German-style transition spreads from Marzahn North.

This is a complex entity, strewn between the big city and the outskirts, dispersed unevenly within the urban and regional set-up, as well as within the labour world and access to consumptions. A periphery that lives on the margins of the broad consent of the German population – 80%, according to surveys – on an overall environmental transition.

Two options exist: either the German Green Deal periphery is soon reabsorbed, or it can suffer new complex tensions, particularly in case of further dissemination of the Energiearmut phenomenon, the “energy poverty” that affects those that spend more than 10% of their revenues solely for home energy.
After all, the burst of the Gilets Jaunes protest in France in 2018, originating from an increase of fuel prices, provided a very clear warning to environmentalists and political parties across Europe: an ecological transition without social protection is harmful.

Ambitious Goals

Germany has formally ambitious goals to counter climate change and comply with the international agreements of the Cop in Paris first and of the Cop26 in Glasgow. After the German Constitutional Court ruled, in April of this year, that the plans of the Merkel IV government were poor with respect to the rights of new generations, a new Klimaschutzgesetz (climate protection law) was passed in August.

Germany, the main polluting country in Europe, intends to have 65% less CO2 emissions by 2030 compared to the 1990 values, and set the achievement of the complete climate neutrality target at 2045. By 2038, but much more likely by 2030, all coal power plants shall be shut down, and the last nuclear power plant shall be stopped by the end of 2022.

The role of renewable energies in Germany is still limited compared to overall energy consumption. Such sources as solar or wind energy currently cover 19.6% of the overall German energy requirements, but growth is obvious considering that such value was still set at 6% in 2004. Progress is most evident in powerproduction: renewable energies generated 45% of power in 2020. The target for 2030 is now to cover 65% of global power production with renewable energies.

Home heating is another story: renewable energies (mostly district heating) now account for 15% (2020 data), while gas (48%) and gas-oil (25%) still take the lion share in heating.

There are, indeed, big differences among the individual federal States in terms of which energy sources are used for heating, something that largely depends on regional factors. More than 90% of the gas used in Germany is, in fact, imported, and half of that from Russia.

If primary energy sources are considered, renewable energies currently account for 17% of German consumptions, far less than oil (34%) and gas (27%), but more than coal (16%) and nuclear power (6%). In this respect, the goal is to reduce primary energy consumption via energy efficiency. Germany was close to hitting the target to consume 20% less primary energy in 2020 vs. 2008, but stopped at 18.7%. The target is now to consume 30% less primary energy by 2030 and 50% less by 2050 (again vs. 2008).

These are specific targets, which also called for taxes and duties to discourage using non-ecological technologies and rather provide economic subsidies to green technologies. The best known examples include “energy” taxes on fuels and power costs.

Meanwhile, on June 23 the German government decided to launch a new 8 billion EUR emergency programme for climate transition. The intention is to use these funds to promote the decarbonization of industry, green hydrogen, building reconstruction to improve energy efficiency, environment-friendly public and private mobility, and sustainable agriculture.

Where the Green win and where they lose

How does this translate into real life?

At Elsterwerdaer Platz I meet Pascal Grothe, a 30-year old politician of the Grünen (Green) party. Voting for the Chamber of deputies of the city-state of Berlin is a few days ahead and Grothe is campaigning as a candidate for the MarzahnHellersdorf 4 seat, in the south of the district, which shows deep differences compared to the Plattenbau.

“There is a difference between the detached houses typical of the southern part of the district and the big apartment blocks. However, big apartment blocks are also fit for energy efficiency projects, and some are already under way,” says Grothe. “True, it is easier, for example, to use the funds allocated to fit solar panelsindependently on detached houses to save on energy, as well as to set up a charging station for electric cars. However there are also optimal projects for big apartment blocks and for public charging stations, which only need someone willing to implement them.”

Behind Grothe and his stall there is an electric car-sharing car park, something new for the Berlin suburbs outside the Ring, the S-Bahn ellipse that actually defines the inside and the outside of the city. “If the downtown is to take profit from the environmental transition and the mobility transition, the suburbs are crucial,” he says. “Many people that travel downtown by car everyday come from here. And at the same time the Energiewende is a great opportunity to enhance decentralization. Think, for example, about citizens co-owning a wind energy facility. Similar decentralized projects generate value for all kinds of communities, wherever they are located. On these issues, we of the Green party have a clear vision for the future, a vision that could annoy those whose interests are affected, as shown by the misinformation campaigns performed against our party and on ecological transition itself.”

On September 26 Pascal Grothe was not elected in the Berlin parliament; the seat was easily won by the CDU candidate. And while the position of a community on ecological transition cannot be interpreted exhaustively in the light of the success of a party like the  Grünen, there is still an impressive difference in Berlin between the votes obtained by the Green party in the six suburban precincts of Marzahn-Hellersdorf, ranging from 5 to 9%, and those obtained about 10 kilometres away, in the downtown neighbourhoods of Friedrichshain- Kreuzberg or Prenzlauer Berg, where the Green candidates often won seats in the local parliament with votes above 30% and 40%.

Ecology, marginalization, and politics

While car and scooter sharing services (in most cases providing electric vehicles) are being strongly promoted outside the Ring, Marzahn North is still far from becoming the business venue of major providers in this sector. This is a significant detail. On the way to Marzahn several services only offer a tiny bay to parkor take a vehicle. This bay is in the car park of Ikea in Licthenberg, because this is the only place where lots of Berliners from downtown come for shopping.

And yet, Marzahn North itself is the seat of an Erasmus + educational project on the issue of climate change for adults in disadvantaged suburban areas. The project, called “Change the Change. Climate Change as a Challenge for Adult Education,” involves four European capitals, and is implemented, for Berlin, by the Weltgewandt e. V. institute.

The Berliner project manager Sophia Bickhardt explains: “We search for ways to integrate the issue of climate change into the education of adults, who tend to be quite reluctant in this respect, as we can see at Marzahn North. Starting from history and from climate change as a scientific reality, we also wish to discuss the relation between social and environmental justice, to see if and where conflicts are in place. At Marzahn North social issues are key to record the interest of people. However, we do not figure out an educational approach that tells people what they should think; we want to submit and outline the issue, then let local adults discuss it with an interactive and engaging approach. The suburbs are already suffering from a widespread feeling of social powerlessness; thus education should avoid all forms of social paternalism”.

One of the strongest parties in the northern part of Marzahn has been, historically, the Linke, the radical left wing, which has been enjoying long-time support as a heritage of the post-socialist nostalgia and of new social claims. The programme of the Linke today is strongly oriented towards a non-regressive ecological transition, however bound by an almost anti-capitalist approach. There is a big difference between this approach and those of the Green, who have been striving to take the floor, particularly in the realpolitik of governance, as a new generation for the state management of an eco-modernist transition expanding and generalizing the rules of green productivity in co-operation with companies and investors.

Björn Tielebein, 38, the Linke candidate at the Berlin elections for the Marzahn-Hellersdorf 1 precinct, of which Marzahn North is part, explains: “I have always lived at Marzahn-Hellersdorf. You have to ask yourself where people are affected by the Energiewende. Here people rely so much on subsidies; the public transport issue is crucial, also from the environmental viewpoint, and there is still a lot to do in this respect.”

Tielebein explains that “those that live in plain  homes here still have structural problems at participating in the ecological transition. One example is the independent fitting of photovoltaic cells on the balcony for those that live in the apartment blocks and do not want to wait for the building owners to take steps: in theory anyone can do so, but no one does, due to baseline costs (a few hundreds of euros) and to several technical or bureaucratic hurdles. Of course, we can say: just wait for a while and you will have the chance, also in the suburbs. But the main question is whether meanwhile different population groups, farther and farther apart from each other, will develop with the ecological transition, moving at different speeds and enjoying different opportunities.”

At the elections of September 26, Tielebein did not win a seat in the parliament of the Berlin city-state either. With about 40% abstentions in the precinct, the radical left wing struggled with the SPD and they both cannibalized one another. Finally, both parties got more than 20% but the primacy was then gained by the candidate of the radical right-wing party Alternative für Deutschland.

Marzahn North thus became one of the parts of the former eastern Germany where AfD managed to take root, despite significant loss of consensus.  The positions of the ultra-right wing on environmental issues range between the ultra-populist criticism of the Green Deal and the denial of the anthropic origin of climate change. The party tries to gain consensus by describing environmentalist positions as a typical outcome of elitism.

Such tactical approach may define the near future of broad segments of the European right wing: combine ecological change with immigration as a new battling ground for neo-sovreigntist movements and liberal-universalist policies. After all, this perspective already appeals to some of the inhabitants of Marzahn North. As you talk to people at the tram stop or in the Kneipen, you find that some seem perfectly in line with the majority of Germans supporting the environmental transition, while others strongly and angrily reject environmentalism, which they perceive as an attitude of the privileged members of society that apparently have “nothing real to worry about.”

The cost of the energy transition

Professor Claudia Kemfert is the head of the Department of Energy, Traffic, and the Environment of the DIW (the German institute for economic research) of Berlin, one of the Country’s main research centres.

When asked whether there is a risk that the German ecological transition may not be strong enough from the social viewpoint, she answers: “A smart energy transition can surely be socially fair, but only if it is designed in a socially well-balanced way.” But, she adds, “it is strongly imbalanced now. For example, industry is largely exempted from paying the Eeg surtax, whereas families are charged the whole tax.”

The Eeg surtax is part of the Erneuerbare-Energien-Gesetz (the law on renewable energies of 2000) and provides for power network operators to pay a fixed and guaranteed price to protect jobs. The operators sell power at lower prices on the power exchange and are then compensated for the Eeg surtax included in the final power price. The Eeg is now 6.5 cents per kilowatt hour and accounts for approximately one-fifth of the price of power in Germany that, with 31.94 cents per kilowatt hour (in 2021), is the highest in the EU.

“Another example,” adds Kemfert, “is that the price of CO2 was increased and, at the same time, the tax relief for commuters was also increased. The former is a burden for low-income workers, while the latter mostly favours higher-income workers. With the decision to increase the price of CO2, it would have been better to introduce a Pro-Kopf-Klimaprämie (annual per-capita climate premium), which would have provided a relief to low-income households in particular.”

Charging the costs of transition to the citizens, instead of companies and industries, is not sustainable in the long term.

The consequences of electric cars

The energy transition clearly does not only affect citizens as energy consumers, users of public transport, or car drivers. Jobs are also a huge, and crucial, issue.

While the so-called Jobwende (job transition) was addressed in time in multiple ways in Germany, one point is clear: certain sectors will benefit from the ecological transition, whereas others will have to reorganize themselves significantly. Considering the role of renewable energies, employees in the sector’s companies totalled 299,700 in 2020, a much larger headcount compared, for example, to the coal sector, which had approximately 19,500 employees in the same year.

Zionskirchstraße / Fehrbelliner Straße / Veteranenstraße, Berlin, Germany

But the real batting ground is obviously the automotive industry, which drives the German economy. Automotive companies generated a turnover of as much as 436 billion EUR in 2019, with 833,000 people employed directly in the industry in the same year. However, in addition to these, there is a large and strong automotive value chain, which includes spare part, chemical, textile, mechanical engineering, steel, and aluminium industries (as well as dealers, car repair shops, and other services). Electrification in the automotive business is and will be one of the greatest industrial processes in German history.

VolkswagenMercedes, and Audi launch new projects every month for cheaper or more efficient e-mobile batteries, in a continuous media-based competition with companies like the American manufacturer Tesla.

One million electric/hybrid cars were circulating on German roads in July 2021, which accounted for 13.5% of new car registrations in 2020 in Germany (vs. 8.4% in 2019).

The share of electric cars vs. the total number of cars circulating on German roads is still very low, though it grew from 0.5% in 2019 to 1.2% in 2020. The federal government and the manufacturers subsidize the purchase of electric-only cars with bonuses of up to 9,000 EUR, and of plug-in hybrid cars with bonuses of up to 6,750 EUR. Petrol cars are still cost-effective, but something is changing in this respect too.

Rene Schnur is a Volkswagen dealer with a long-time experience, who works at a showroom of the big German group at Marzahn-Hellersdorf. I meet him between customers, at his desk. Schnur also speaks about the limits that are still in place in the suburbs when trying to access a charging station, and explains that anyway one out of four cars he sells right now is electric or hybrid, and the upward trend is bound to continue.

“Of course, some people say ‘no, I still want a diesel-petrol car,’ some are still suspicious,” he says, “but the future is for electric cars. The future is leasing electric cars for some time, because a used electric car hardly makes sense, and because the battery technology evolves so quickly as to make leasing the best choice. The market will shift towards leasing, but with a growing focus on electric cars.”

In September 2021, the government agency Bundesnetzagentur calculated that there were 40,257 charging stations for electric cars, albeit not equally distributed across the German territory. Growth is constant and relies on public and private projects. The target is to have 1 million charging stations by 2030. Some hope that the electric cars circulating on German roads will total 10 million by the same year.

The consequences of the ecological transition on jobs and on the different supply chains are still to be defined, but some upheavals are under way.

Klaus Dörre, Professor of Sociology of labour, industry, and economy at the Jena University, has been studying developments on the German labour market for some time. “The consequences are complicated,” he says. “Our study shows that in Thuringia, for example, more than half of the sector’s supply companies have no strategic skills to cope with the production-energy change.”

However, some win and some lose. While end-product companies in Leipzig, Zwickau, or Braunschweig benefit from the shift to electric mobility, those in Kassel, Salzgitter, or Untertürkheim tend to lag behind.

The more you track back procurement chains, in fact, the tougher the future looks. This forces many people and workers potentially affected by the production transition to entrust their claims to a political party that denies man’s responsibility for climate change and still predicts a rosy future for combustion engines.

Look, for example, at what is going on in the “coal or lignite mining regions,” he continues. “In Brandenburg, 44% of the workers voted for the radical right-wing party AfD, and many more did so in Lusatia. But some countertrends are also in place. The last collective bargaining round in local public transport was supported in 25 cities by the solidarity committees of the movement for climate, and the trade union in charge, Ver.Di, defined its national collective bargaining also as ‘bargaining for climate’. Some in the automotive industry are also promoting alliances with the movement for climate.”

The scenario described by Dörre points out to two trends: one is the ability of the trade unions to create synergies with environmentalist movements, which also seems to be able to create a syncretism joining together the ecological and the social issue, thus merging two courses into a single one. The other trend is the one in which, for various reasons, these synergies are not created and the labour world breaks up and falls apart reaching those that deny the climate crisis, often in a disorganized way.

The geopolitical transition

The rooting of AfD in eastern Germany goes hand in hand with several aspects of the geopolitical side of the energy transition. The German Energiewende, just like the European Green Deal, should develop within the framework of harsher and harsher conflicts between the American and Chinese super-powers. However, in the specific case of the German sovereigntist movement, it is worth stressing the bond between the anti-green populist right wing and the anti-liberal democracies of central and eastern Europe (such as the Hungarian government in office).

In more general terms, the tendency of part of the German sovereigntist movement to seek alliances in Europe and Asia is also related to the wish of high-energy players, like Russia, to curb the acceleration of the ecological transition of Berlin as much as possible in order to gain time to reorganize their domestic economy, so far still largely dependent on gas and oil exports.

It is not a mere chance, then, that opinions are split on such a hot issue as the North Stream 2infrastructure, the Russian-German gas pipeline with no appeal to Washington: at one end there are the German sovereigntists, as opposed to the strongest supporters of the environmentalist movement in Germany on the other.

The Green party and the Fridays for Future movement themselves are both strongly against the North Stream, which they see as an anti-environmental work. The German institutions and industrial groups, in line with the current cautious strategy of Berlin with respect to energy geopolitics issues, still stand in the middle, instead, with respect to such issues as the import of Russian gas: the intention is, on one hand, to give up the specific energy source, while on the other a buffering period is considered, in which the energy-based relation with Moscow should ensure abundant provisions for about one more decade (also, and particularly, in order to cover the abandonment of nuclear power and coal on a temporary basis).

Andreas Goldthau, professor of Public policies at the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy of the Erfurt University and Research Group Leader at the Institute for research on transformation sustainability in Potsdam (Iass), explains: “A shared benefit of engaging in a specific journey towards climate neutrality is clearly a greater domestic production of energy. But it also means that energy systems will have to be more integrated.” According to Goldthau, “this will imply that power networks spread across borders, the use of green hydrogen infrastructures and integrated storage systems, and a much closer common market for energy. This scenario also includes non-EU countries, such as Ukraine, Norway, or Morocco. In short, the European energy system will be more regional, but energy independence will not be the final status of transformation.”

Indeed, though, such transformation will change the traditional balances of energy geopolitics over the next few years. As Goldthau notes, “the decline of oil and gas demand will inevitably lead to challenge the existing business model of fossil fuel exporters. It will be important to keep a close look on petrol states, including those very close to Europe, and ensure their “soft landing” once the economy is based on carbon neutrality. Otherwise, these countries may experience social disruptions impacting on Europe’s security.

Although the more or less global environmentalist mindset is perceived as bearer of a new universalism that will only have to expand as a perspective shared by all mankind, its journey will be neither easy nor linear, because the rush to become green productivity champions is less and less cooperative and more and more competitive, first and foremost to access the raw materials of the future: rare metals and other critical raw materials.

“The global energy transition will sweep away some of the old energy policies, but will also create new rivalries, because energy technologies will move to the heart of geo-economic power struggles,” explains Goldthau. “The transition will see winners and losers, and this calls for smart global transition policies, as well as a review of domestic and collective security. The energy transition will not be ‘the end of the story’: it is crucial to counter the risk of climate change, but we should be serious about it. It will not bring global peace.”

Complexity and confusion

At Barnimplatz, Marzahn North, on an early autumn day, when the summer sun no longer makes the concrete apartment blocks look nicer, some small talk is enough to understand how much confusion still surrounds environmental issues.

A small-scale event with stalls and a music show is under way in the square. Sabine Behrens, 62, a social worker for many years, says: “I think that, facing the environmental transition, many in this neighbourhood mostly see a risk of additional costs. Many people here make ends meet with the Hartz IV subsidy, sometimes they are second-generation Hartz IV recipients, people that receive the subsidy after being born in families that also receive it.”

Sabine is willing to go deeper into the matter: “I personally do not know whether there is anything beyond solar and wind energy. I want to study this carefully, perhaps these two energy sources will not be enough, I know that wind blades are already harshly criticized. It is important to take quick measures for climate, we have already passed the zero hour. But we also need to be careful not to use up all energy, or make it too expensive. I don’t know what they will do with nuclear power, whether they can truly eliminate it.”

Any conversation among laymen on the issue of the environmental transition soon highlights the awareness of facing tough and non-simplifiable issues. This is why sharing these issues in political-electoral messages is one of the greatest challenges in the ecological transition. The supporters of the Energiewende themselves often need to use actually moral, if not moralist, paradigms in order to contain the complexity of the factors at stake within simple formulas. Sometimes the outcome looks counter-productive and promotes an equally emotional counter-narration based on misleading and actively anti-scientific assumptions.

At Barnimplatz there is also Sabrina G., who is barely 40, yet already a grandmother. She works at a school canteen and says: “Certain politicians are too keen on environmental protection. If you look at past history, you realize that today’s climate cannot be solely the result of man’s pollution; there were other times in the past when the climate got colder, and a few centuries ago it got warmer.”

In her words you perceive the typical denial of accountability for the impact of man’s activities on climate change. “Then, when I read on billboards ‘No cars is better’,” continues Sabrina, “it doesn’t really make sense to me. My son, for example, must be taken to school by car.”

Sabrina’s daughter, Anja, 22, adds: “This environmental issue is too stressful, there are so many silly and unnecessary discussions. For example with “fewer cars” our society would fail and there would even be more problems than now. I am not involved in politics, I am not interested, but this is what I think. There are many other things to do for this neighbourhood.”

When I ask Anja what the neighbourhood would need right now, a third lady, an older one, her grandmother, joins in and says:  “Mehr Geld!, More money!».

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