Not sustainable enough, unambitious, listening too much to the industry: representatives of civil society criticize the government’s new digital strategy.
The federal government’s recently adopted digital strategy did not go down well on a panel on climate-neutral network policy at the Bits & Bäume conference in Berlin on Sunday. On the final day of the three-day congress, Hendrik Zimmermann, a consultant at the civil society organization Germanwatch, criticized the supporting program as if individual ministries had written their blocks into it. So it was not possible to bring sustainability into all areas and make it the common thread, although it should have been political mainstream for a long time.
When it comes to mobility, the first thing mentioned is autonomous driving, Zimmermann gave an example. “We know exactly what the ecological consequences are.” A lot of data would have to be collected for autonomous vehicles; this type of locomotion is not climate-friendly from start to finish. When it comes to open source, the strategy only states that more is needed. What is missing, however, is the “public money, public code” approach that has been propagated by civil society for years: where state money flows in, the source code should ultimately be open so that small businesses, citizens and municipalities can help design the software.
Relying on “innovation” and technical solutions across the board would be naïve, the activist explained. It has long been clear that targeted new solutions are crucial, for example in the energy transition, smart grids and energy communities in which neighbors use a solar system together. “We know exactly where to go,” the government observer pointed out. It doesn’t help to try something here and there according to the motto of “technology neutrality”. Rather, society should ask which technologies “we have to get out of”. He mentioned combustion engines and e-fuels, i.e. electricity-based, synthetically produced fuels. All power guzzlers should be blacklisted.
Civil society little involved
The digital strategy lags behind the coalition agreement in part and seems “rather unambitious,” said sustainability researcher Friederike Rohde. Representatives of the federal government had “quite often met with industry” beforehand, but not with civil society or socio-ecological transformation research. It seems as if the government isn’t taking the promised stronger participatory process seriously and wants to push something through. Social innovations and restructuring, without which the much-demanded turnaround in consumption would not be possible, were left out.
All this is not surprising, since the Federal Ministry for Digital Affairs and Transport was in charge, according to the digital policy spokeswoman for the left-wing parliamentary group in the Bundestag, Anke Domscheit-Berg. At its head is Volker Wissing, an FDP politician. The subheading of the strategy reads: “Create digital values” and not “Environment and common good”. The main thing is to get the best out of the economy.
In general, hundreds of millions of euros are currently being spent on federal government funding, said the politician. However, only nine million of these are intended for sustainability and digitization, while 50 million are for blockchain and digital identities. This is “just shit”. The traffic light should “finance something useful” with the money. She appealed to civil society to apply “maximum pressure”: “Invite yourself, write to the departments of the ministries, force them to participate.” Achieving the digital revolution in a climate-friendly manner would not be possible without a social revolution. What is needed is a “radical redistribution”.
Federal-state problem not solved
Thomas Heilmann from the board of the CDU/CSU parliamentary group stated that he subscribes to all criticisms of the digital strategy. And even when it comes to “value creation”, the paper is not good. In the administration, for example, it remains with “40 different specialist procedures, all of which cannot be combined”. The departmental principle will not be broken, and the federal-state problem will certainly not be solved. In the face of such systematic errors, the public sector is unable “to deal with the challenges”. Health authorities continued to fax and a successor to the 9-euro ticket is not in sight.
“We can also be accused of failings in digital politics,” admitted the CDU member of the Bundestag and former senator in Berlin. At least the conservatives would have realized that they had to do things differently. On the subject of powertrain turnaround, Heilmann explained that he would not currently be investing in e-fuels. It is important to price the available modes of transport “by user” and then to see “where the innovations are”. 50 percent of the technologies for climate neutrality are not yet ready for the market. The climate problems could not be solved with a pure policy of renunciation.
Aspects such as sustainability and open source are not sufficiently reflected in the strategy, admitted Maik Außendorf, spokesman for digital policy for the Greens in the Bundestag. The coalition factions would only have received a draft late at the start of the summer break and then at least introduced points such as an environmental data portal. Overall, he was only “moderately satisfied” with the result. At their weekly meetings with the ministries, traffic light representatives have always called for greater involvement of civil society. Unfortunately, representatives of well-funded corporations are “very actively knocking on the door,” while representatives of the people always have to actively approach civil society itself.
As part of the departmental review, the digital strategy received at least one more section on “digital civil society”. Accordingly, the government wants to “network infrastructures, funding programs, initiatives, projects and communities in such a way that they form a strong foundation for the common good”. The public sector should also become digitally sovereign with open source, although concrete steps are scarce. The paper goes on to say: “Digitization can also make a significant contribution to protecting our natural environment and combating climate change if we also succeed in making it sustainable overall.”
Elaborate calculation processes
But levers would also have to be used consistently, explained Bernd Hirschl from the Institute for Ecological Economy Research (IÖW). So far, the balance between efficiency and energy consumption through digitization has always dropped in the latter, since artificial intelligence, for example, requires “incredibly complex computing processes”. In the energy sector, meaningful developments such as flexible consumers, dynamic tariffs, virtual power plants, battery pooling and smart grids have so far been “uneconomical niches”. Relevant tests would be stamped out again after the end of the subsidy. However, if smart meters in households had a greater economic benefit than a business benefit for the individual, the state would have to assume a large proportion of the costs.
Anyone who describes “new green technologies” as a silver bullet in the fight against the climate crisis should be treated in the same way as a climate change denier, demanded Patsy Islam-Parsons of Fridays For Future. In the current race against time, there are tipping points that cannot be reversed, for example by technical processes for capturing and separating CO2. The knowledge is now sufficiently widespread: “We have to reduce emissions and stop the consumption of fossil fuels.” However, there is a lack of political will to draw the necessary conclusions and “pull us out of the swamp”.