“Corona is 80 percent chance for the climate”

Economist Martin Stuchtey believes in a turnaround in the system. Why the pandemic can make Europe’s economy greener.

“The current economic model is outdated,” says Martin Stuchtey, professor at the University of Innsbruck and entrepreneur. What does it take now? Among other things, a date for the sale of combustion engines – and more honesty in politics.

Your résumé is colorful: you were with the mountain troops, geologist in Africa, consultant at McKinsey and now you are an economist and entrepreneur. How is it that you are committed to sustainability? Martin Stuchtey: I grew up close to nature. As a geologist, looking at the opencast mines, I asked myself the question: Can this be our model in the long term? At McKinsey, the establishment of the sustainability department has given me the opportunity to make resource and climate protection my profession.

What did Corona teach you? It sharpened the eye for the things that are important: family, health, nutrition, places. The pandemic brought me closer to many people over the distance, because you notice that your own fate is linked to that of others. And it taught, on a political level of interpretation, the great risks with which the current economic model is associated. The pandemic is also an expression of the fact that we have to redefine our relationship with nature. Corona has also created a mood of optimism. I think we are at a point for the first time where we have the inner attitude, but also the political possibilities to do what we should have been doing for a long time: to initiate a systemic change.

In what way? That we are completely redefining what wealth is. One who is interpreted not only materially, but also ideally. The large, extensive aid funds give us the opportunity to invest in the industries and technologies that we need for the future.

At the beginning of 2020, climate change was the dominant topic. It has been Corona for a year. Isn’t the pandemic damaging climate protection? I believe Corona is 80 percent chance and only 20 percent a distraction when it comes to the climate. It is correct that we have not seen Fridays for Future demonstrations for a long time and that all in all, attention has been drawn to the pandemic. But structurally we are now in a better situation. Climate policy now has greater opportunities than before Corona. I’m optimistic about that.

Why? Not because of the superficial argument that we have emitted fewer greenhouse gases because of the forced economic brake. That would mean that we need 30 pandemics by 2050 to reach our climate goals. Everyone understands that this is neither desirable nor realistic. If this economic slump is just getting us, with all its limitations and sacrifices, on course towards our climate goals, that cannot be the long-term model. The task now is to create an intelligent new building for the energy, industry, agriculture, infrastructure and mobility sectors. We are more likely to trust ourselves than before Corona.

Don’t you see the danger of falling back into old patterns and postponing these decisions? The danger is indeed there and it is the political battle of our day. From a purely entrepreneurial point of view, we have to wish that we quickly move into the new technologies. Otherwise we not only made a mistake in terms of climate policy, but also lost ten years of competitiveness because we relied again on old solutions, old combustion engines or old energy generation systems.

Can a renovation work without a loser? That is the central question. One can talk nicely about the great disruption. But in the end you have to ask yourself the question: What about the people who are disrupted? So with those who fall by the wayside? Of course there will be industries that will cut staff. And others who need more employees. Society has to create transitional regulations and invest in further training. In order for this to work, we have to make the change predictable and set clear deadlines. Then the transition will be more successful because we as a society know what to expect.

Together with other EU countries, Environment Minister Leonore Gewessler (Greens) has just sent a letter to the Commission to request a date for the sales stop of combustion engines. That was not well received by industry and coalition partners. That’s a good example. It is foreseeable that from 2030 there will no longer be a market for internal combustion engines – at least in the important passenger segments. The mobility sector will continue to grow and remain highly attractive, but the manufacture of internal combustion engines will make up an ever smaller and then dwindling share of added value. Now, because we do not trust ourselves to turn around and are afraid of the political and economic consequences, we can significantly extend the running times. That will then lead to clear competitive disadvantages because others – such as China – have relied much more consistently on electrification, other new drives and new mobility solutions. It would be better to keep the phase of uncertainty short. This includes a political signal that emphasizes the opportunities: This is the future, and it will be a plus world, not a minus world. Our cities are becoming more attractive, mobility is becoming cheaper, we have better food. We have an energy industry that is less dependent on the outside world. If we can do that, the transition will be easier. At the moment, however, we are politically fueling fears rather than lust for the future.

How do you rate Austria’s attitude towards this? Austria misses an opportunity. The country has many good structural and cultural prerequisites to play a major role in new sustainable solutions. And Austria, as a small country that has a tendency to show itself confidently in a European concert, would have a clear opportunity to position itself. This is political capital that is currently not being called upon. Climate change is the defining narrative for the next few decades. The only alternative is to leave the field to others and ultimately not be able to offer solutions that are suitable for the market.

The supply chain law is being discussed in Europe. How do you see it This is a hot potato that is fiercely contested. I think that compliance with environmental and social standards is also an obligation abroad that only the producer can fulfill. The consumer cannot fix it. If we do it smart, it won’t be bureaucratic monsters, but intelligent market rules. My research shows that companies in countries with clear environmental and social standards have long-term advantages and not disadvantages. There are certainly many technical questions that need to be discussed. But we as a company, we as Europe, cannot say that we act responsibly and at the same time reject instruments such as supply chain laws.

To person:The German economist Martin Stuchtey (52) teaches sustainable resource management at the University of Innsbruck. He is a co-founder of the innovation forge Systemiq. Stuchtey is married, has six children and lives on Lake Starnberg and on his organic farm in East Tyrol. The economist was a virtual guest at the Resource Forum in Salzburg.

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