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Boris Palmer

Architect of a Non-exploitative Economic Miracle


Architect of a Non-exploitative Economic Miracle


Who says economic and development and the environment must always be at odds? After being re-elected last October Boris Palmer, mayor of the German city of Tübingen, is out to prove that the future is green.

Architect of a Non-exploitative Economic Miracle

By Yi-huan Du
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 569 )

Boris Palmer, mayor of the German city of Tübingen since 2007, has performed miracles in reconciling environmental protection and economic development.

In his eight years in office, tax revenues have doubled, employment has grown 12 percent, the population has grown 10 percent, per capita carbon dioxide output has dropped 18 percent, and green energy production has grown tenfold. Over 40 percent of Tübingen's energy supply is now derived from green energy, all without exploiting a single plot of green land.

This remarkable transformation has made Palmer one of Germany's best-known personalities. A member of the Green Party since university, Palmer was elected to the state parliament of Baden-Württemberg at the tender age of 29, followed by election as mayor of Tübingen at 34. Now 42, he is one of his country's rapidly rising political figures.

In person, Palmer lacks any of the pretentions some might presume go along with his status as a mayor. Easily breaking into hearty laughter, his earnest gaze makes him seem more like a regular university student than the mayor of a successful city. Casually attired in a suit, he wears it in such a way that somehow it makes him even more approachable.

When the conversation comes around to him being named as one of GQ Germany's best-dressed celebrities, he laughs and says, "I love that title!"

Whether discussing environmental protection, energy conservation, or running for office, Palmer loves to start his sentences with "In the long run" – perhaps due to his broad perspective.

He asserts that this is the secret to his success; that taking a macrocosmic view keeps him from succumbing to the temptations of short-term interests. He stresses that, whether now or at some point in the future, environmental policy must be undertaken, that now that the technology is here, economic cost should not be an issue, and that the remaining difficulties are mainly political in nature.

Palmer reckons that the political issues stem from politicians underestimating the intelligence of their constituents, as well as their reluctance to pursue long-term solutions, opting instead for short-term populist policies. Palmer asserts that the days when environment protection and economic growth were at odds have long since passed.

Tübingen's miraculous achievements are the best evidence of his assertions. For the story of Boris Palmer's involvement in politics, and how environmental protection and economics can be reconciled, read the following interview:

Q: When you were a student in university, you played a role in the environmental movement. What made you realize the importance of environmental protection?

A: Well, actually I was raised in a family that always thought that the environment is important. My father sold crops, and he taught me that the environment is important; that we can't live without the environment. That's obvious, perhaps, but it's not at the top of everybody's mind. And secondly, in the year 1986, I learned a lot from the Chernobyl catastrophe. And I subscribed to the Green ideals of renewable energy, so I thought we should have something better – that's not that dangerous, and that's not going to ruin the climate. These ideas formed me in my younger age, and that's how I came to politics.

Q: So you were against nuclear power in your youth?

A: Absolutely. Ever since that day. I saw pictures of an exploding power station, and scientists said that would never happen, which was obviously wrong. And as we all know, it happened again – even in Japan – in 2011.

Q: Why did you choose to be a statesman to realize your ideals? Because there are still a lot of people who take a role in the environmental movement, but don't go into "the establishment."

A: Right. And you don't have to. Because it's important what you do for yourself, and what you do with your neighbors and your community. And it's not only politicians that can make a difference.

But on the other hand, I started my political career with practical propositions.

When I was a student, bus service stopped at midnight. And I thought that was ridiculous, because people want to go out at night. Therefore I invented a night bus system that is still running on the schedule I came up with 25 years ago, and it's very popular to this very day.

So I realized that if you have the right ideas, and find the right people, then you can really change things and make a difference. And I thought that is something I wanted to do, and therefore I joined the Green Party and did some work in the state parliament of Baden-Württemberg. And when there was an opportunity to be the candidate for the Greens in 2006 for the mayor of Tübingen, I seized the opportunity and I won the public vote.

Q: You mentioned in your speech your emphasis on transparency. Why do you think this quality is so important?

A: In my perception, politicians often don't dare to say what they think is right. Because they assume people won't understand them, they will oppose certain ideas, that they won't support new ideas – that they'll stick to the old ones – and also that old industries are too powerful so you can't change the status quo without making them your enemy. And for that reason they're trying to find a way around all these problems.

So in many cases you don't really get to know what politicians want, because they think that will harm their chances in the next election. And that especially applies in German politics, because there is always a party that will put forward populist ideas. So if you say there is something that will cost you money, such as raising the cost of petrol – which is certainly a good idea as far as the environment is concerned – then there will be another party that will promise that 'If you vote for us we won't raise the price of petrol,' and not think about the consequences.

So you always have that problem. And my experience is that, in the long run, people are appalled by that kind of policy; people want to know what you're really after. And in the long run you'll be more successful with that. That's why I think it's about honesty – not the kind of honesty you share with your family, but another type of honesty that I personally prefer in politics. So it's more outspoken, it's direct, and it's fact-based.

Q: So in the long term, you establish an image that makes people believe you.

A: In the long run, people vote for you even if they don't approve of all of your suggestions. If they have the correct impression that you are trustworthy, and that your polices are value-based and fact-based, then they can trust you to make the right decisions. If you vote for a person you don't normally vote for decisions that person is going to make, but you vote for the way the person is going to make decisions. And that is my experience, that that is successful.

Q: In your interview with Talking Germany, you mentioned the transition from nuclear and fossil fuels to renewable energy, which has been called the "German Green Gamble." But you don't think it's a gamble, saying you don't think it's a technical or an economic question, but a political question. Why would you call it a political question?

A: Well, first of all because the technology is available already. Secondly, because it's even economically feasible. There are many technologies that have short payoff periods, like three to five years, and they have still not been implemented because people do not know about them, are not interested, have different priorities… and in the meantime, the planet is warming, and it's warming, and it's warming. And that's why I say it's a political question. If we have the technology available, and if it's economically feasible, it's only policies that are missing.

Q: So, you think, in the long term, that we will have to solve these problems. But some politicians avoid talking about them because they have some bias?

A: Actually, I believe it's only the difference between short-term and long-term policies. In the short run, you might be successful with fossil fuels, and even with subsidizing fossil fuels – many countries around the world still subsidize fossil fuels. But in the long run that will become so costly that you will really lose. And therefore, long-term policies will then involve renewable energies, because it might be more costly up front, but if you calculate the cost over a few decades you will realize that you will be better off. And therefore it's about long-term policies, and politicians who explain to the people that the up-front cost has to be paid to be successful in the long run.

Q: So do you think Tübingen's model can be copied elsewhere in Germany or elsewhere around the world?

A: I don't think it can be copied [exactly] because every city is unique, and conditions are varied. But what I do think is that there are blueprints. So there are things that can be implemented almost anywhere, and that I can take ideas back to Germany from Taiwan that are interesting – like, for example, people can do without cars and use much more efficient motorcycles – that is something that is interesting to me because we don't really have that here in Germany.

And on the other hand, I think that Taiwan can benefit from the idea of switching to a better technology; that is, the electric motorcycle, because that's a zero-emission vehicle, that is very energy efficient, and you could have cleaner air and would be better off switching to that technology. Maybe, again, it's a question of policies, and of convincing industries. I understand that industries so far in Taiwan [have largely been involved in producing] conventional products. So how do you convince them to switch to an economically sound product, and don't lose the competition? But I believe that, in the long run, the old-fashioned combustion engine will be outdated anyway.

Q: So what role do you think government should play in this issue?

A: That's again a dilemma. Because on the one hand we all want to be free, but on the other, if there are no regulations we will kill each other. Because whomever kills the others first takes all the wealth. So that is the dilemma. We need regulation, and what we have to [come up with are] regulations that give the right incentives. For example, energy prices are absolutely vital to new technology, because if you subsidize conventional energy you make it harder for new energies to enter the market, and vice versa.

And sometimes new technologies need a push. In the European Union we have ruled out conventional light bulbs and replaced them with LEDs. And what we saw was that the day that regulation came into force the prices for LEDs [bulbs] plummeted. So [we saw] new regulations, new technologies, and a sharp decline of prices. That illustrates what politics can do, and also which policies we need.

Q: Is this your first visit to Taipei?

A: Yes.

Q: Is there anything about Taipei that strikes you in particular? Do you think Taipei is a "green city"?

A: I haven't really been here long enough to make a judgment on that, so please take this as a comment from a person that has only been here for 24 hours – and that's only a very short time. But still, I have noticed that you have invested a lot of money in greening the city – I've seen many trees and that's unusual – so there must be a policy behind it, as they don't grow by themselves in a city of this size. So somebody has [made the deliberate decision] to plant them. I've also noticed tree-lined boulevards, which is nice to see. And as I also said, the number of motorcycles is impressive – I'd never seen a family of four on one motorcycle before! And of course, I want to climb the Taipei 101 building, because it is of course the tallest "green" building in the world, and a green mayor visiting Taiwan obviously has to visit that building.

Q: Do you have any other advice for Taipei apart from [your observations and encouragement about] motorcycles?

A: Looking at Taiwan, I think that it has great opportunities as far as wind power is concerned. You have a much better situation than we have in Germany – it's an island, with high mountains – and I believe that you could produce a lot of energy from wind turbines in a very short time, and that it should be economically feasible. And again, I believe that since the production of photovoltaic plants are [in place] here, you should be able to apply that as well, as I've observed you get a lot of sunshine. And I believe that photovoltaics (PV) is as feasible here as it is in Germany; in Germany, it is almost the cheapest way to produce electricity for your own home. So I would introduce a policy on the state level to build large wind farms, and encourage people to [install] PV panels on their homes. Those would be the two [suggestions] I have since coming here.

Q: During your [most recent election] campaign you went door to door, talking with people. What made you do that, and how does that benefit your city?

A: Most importantly, I learn a lot about people's ideas. So in discussing these ideas with them, they comment on my suggestions, and I get a lot of suggestions from the people. So that is important as a dialogue that's beneficial to both sides. And secondly, of course, it's not only about the people I visit – they might feel honored if the mayor comes to visit them – but it's also about people's [impressions], to learn about what the mayor is like or what kind of person he is. In our culture it is very important to be close to the people, so the mayor is basically the first [public] servant, and not a dictator. So [as the mayor] you basically have to be close to your citizens.

Q: You have said that you have learned a lot from your [constituents]. Can you provide some examples?

A: For example, in [Palmer's late 2014 re-election campaign] I learned that many more people than I anticipated opposed the idea of slowing down car traffic. I would have thought that this would have been more popular, and I learned that many people think that we've slowed down traffic too much. And we finally came up with a compromise: In the beginning we had a speed limit of 50 kilometers-per-hour, and went down to 30, and now we've compromised to 40, just for example.

Q: In Taiwan people often care about environmental protection, but they also care about economic growth. Very often it is the case that economic growth and environmental protection conflict with each other. What is your view on this?

A: First, I believe that is a twentieth-century problem. Almost all of our development was achieved at a price, and that price was the destruction of the environment – maybe the rain forests, maybe the climate, maybe the water systems, the oceans and the depletion of fish – so that is the development model of the twentieth century. And I believe that in the twenty-first century we must invent a new development model, because if we let people choose between poverty on the one side and economic wealth on the other, they will choose economic growth no matter what the environmental cost is, because it [seems like something] that is in the future.

But that's the wrong choice. So politicians and industry should be tasked with creating the solutions to that dilemma, so that people can be better off with less impact on the environment. The good thing is that there are enough ideas and technology available to do that, so we don't have to think so much about solving that conflict by decisions that either do better for the environment or the economy, but come up with new ideas that are good for both.

Q: Even statesmen that advocate programs to protect the environment are often "kidnapped" by industry and industrialists. What is the situation in Germany?

A: Basically, the same conflict exists; I've talked about the conflict of the twentieth century, and that has happened worldwide. But what's new in our situation is that we have new industries that benefit from the trusteeship. So, for example if you have a producer of wind turbines in your country, it would be easier to push for the technology than if you only have, say, a producer of coal power plants. So the economic interest is on your side if you have the new technology. So Germany's role in that game, I believe, is to be a pioneer, at the forefront of the development, and therefore to earn the first-mover advantages.

Translated and compiled by David Toman