Culture and Climate Change – Architecture and Urbanism

On the Way to a CO2 Neutral City – the Example of Aachen

Windrad; © Stadt AachenForty percent less CO2 emissions by 2020 – this is the ambitious goal the city of Aachen set itself in 1992. Since then, much has been achieved. What can communal climate protection do, what not? An appraisal of Aachen’s experience.

Aachen in 2020: energy is produced mainly by solar power stations, wind power and underground heat sources (geothermal energy), waste is used for energy. New buildings are energy neutral or plus-energy houses. Many vehicles are electric-powered; more than 10,000 e-bikes are underway in the city. Aachen is a city of short distances, which has made it attractive and saves energy. All this is still a vision, which no one knows how it will be made real – or when.

Climate alliance of European cities

Solar facade; © Stadt AachenIt started in 1992. The city of Aachen joined the Climate Alliance. At the same time it took part in the federal state of North Rhine-Westphalia’s model project “Ecological City of the Future”. A year later, Aachen already had a comprehensive energy plan to reduce pollution in the city of 260,000 inhabitants.

In the early 1990s the annual global production of photovoltaic was under 20 megawatts; since that time the market volume has increased more than a thousand-fold. Back then renewable energies were expensive; only a few dared to invest in them. At the suggestion of environmental groups, the city of Aachen decided to cover the costs of solar and wind power. It was willing to pay two euros per kilowatt hour for 20 years. This made new equipment for operators viable, which of course triggered a boom, explains Klaus Meiners, Deptuy Director of the Aachen Environmental Agency.

“Aachen Model”: an energy plan that sets an example

Solarkraftwerk Vouvern-Gymnasium; Foto: Peter Dahlmann; © Stadt Aachen

Solar Power Plant Vouvern-Gymnasium; Photo: Peter Dahlmann; © City of Aachen

Under the name of the “Aachen Model”, this energy plan caused a sensation, found many imitators in cities such as Bonn, Freiburg and Hamburg, led to lively discussions at the federal level and acted as a booster for the federal government’s Renewable Energy Law. “The Aachen Model opened the door for a completely new funding approach”, says Meiners. “And today we still get visits from government officials and experts from Japan who want to see it for themselves on the spot.”

Since 1992, about 100 projects have been launched in Aachen. For example, the city was the first German big city in the German-Belgian-Dutch border triangle in which a large wind plant was already built in 1997 – with a viewing platform and in sight of the cathedral. In order to take advantage of waste heat, and despite some resistance, the city set up a long-distance heating network from the brown coal power station in Weisweiler. This now supplies heat for about 40 percent of buildings in the downtown area and 13 percent city-wide. Also established was the solar village Laurensberg, the first in North Rhine-Westphalia. In 2003 the Aachen Euro Windpark was completed with nine plants.

“Old Buildings Plus”

Since the liberalization of the energy markets, the city has focused more on the end users. There was a consultation campaign on the subject of the refurbishment of old buildings. In the counseling center “Old Buildings Plus e.V.”, founded in 2004, workmen, architects, engineers and other experts offer their help. Not everything went well; there were also failures. For example, for a while the city relied on biofuels and used canola oil as an alternative fuel for city-owned vehicles. “We clearly underestimated the problems of food production”, says Meiners. To the displeasure of buyers of some of the passive houses in the solar village Lauensberg, there were construction problems. And in the field of economically viable co-generation Aachen, despite all its efforts, has not made any real headway. “We haven’t been able to persuade those responsible; the economic conditions or other barriers speak against it.”

Klaus Meiners; © Stadt AachenMeiners is convinced: most people will not become active through pure idealism, but rather because energy efficiency pays – regardless whether it is renewable energies, building renovation or buying a low-emission car. His advice: federal and state governments should develop yet more market-based approaches that are both socially acceptable and focus less on funding programs.

European Energy Award

Has Aachen’s commitment paid off? Yes, says Meiners and points to the European Energy Award in Gold, which in 2011 both certified the energy policies of the city and honored it – and to the numbers: from 1992 to 2011, CO2 emissions in the city area of Aachen dropped by 18 percent. Meiners believes that the city can meet its climate targets by 2020 on its own – but not the long-term goal of reducing CO2 emissions by 2050 by 80 percent, as has been earmarked by the EU Commission’s energy roadmap. “We’ll be able to achieve that only if the rural region around Aachen is integrated as a supplier of renewable energies.” Unless this happens, Meiners notes, Aachen will no longer be able meet the demand for these energies from its own resources.

Aachen is already linked in various directions, not counting “standard” memberships such as that in the German Association of Cities. Aachen was one of the first members of the Convenant of Mayors, launched in 2008 by at the initiative of the EU Commission. The city is also engaged on a point by point basis with the association of “Energy Cities”, which have set themselves the goal of a long-term local energy policy. Meiners calls Aachen’s membership in the Climate Alliance, to which the city has now belonged for 20 years, “immensely important”.

In the network of cities, local experts carry on an exchange on the latest developments and possibilities of action, pass on experiences and success stories, and discuss the opportunities and risks of individual strategies. “And the political signals given by the Climate Alliance are catching on”, says Meiners. Together, the cities can exert more pressure on the legislature. For, says Meiners, it is precisely the federal government that must commit itself so that climate goals can be achieved at the local level.

Stefanie Hallberg
The author has a university degree in journalism and works as a freelance writer for several publications, including the West German Radio in Cologne.

Translation: Jonathan Uhlaner
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Internet-Redaktion
August 2012

Any questions about this article? Please write to us!

Related links

Future Perfect

The Goethe-Institut and the foundation Futurzwei collect stories for tomorrow – lived today, everywhere.


In "EnergieWendeKunst", artists give aesthetic expression to their ideas about climate change. The catalogue will be released in November 2015.

Global Ideas

GLOBAL IDEAS brings you original reporting about the smartest local projects to fight global climate change. All around the world.

Glacier Music

What do melting glaciers sound like? An art project and an open competition for multimedia artists from Central Asia on the problem of advancing glacial melting.