Overline: Obituary
Headline: RIFS Mourns the Loss of Klaus Töpfer

The founding director of the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (IASS), Klaus Töpfer, has died at the age of 85. Following its establishment in 2009, the pioneering institute rose to prominence within the international sustainability research community under his leadership.

Klaus Töpfer
Klaus Töpfer (1938-2024) RIFS/René Arnold

From 2009 to 2015, the former Federal Minister of the Environment and Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme, Klaus Töpfer, was an executive director of the IASS, which was renamed as the Research Institute for Sustainability (RIFS) in 2023. Töpfer was a driving force behind the founding of the innovative research institute, which also examines the social dimension of sustainable development as an integral part of its research. The RIFS continues to pursue this approach under its new name and as part of the Helmholtz Association.

With his professional background, Klaus Töpfer was exceptionally well-qualified to bring together people from different areas of society and incorporate different forms of knowledge in order to develop solutions and reconcile conflicting interests. Today, the RIFS continues the institute’s founding mission of generating knowledge that will enable us to address sustainability challenges and facilitating its transfer into the political and economic domains.

Töpfer established a broad range of research activities at the IASS – spanning the energy transition, soil conservation, ocean governance, and the cultural and social dimensions of sustainable development. A firm believer in the need for transdisciplinary research, Klaus Töpfer was also passionate about its transformative potential and sought to connect knowledge with action.

In 2019, the inaugural Klaus Töpfer Sustainability Fellowship was awarded. This annual fellowship was established to support individuals who work across the fields of politics, science, culture, business and civil society – just as he did. This fellowship was close to his heart because it recognises individuals who have the capacity to look at the bigger picture and are committed to building bridges between different world views.

In 2011, Klaus Töpfer was joined at the IASS by atmospheric scientist Mark G. Lawrence – among others – who is today one of two scientific directors at the helm of the institute. Mark Lawrence: “I was especially inspired by his tremendous energy, his passion for sustainability, and his ability to understand the findings of science and inject them into political processes. Likewise, he helped the scientific community to understand political and societal processes. His legacy lives on in many places, including at RIFS.”

Klaus Töpfer was a valuable advisor and supporter of the RIFS right up to the end. With him, we lose both our founding director and a good friend. Our thoughts are with his family and friends.