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Bikes, vegans and taxes: How one German city is helping the country go net zero

The German city of Tübingen says it has reduced its carbon emissions by 40 percent in the past 15 years.

Tübingen, Germany.

Tübingen, Germany. Image via Flickr/Stephen Downes under Creative Commons.

In Germany’s southwest, a pretty university town near the Alps is showing the rest of the country how to go green.

Tübingen is blessed with higher days of sunshine than much of the rest of the country and, out of a population of 90,000, almost a third are students. As one of the centers of the German student protest movement in the late 1960s, it’s no surprise that Tübingen is also one of the country’s most environmentally aware cities.

Tübingen spends three times as much on bicycle infrastructure than the Danish city of Copenhagen, the city’s mayor, Boris Palmer, told the BBC. Palmer, first elected in 2007, is credited by many for shaping the city's green policies — such as mandatory solar panels on roofs and free buses on Saturdays.

Palmer says the city has seen a reduction in the emission of CO2 per capita by 40 percent in the past 15 years, while Tübingen’s economy has grown by 40 percent. "This gives us hope that there might be a way to overcome global warming and keep growing," he told the BBC.

Packaging comes at a price

Tübingen is also the first German city to implement a tax on disposable packaging — known as the Verpackungssteuer. It imposed an extra payment of 50 cents on anything from coffee cups to meal plates to pizza boxes. All disposable cutlery is also taxed. Even if something is made from sustainable materials, anything that is for one-time use has become costlier.

During the first few weeks in operation, the new tax resulted in 15 percent less waste in the city’s rubbish bins (German). But the tax hasn’t gone down well with the city’s only branch of McDonald’s, which is challenging the move in court (German). With more than 1,500 restaurants across the country, the American fast-food giant is arguing for a uniform framework rather than different rules across cities.

But many businesses in Tübingen have embraced the new rules. Naresh Taneja has owned a vegan Indian restaurant in the city for 30 years, she told the BBC. "I have stopped stocking any disposable plates," he says. "We were already encouraging our customers to bring their own lunch boxes and now this tax has helped even more." The local authority also provided assistance to businesses to deal with the tax such as helping them buy reusable cutlery.

Is Germany becoming meat-free?

Veganism and vegetarianism in general is popular in Tübingen, and is fast becoming so across Germany. Famous for meaty sausages such as the Bratwurst, plant-based food isn’t what most people would associate with German cuisine. But that appears to be changing. Research carried out in 2019 by Statista revealed that almost half of Germans follow a primarily non-meat diet.

eating habits in germany

Eating habits in Germany in 2019. Image: Statista

Sales of meat substitutes in the country are expected to reach about $593 million by the end of 2022. Meat consumption is meanwhile expected to fall. Surveys show many of those who have curbed their meat eating are doing so out of concerns for the environment as well as animal welfare. This is good news for the race towards net zero, as meat and dairy products contribute as much as 58 percent of greenhouse gas emissions produced by the global agricultural industry, according to Statista.

The race to net zero

Germany is by far the biggest emitter in the European Union, producing 810 metric tons of CO2 equivalent in 2019.

GHG emissions in Germany

Germany has a long way to go to reduce its emissions. Image: McKinsey

The German parliament has set a national goal of reaching climate neutrality by 2045 and aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 65 percent by 2030 compared to 1990 levels.

With many other cities like Tübingen playing their part in combating climate change, it certainly feels like the country is on the right path.

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