Overline: Sustainable Brandenburg
Headline: Cooperation, Participation, and Trust Essential to Achieving Sustainability

With a string of elections looming that will see some four billion people worldwide go to the polls in 2024, Brandenburg Sustainability Platform met for its fifth plenary session on the shores of Lake Seddin south of Potsdam. The event attracted over 90 participants, who took part in discussions, workshops and a so-called “market of opportunities”, with a further 50 people following online. 

Plenary session Brandenburg Sustainability Platform Lake Seddin
The main chamber at the fifth plenary session of Brandenburg Sustainability Platform at Lake Seddin. Melanie Hauke

Minister Axel Vogel (Agriculture and Environment) began his opening address with a question: What role will sustainability play in this super election year? Citing recent studies, Vogel noted that 2023 was an exceptionally warm year compared to the period 1961–1990, and that February 2024 was the warmest February on record – with an average temperature of six degrees Celsius instead of the frosty sub-zero temperatures typical of this time of the year. He also pointed to a study published in 2023 which showed that “climate tipping points” are likely to be reached much faster than previously thought, causing considerable alarm. It is against this backdrop, the minister explained, that Brandenburg has adopted a climate action plan with the strategic goal of achieving climate neutrality by 2045. The minister lauded the role of diverse civil society actors in developing the plan and explained that work to implement many of the measures is already underway.

Vogel emphasised that – as with the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – there is always more than one way of achieving the targets set out in the action plan and that they could only be secured through cooperation and with the support of civil society. “The action plan includes measures to engage and strengthen the role of the public in measures to protect the climate and promote sustainable development; Brandenburg’s Sustainability Platform is also identified as an instrument," said Vogel. “I am also counting on the involvement of the platform's members in other areas and invite you to help us achieve the plan’s broader goals." Vogel also acknowledged the challenges that lie in harnessing democratic process to secure a more sustainable future.

How do Brandenburg’s efforts to achieve the SDGs compare with the rest of Germany?

Speaking at the event, RIFS researcher Ira Matuschke compared Brandenburg's efforts to achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to the rest of Germany and showed that the state is punching above its weight in some areas and underperforming in others. For example, Brandenburg ranks third among Germany’s sixteen states in its efforts to achieve SDG 7 – outperformed by just Schleswig-Holstein and Thuringia – with renewable energy sources accounting for 23.8 percent of primary energy consumption in Brandenburg in 2020. It also ranks among the top three states with respect to Target 6.1.b of SDG 6: "Nitrate in groundwater: compliance with the threshold value of of 50 mg/l". However, as Matuschke explained, Brandenburg is underperforming in SDG 3 (Health and well-being), with a relatively high rate of premature mortality among males (per 100,000 inhabitants) in 2022. It appears that while Brandenburg is in a better position than many other states in terms of the condition of its forests and the share of renewables and organic farming, if the state is to achieve the goals set out in its sustainability strategy, more will need to be done in the areas of healthcare, investment in research and development, and the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.

Sustainability policy is always cooperation policy

Two panel discussions held over the course of the day revealed an overarching theme: the vital role of cooperation as a factor in transformations towards sustainability. Conflicts will inevitably arise as we pursue multiple sustainability goals, and different forms of cooperation are needed to help resolve conflicts and deliver constructive outcomes. "Sustainability policy is always cooperation policy," stated Ortwin Renn from RIFS Potsdam. Conflicts must be tackled across multiple levels – horizontally and vertically – in order to avoid achieving one goal at the expense of others. "We always need to consider the side effects and impacts of measures because when it comes to transformations, there is no black and white – just different shades of grey. And we need to engage with these head on – because no matter what course of action we decide upon on the political level, negative outcomes are always a possibility."

The broad participation of civil society in the development of sustainability policy and transformations is also crucial to efforts to achieve the SDGs. In this context, Renn criticised the oft-quoted maxim that policymakers need to “take people with them” as misrepresenting the role of citizens. Rather than assigning citizens the role of passive participants, we should be empowering them to help steer transformations, explained Renn, who moderated the plenary session throughout the day. "This doesn’t mean that we should abandon representative democracy" – rather, citizens should be able to take an active role in shaping transformations. Other key factors include how measures are implemented and what we choose to prioritise. “We know what we want to achieve – getting there is the challenge. Achieving our goals will require broad cooperation across and between departments, ministries and institutions – coupled with the participation of affected communities and parties involved in implementing measures."