Speech by the German Federal Environment Minister Steffi Lemke at Tongji University, Shanghai

Bundesumwelt- und Verbraucherschutzministerin Steffi Lemke
Federal Environment Minister Steffi Lemke spoke about environmental issues and global challenges at Tongji University in Shanghai. She emphasized the shared responsibility of Germany and China in environmental protection.

Check against delivery

Professor Zheng,
Professor Fang,
Teaching staff and students of Tongji University,

I hope you could understand my pronunciation of your university’s name, as I want to talk about two aspects of it now.

Firstly, I have been told that in the Shanghai dialect, "Tongji" sounds similar to the word "Deutsche". That calls to mind the founding of the university, over 100 years ago, by the German doctor Erich Paulun. You continue to foster close ties to Germany and many of our universities even today. For that reason, I am delighted and particularly honoured to speak as a member of the German government at this prestigious and tradition-rich university.

Secondly, I have learnt that the university’s name stems from a Chinese saying that "those on the same ship help each other". That is reflected in your logo here in the background. And that is what I will focus on in my speech. We are all in the same boat, , namely this blue Earth. At the moment, however, we are scuttling our  shared boat. No crew with common sense would do that! We also know that we only have a liveable future here if we work together and help each other.

This still applies in times such as these, when we are confronted with major geopolitical shifts and crises like Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine, or the terrorist attacks on Israel by Hamas. At present we cannot even foresee all the consequences that these actions will have. However, it is only by working together that we can overcome the environmental crises of our time – climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution. In fact, significant progress has been made on that front over the past months.

Firstly, the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework, which we adopted last December under the Chinese COP Presidency. This is a real breakthrough in our battle against biodiversity loss. We humans share this planet with at least eight million animal, fungi and plant species. They make our soils fertile and provide the air we breathe and the water we drink. They mitigate climate change and help us better withstand its impacts. In a way, they form the boat that carries us, that makes it even possible for us to survive on this planet in the first place. But our boat is leaking, and the holes are getting bigger and bigger. One million species are threatened with extinction.

It is we humans who have caused this extinction, and in doing so have jeopardised the very existence of humankind. And we are still putting holes in the boat. It is up to us to halt and reverse this trend. Sensible sailors, to continue the metaphor, would now start bailing out the boat and sealing the holes. The decisions of the UN Conference on Biological Diversity can help us achieve that.

In Germany, we destroyed a great deal of nature in the course of our industrialisation. We drained 95 percent of our peatlands. We dammed our rivers and forced them into concrete channels. We felled a large part of our forests. Now we are expending considerable amounts of money and political energy on restoring nature, rewetting peatlands, returning floodplains to rivers and our forests to a more natural state. With our Action Plan on Nature-based Solutions for Climate and Biodiversity, which has funding in the billions, we have developed an effective instrument for making nature more resilient. We have learnt that only healthy ecosystems can help us combat climate change and adapt to the impacts of the climate crisis. Furthermore, we will implement our commitments under the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework in a revised National Biodiversity Strategy. At international level, from 2025 we will provide 1.5 billion euros each year to support our partners in nature conservation.

China, too, has ambitious plans for the restoration and protection of its unique nature. I am delighted about this. I hope that we can foster good and close cooperation in this area as well. That was also a topic, and a very important one, at the seventh Sino-German Environment Forum held here yesterday that was the reason for my visit to China. My colleague Minister Huang and I were able to discuss how we as governments can work together to strengthen our nature.

Tongji University produces the best engineers, architects and urban planners in the country. It is my wish that you can allow the lessons learnt in Germany from the over-exploitation of nature, and the need to put a stop to it, to inform your work, and that our cooperation can advance this process. When you are planning and building China’s infrastructure – the bridges, roads, railways and cities of tomorrow, please make sure that not only the infrastructure is sound, but the nature as well. This combination ensures economic productivity while making towns and cities more liveable for their inhabitants.

My second example of progress is chemicals management. Modern life is inconceivable without chemicals. But over the last years and decades, chemicals have accumulated in water, air and soil, in our food chains and products. These chemicals can damage the environment and harm human health. In over 100 countries, lead is still being used in paints. That poses a truly grave health risk. Millions of children around the world are exposed to lead concentrations which adversely affect brain development. This situation persists despite the fact that there have long been alternatives available that make leaded paints redundant. Another instance are plasticisers. These are still found in products today, even those intended specifically for children such as toys or baby bottles. But there have long been substitutes for harmful plasticisers as well.

For me, there is also a personal side to chemicals. I grew up in the former GDR, the then German Democratic Republic. I lived in the middle of what was known as the chemicals triangle of Bitterfeld-Wolfen. This was all too evident in the countryside where I played as a child. At that time, the river near my home was covered in scum, and it literally stank to high heaven. The need to protest against this reckless attitude to our nature was ultimately what drew me to politics. At that time, there were very many young people in the GDR who stood up against this wanton destruction of the environment, and in the peaceful revolution of 1989 opposed a system that threatened to destroy our natural foundations of life and hence our future. In today’s Germany and Europe, we have a functioning chemicals management. The river I spoke of no longer has scum on its surface. In fact, the people who live nearby can bathe in this river again – and they do.

Here in China too, you have made very substantial progress on water quality over the past years. Nevertheless, not all the problems around the world have been solved. Our waters are contaminated with endocrine disruptors and microplastics, which can end up in our drinking water. That is why one of the topics we discussed in the margins of the environment forum was how sewage treatment plants can be further improved. We have seen here today how committed you are to making advances in this area as well. I am delighted that – thanks to our collective effort – the fifth session of the International Conference on Chemicals Management (ICCM5) in Bonn successfully concluded a global framework on sustainable chemicals management. The framework can help make international chemicals and waste management safer. With my Chinese colleague Minister Huang, I discussed how we can jointly tackle the pollution of our planet from chemicals.

The third example I would like to look at is plastic pollution on our planet. At present, there is no global agreement on this. We are currently working on one, and I am certain we will adopt a global framework on plastics in the coming year. It is crucial that we do, as you all know that plastic pollution has reached critical levels. It jeopardises the environment and human health. We absorb microplastics into our bodies. We know that they can pass the blood-brain barrier. We do not know exactly what risks this entails, but we need to research them. We know that we have to reduce plastic pollution because of these risks.

Moreover, what sense does it make to manufacture costly products from oil, only to throw them away just seconds after their use, potentially to come across them again in the environment? Alongside the climate crisis and biodiversity loss, the pollution crisis is indisputably one of the most pressing environmental problems on our planet. That is why we need a binding agreement on combatting the pollution of our seas – of our whole world – with plastic waste.

Both our countries bear a very great responsibility in this regard. China is the largest producer of plastics in the world, and Germany is the largest in Europe. Unfortunately, so far we have not been able to reverse the trend in plastic pollution in Germany, either. That makes the close German-Chinese exchange on both science and policy issues especially valuable. For the onus is particularly on those producing the most plastics – and that of course includes the United States and India – to seek solutions to this problem.

There are already lots of good ideas. Circular economy is being widely discussed around the world, not only as a necessary step to end plastic pollution, but also as an economic opportunity for many businesses that are developing innovations in the field. Another example is the construction industry. We talked about that just now during my tour of your exhibition. The construction industry in China is one of the largest in the world and one of the main consumers of natural resources. As we know, resources, even sand, are now becoming scarce. In Germany, to describe an abundance of something we say it is "like sand on the beach." If sand itself is now scarce, we have a problem, and it is imperative that we seek alternatives and new solutions without further delay. That is why national measures alone cannot address the scale of the problem.

Our economy needs an international level playing field for all the areas I mentioned in order to prevent market distortions. That is why it is good that China and Germany have agreed to a bilateral exchange on circular economy as part of the climate and transformation dialogue. We will discuss standards and commitments at international and our own national levels. Over-exploitation of our resources on this planet – in other words, knocking holes in our shared boat – remains a fundamental problem with repercussions for the triple global crisis of climate change, pollution and biodiversity loss: it is making them worse. That is why we need incentives for resource-efficient economic practices. We need steering instruments to make broad progress in the fight against excessive use of resources in all its forms. Successfully curbing plastic pollution and together finding a way out of the throw-away mindset would be a huge step forward.

Think of the oceans, the origin of all life. A few months ago, the international community concluded the BBNJ Treaty, an agreement to protect the high seas. I was extremely pleased that China and Germany were among the first signatories to the treaty. Now, for the first time beyond national jurisdictions, we have the opportunity to advance marine protection and counter the over-fishing that threatens our oceans. We can create protection zones, and spaces where nature can retreat and recover. Of course, these protection zones will be more effective if, at the same time and at long last, we minimise the amount of waste entering the world’s seas and oceans.

I have given you three examples of successful cooperation on international environmental protection. The resolute action of Germany and China were instrumental in all these concerted efforts and achievements. They are positive examples and give us confidence that we will be able to handle the environmental crises of our planet. As major industrialised economies, Germany and China have a special responsibility. We have the conditions needed to develop and disseminate solutions. There are many precedents, for instance electric mobility and renewable energies. China is a world leader in these sectors. I am certain that together we can find fellow campaigners for these technologies across the globe.

It is up to policy-makers to establish the right conditions and incentives. To facilitate this task and to foster innovation, we urgently need the cooperation of the scientific community and a lively exchange of ideas.

And we need companies that can bring these innovations onto the market. That is why it is good that industry was also represented at the Sino-German Environment Forum, joining in the discussions and the search for solutions. The green tech sector has been showing high growth for years. Companies that position themselves as pioneers on this market today will be able to reap the benefits. That is to say, environmental framework conditions and innovations have become the driver of economic development, of growth in numerous fields.

However, we also need public support on this. In Germany, we have civil society to thank for much of the progress made in environmental and climate policy. Without the determination of committed citizens in Germany, many of our accomplishments in environmental protection and climate action would not have been possible. We really owe a great deal to civil society. It shone a spotlight on shortcomings and asked difficult questions. I therefore consider it vital that civil society groups are present and that we listen to them. Here in China, too, I have met with representatives of civil society. I can tell you frankly that governments do not like being criticised by civil society. I have to say, as Germany’s environment minister, I don’t like it either. Naturally, I come in for my share of criticism from the German public. Praise would be preferable! But to earn that we have to solve the environmental crises in reality. It is my deep-rooted experience that governments that cannot solve serious environmental issues will find the public turning against them. That is the lesson I learnt in the GDR of 1988 and 1989. I believe that these experiences helped us realise that cooperation and dialogue can solve problems. When my son was small, he came home from school one day and said, "Mum, mistakes are our friends. We learn and we grow from mistakes." I believe, if we take that as our model, we can see criticism from civil society not as a problem but as an incentive.

I would like to conclude, however, by saying that above all, we need you. Those of you here today, who study and perhaps live here on this campus. We need civil engineers, architects and urban planners who can take the automotive industry, aviation and rail forward. We need engineering expertise. Engineers develop technical solutions, including high-tech systems using modern laser technology, not just for building bridges and roads. We also need chemists and biologists, software designers and mechanical engineers.

You are all needed to turn the international agreements reached by policy-makers into tangible results. In China, in Germany, in Europe. We humans only have this one, wonderful planet. We only have this one boat. We have to stop knocking holes in the boat and mend those it already has. Then, whether we set sail together or all take to the oars will be entirely up to us.

Thank you.

02.11.2023 | Speech International | Shanghai (China)

Further information


Policy-making in dialogue

Good environmental and consumer protection policies are achieved when they are a joint endeavour. Get in touch with us, or get involved through one of our options for dialogue.