In an attempt to capture the various aspects of sustainability, we have brought together four experts, who each contribute in their own unique way to more sustainability in the world – in research, as a social mediator, as an entrepreneur and in higher education policy. They explain what sustainability means to them personally and discuss what needs to change in society in order for our children to experience the world in all its diversity and richness, and to have a bright future.
At the meeting point in front of the TUM Main Building in the centre of Munich, she has already met Tabea Riemensperger. The student enrolled in the Master’s degree Science and Technology Studies is actively involved in the Environmental Department of the TUM Student Council (AStA). When we arrive, the two are already immersed in a conversation.
How nice. You have already introduced each other.
María José Barragán-Paladines: We just talked about how much I enjoy coming back to Munich, it’s my second home.
Tabea Riemensperger: How come?
Barragán-Paladines: Munich is my husband’s hometown and my son was born here as well. I came to Munich in 2006 to study at TUM. After that I went to Canada for my PhD. My path brought me back to Germany, this time to Bremen, where I worked at the Leibniz Centre for Tropical Marine Research.
With a swift stride Professor Brück approaches the group. The biochemist is an internationally acclaimed expert in the field of Synthetic Biotechnology with a particular focus on Algae Technology. At TUM’s Algae Cultivation Centre in Ottobrunn, the only one of its kind anywhere in the world, he is investigating the potential applications of salt-water algae, for example to produce biofuel and carbon fibres. In doing so, he is relying on a particularly sustainable research model, which recycles all materials from the process cycle in a way that preserves their value. His research is groundbreaking and therefore, his schedule is packed. Nonetheless, he freed up this Monday morning to talk to us about sustainability.
Good morning Professor Brück. Thank you for being able to join our conversation.
Thomas Brück: I am pleased to be here, too. The topic is so important.
Already on the way to the conference room our Round Table guests have a lively discussion.
Brück: The other day an interesting documentary was on. It was about the problem of plastic waste on the Galapagos Islands. The ocean currents are washing tons of plastic ashore, which then ends up in the stomachs of animals. There are volunteers who now collect the rubbish, but there is no way to recycle it locally. It has to be flown to the mainland.
Barragán-Paladines: That’s right. And the ironic thing is that it is not primarily our rubbish. In the Galapagos Islands, the kids are already being educated in how to use refillable bottles, for example. Certain plastic bags and straws are banned in Galapagos. The plastic waste that washes up on our beaches originally comes from the South Pacific area and Asia, brought by marine currents. It’s a global problem and in order to address it properly, we need to change the attitude and mindset of all people in the world.
Brück: Think globally and act locally.
Riemensperger: But it’s not enough for the president of a country to stand up and say: “Please don’t use plastic bags anymore.” The goal must be a society in which everyone feels obliged to help. Perhaps this is more about emotions than about rational reasoning.
Barragán-Paladines: Yes, right. Governments shouldn’t just impose conditions. At the end of the day, the rules are violated if they go too far against personal habits and convictions.
Riemensperger: That’s why we have to change people’s convictions.
Barragán-Paladines: In Galapagos, our strategy is focused on children. The children in turn, convince their parents, and the parents convince the grandparents. That way, we create a change – not within a year and not in five years, but with the attitude change in generations. The problem, however, is that we don’t have time to wait and see. We must act now.
Riemensperger: Changing people’s attitudes will simply take time. If it is pushed through too quickly, opinions become entrenched. It has to happen organically.
Dr. Andreas Sichert, the fourth member of the round table discussion has arrived. He is the co-founder of Orcan Energy. The ORC modules developed in his company, convert waste heat from industry or traffic into usable energy, which has already earned him numerous awards – most recently the Technologietransferpreis [Technology Transfer Award] of the German Physical Society. He has intently followed the discussion that is already under way.
Andreas Sichert: I disagree. The government likes to say that we need a little more time to explore the problems and test the solutions. Allegedly we wouldn’t know enough about them yet. This is a way of postponing the problem to the next legislative term and of dodging the responsibility to act and having to thus take painful decisions. But we already know a lot: we know, for example, that wind energy works, we know that photovoltaic works. All we have to do is implement these technical solutions, roll them out and be quite pragmatic about it.
Brück: I agree. Everything else is playing for time. We have to decide which is the best solution available today. And then move forward with that. Of course, we should continue with research and keep adapting the technologies to the new findings.
Ms Riemensperger, as a TUM student you are the youngest in the group today. How do you assess the situation? Isn’t the change already taking place – especially in your generation, considering, for example, the Fridays for Future movement?
Riemensperger: Of course, something is obviously changing right now: about two years ago, first one person took to the streets to demonstrate, then there were ten, and today there are millions of young people all around the world. Perhaps now is the right time for this topic. At the same time, however, I have the feeling that politicians are letting us down because they are not reacting. My fellow students and I, we want to reform the energy policy, but at the same time the government is making it extremely difficult to build wind farms. This doesn’t add up. The gulf between the young students who are out there in the streets and – sorry, but I have to say it like this – these old, quixotic politicians up there is huge. They have lost touch with our generation.
Brück: You must not forget that politics is dependent on other powers, too. There are lobbyists, there are political advisors, most of whom do not come from academia and are therefore not that skilled at suggesting the appropriate solutions. Take for example the discussion on the carbon tax increase. The Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research recommended to the Federal Government to set costs at 180 euros per tonne of CO2. And where did we end up?
Riemensperger: At 25 euros per ton of CO2.
Brück: Exactly. And that was after hard negotiations. Initially, the government wanted to start with just 10 euros per tonne of CO2. Because that’s a number that is feasible for the industry. Now we have reached the middle ground, which unfortunately doesn’t work because the carbon levy cannot work as intended.
Brück: The costs are too low to influence production. They are simply allocated to the consumer prices. As a scientist, I say that things will only change when the carbon levy is 100 euros per tonne. At this price, the industry has to immediately bring all the innovations it has in store to the market and break new ground. Then the change will get underway. But anyone who wants to implement that from one day to the next would massively endanger political stability.
Riemensperger: But that is exactly what discourages the younger generation. Why should they carry on if the politicians apparently do not acknowledge their demands and concerns?
Brück: You are changing society above all through what you do in practical terms. You are enrolled at an excellent academic institution here. I always tell my students: be aware of the power you have. With the knowledge you acquire at TUM, you can start your own business, become an entrepreneur, really make a difference.
Riemensperger: It would be easier if we had the support of politicians.
Brück: Yes, business start-ups and the financing of good ideas need to get more support in Germany. We don’t have an investment culture in Germany. Young entrepreneurs are often dependent on the help of big companies that buy in, but then you need a lot of persuasion to keep the idea of your technology in its original form.
Sichert: That is true. Good capital from institutional investors is rare in Germany. There are some in Berlin, few in Munich, but most of them basically only invest in IT and the e-commerce industry.
Brück: Because these are the industries with the lowest risks.
Sichert: But what we need on the way to more sustainability is not just based on digital solutions. We need hardware and the right technology, in order for things to change. Other countries like the U.S. or China offer these companies ten times more funding. There, things can be approached quite differently – and much more effectively.
Brück: And faster.
Sichert: Exactly. You only have to look at energy production in this country with its production capacity of around 200 gigawatts. That’s established and proven. If you want to challenge this system with new technology, you can’t do it with technology that has a potential of only a few kilowatts, nor with well-intended technical demonstrations on a small scale. One must therefore use new technologies on a large scale and in large volumes, otherwise it will never be possible, for example, to prevail over coal-fired and nuclear power and to make a relevant contribution.
Barragán-Paladines: Talking about sustainability on our planet, we should however not only think on how technology, innovation and entrepreneurship is done in Germany and in other technologically strong countries. There are millions of people on earth who have to cook and wash with contaminated water and who don’t have any waste disposal system. In the Galapagos Islands, health care is insufficient, so people have to fly to the mainland if they want adequate treatment. For these societies, sustainability means something completely different than for European countries like, Germany or in the USA.
Prof. Dr. Thomas Brück
Brück: I do think so. Innovative solutions emerge precisely at the interfaces between the disciplines.
Barragán-Paladines: We need new generations of experts, working within complex societies and getting used to do research with interdisciplinary approaches, and working together in international groups to examine global problems from varied standpoints.
Riemensperger: And in addition, communicating research results should be thoroughly practiced from the very beginning at university. I did a Bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering. But as students, engineers usually don’t learn how to let other target groups know about their work and their products. And unfortunately we all don’t learn how to consume information from the media critically and attentively. Yet, this is essential for us to be able to distinguish between false and correct facts and make well-founded decisions.
Sichert: For me, this is one of the central tasks universities have. The scientists at TUM can supply facts for emotional discussions. We live in an age offering an outright flood of information in the media. Here, it would be good to have a trustworthy institution like TUM providing facts, on the basis of which consumers can make better decisions. An important job!
Riemensperger: I am skeptical. If someone protests a wind turbine in their home village, it is mainly for emotional reasons and less for rational ones. And scientific facts are not the solution to emotional problems. Maybe scientists and politicians should rather accept that there is this strong emotional side – instead of trying to argue it out of existence.
Barragán-Paladines: Whether I buy an organic product or not, whether I get a new car or not, all this is based on our personal values. This should be assumed in that way. For decades, this aspect has not been paid enough attention.
So what was that like for you? What inspired you to get into the subject of sustainability?
Barragán-Paladines: I grew up in a very large family and the issue of preserving resources was omnipresent there, for example in the question of how much food you really need to feed the family. In my early childhood we had to be very frugal – also in terms of energy consumption and especially water.
Sichert: It was quite similar at my home. I am from the countryside. In our house, food was not thrown away, clothes were put on several times when they didn’t have be washed yet, or mended when they were damaged. Heating was turned down in the rooms we didn’t predominantly use. Just these simple things. This behaviour was even reinforced as we lived with the grandparents who had known a time when not everything was always available. We called this: thriftiness. In my case an enthusiasm for technology came on top of that.
How did that impact on your life?
Sichert: I used to read a lot of science fiction. For example, about exploring new planets. The novels painted a very positive picture of technology and the future. How can the protagonists improve the world and life on it with the help of technology? This attitude towards technology as something that positively changes living conditions led to my later decision to study Physics at TUM and eventually to set up a company.
Brück: I think this is an important point. While technology is partly responsible for the problems we are dealing with today, such as climate change and air pollution, it is also technology that will help us solve these problems. What we need is good research and a rethinking in society.
When conducting your research and work, to what extent do you pay attention to sustainability and careful use of resources?
Brück: In our research projects we do this quite intensively. We are trying to achieve a closed cycle in the process from raw material to product without residual material flows. An example: in one of our projects, we have an algae containing oil. We extract this oil and convert it into alternative fuel. For this process, however, we need hydrogen. So we use the residual biomass of the algae, which is the waste from the extraction of the oil, in a modified biogas process to produce the hydrogen we need to make the fuel. This way we were able to use all the parts of the algae and we even used the biogas plant’s waste to fertilise the fields. No loss.
Sichert: It’s a very fundamental approach in our company, too. We take waste heat that is not needed anywhere else and would normally just disappear, and turn it into electricity. Think, for example, of an engine propelling a ship forward. Only 40 percent of the fuel’s energy can be used for propulsion. The other 60 percent is waste heat and is not actually used. With our technology we can turn this waste heat back into energy that is used, for example, for the electricity on a ship. This reduces the fuel required by 7 to 10, sometimes even 12 percent. That’s enormous. Just think how many ships are out on oceans and rivers transporting goods from A to B.
Barragán-Paladines: We currently are building a new marine research centre at the Charles Darwin Research Station, in Galapagos. The original building was from the sixties. We have torn it down and are now using as much of the old material as possible to build the new building. This makes us a role model for the people on site and shows how to build sustainably, even if you don’t have a big budget, like us. As a non-profit organisation, we are 100 percent dependent on donations and have to economise with our funds.
Riemensperger: To me, it is important to be more aware of the world and environment around us and to get out of the spiral of continuous increase in resources. The sociologist Hartmut Rosa says in his Resonance Theory that people desire to interact with the world in a way that allows the world to respond to them and resonate with them. Sometimes a change of perspective from our side is all that’s needed: if there is a speed limit on motorways, it doesn’t mean that I am being deprived of my freedom. Instead it means that I am given more time to experience my surroundings. Maybe I don’t have to jet around the world to have a nice holiday. Maybe I can just stay home because it’s beautiful here, too, and I can directly experience what nature does around me.
Right at the beginning of our conversation we discussed how important it is to change people’s attitudes and to take all of society with us on the road to a sustainable world. What do you think has to change, what would you like to see?
Barragán-Paladines: I would like to see a less selfish world. We don’t need selfishness if we want to build a good future for ourselves. We should convince people that a sustainable life is not only valuable, but it also is fun.
Brück: Yes, that’s right. Many people are afraid that a more sustainable lifestyle will at the same time result in major restrictions of their personal freedom. But that’s not the case. There are many good solutions in which ecological and economic advantages go hand in hand. In order to convey this, we need fast and good communication between science, politics and society. For me as a scientist, this means on the one hand that I need to interact more with the political landscape, and on the other that I should communicate my research results in such a way that people understand them.
Sichert: We must not lose people’s approval when we talk about sustainability. It is important that we recognise the opportunities that we already have available right now, to not just look at risks and try to protect our old assets. Can we create new values? Where are the opportunities in the upheaval and how can we use them in business terms? It has to go hand in hand: a better life and a more sustainable life. That would be a model that us Germans could export.
What could this look like?
Brück: We have to make agriculture more sustainable in order to solve the food problem. We use so much energy and resources in food production – especially in our highly developed society. The Haber-Bosch Process, a large-scale industrial process for the synthesis of ammonia, which is used in large quantities in fertilizers, is one of the most energy-consuming processes around. And unfortunately, at the moment we have no alternative. We have to find one – and perhaps algae are the solution here too, fertilizing through the nitrogen they filter from the air.
Sichert: There are many other examples, but I am of course best acquainted with the products from our company. We can convert waste heat that is generated, for example, during work in steelworks or in the cement industry, which would normally dissipate, into electricity. Do you know why I think this is so great? Because it enables us to offer electricity at a lower price than anyone else on the market. And completely free of CO2. So the solution is better both in ecological and economic terms – and it can be done today!
Barragán-Paladines: Everyone can do something in their own environment, at the local level we have already mentioned earlier – small steps that change the world, for example an electric car instead of diesel, roof gardens to lower the indoor temperature, solar cells on the roof.
Riemensperger: And this is a benefit for all of us, it doesn’t slow down our society, it moves us forward.
Brück: In Germany we live off the transfer of technology. We invent high-tech solutions which we then sell to the world. And with these innovative products, we not only have the chance to be leaders in technology, we also have the ability to make the world a better place.
Sichert: We are undoubtedly facing perturbation. The world is changing, and it will change the way we live. We’ll either be in the back seat or the driver’s seat here.
Many thanks to all of you. We are going to switch off recording now.
The microphone is off, the discussion at the table continues. Too important the subject, too valuable the exchange. The commitment of our guests goes far beyond their professional interests. All four of them make their personal contributions in science, business and society with conviction to make our world a little more sustainable. Each of them has taken new ideas with them today. We will see what the future brings.