Federal Environment Agency: The sky over the Ruhr is blue again!

Not made up out of thin air: Back in 1961 Willy Brandt demanded the sky over the Ruhr area become blue again

“The sky over the Ruhr region must be blue again.” This demand made by Willy Brandt during a speech on 28 April 1961 in the Bonn Beethoven Hall is rightfully seen as the start of environmentally conscious political thinking in Germany. In so doing, Brandt brought a regional problem previously ignored into the focus of sociopolitical debate- long before there were notions of ’environmental protection‘ or ‘environmental politics‘.  He drew attention to the downsides of the German economic miracle: although the smoking chimney stacks were the key to prosperity, the unfiltered industrial fumes increasingly burdened the health and sense of well-being of many people in the Ruhr area.

“His call for clean air, clean water and less noise for citizens in the Ruhr made it unmistakable that protection of the environment is an important task to be handled by society. This task has been approached with success since the 1970s,” said the President of the Federal Environment Agency (UBA), Jochen Flasbarth. ”Phenomena such as smog in winter are unknown nowadays,” added Flasbarth. 

In the 1960s air pollution was literally visible in the area. Millions of tonnes of dust, ash and soot from furnaces, steel converters and coke ovens settled on urban areas all year long. The result was a rise in respiratory diseases, especially lung cancer. There was a high incidence of symptoms of rickets and conjunctivitis among children. Elevated concentrations of sulphur dioxide (SO2) caused trees to die and eventually led to acidification of soil and bodies of water. 

Since the 1970s a series of legislation, e.g. the “lead law“ (Benzin-Blei-Gesetz), the Federal Immission Control Act, or administrative regulations such as the Technical Instructions on Air Quality Control  (TA Luft) and the Large Combustion Installations Ordinance have sought to reduce or eliminate environmental pollution through technological means. Flue gas desulphurization in power plants, the reduction of sulphur content in fuels, and less use of coal-fired heating in households have all helped to significantly improve air quality in Germany. According to data from the Environment Ministry of the state of North-Rhine Westphalia, SO2 pollution of the Rhine and Ruhr rivers has been reduced by 97 percent, falling from 206 microgrammes per cubic metre air (µg/ m3) in 1964 to 8 µg/m3 in 2007. Particulate matter pollution (particles with a maximum dimension of 30-50 µm) followed a similar pattern from 1968-2002.

Air quality control policy faces new challenges nowadays: since 2005 the caps for particulates (PM10), and since 2010 for nitrogen dioxide (NO2), have been exceeded in German urban areas along many main roads. The major cause is the growth in road traffic. According to epidemiological studies, exposure to NO2 increases the risk of infection and damages lung function, and the studies also establish a correlation between exposure to particulates and cardiovascular disease.

The rise in biomass combustion, particularly in small firing installations, is also a source of particulate pollution which must be monitored closely. Says Jochen Flasbarth, “The institution of environmental zones is an important step in the right direction for improved air quality in urban areas. However, we must be mindful that decentralised energy supply that includes the use of biomass does not counteract the progress made.”

”The effect of Willy Brandt‘s concerns about the environment has been that 50 years later Germany has become a market leader in many ’green’ future markets. There are already some 1.8 million jobs in environmental management,“ says Jochen Flasbarth.

German Environment Agency

Wörlitzer Platz 1
06844 Dessau-Roßlau
Germany