History of ifeu

The beginnings – the environmental protection tutorial group

The origins of ifeu as an institute date back to the early 1970s. Environmental protection had already become a social issue by the time of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm in 1972, but specific environmental protection measures were still in their infancy. In the same year, the Club of Rome published the Meadows Study entitled “The Limits to Growth”. This marked the beginnings of the environmental movement.

At the time, there was a considerable lack of scientific expertise with a focus on ecology. Initially, only very few people knew how to present precise and skilled arguments against problematic large-scale technologies.

During this period, some undergraduates and doctoral students at the University of Heidelberg began to get involved. As early as 1971, university professors  established the Working Group for Environmental Protection at the University of Heidelberg (AGU) on the basis of symposia and seminars. Unusually for a university institution, AGU staff engaged with politically sensitive issues – analysing the results of radioactivity measurements in the areas around nuclear power stations, and criticising the level of emissions from an aluminium plant in Ludwigshafen.

Increasing amounts of funding from the VW Foundation went towards organising free tutorials in the Faculty of Biology. These were designed to provide students with development opportunities and encourage them to take the initiative, and to promote voluntary further education.

A radioecological report issued by the environmental protection tutorial group for the 1978 court case against the nuclear power station in Wyhl represented a pivotal moment. The report attracted a great deal of attention, but the tutorial group found the official radioecological basis used for calculations and reports in relation to approval procedures to be incorrect in key areas.

The clashes with the University over the Wyhl report led to the creation of a body in which the issues of environmental protection and nuclear energy could be dealt with independently and without risk of repression. In the autumn of 1977, seven young scientists and students at the University of Heidelberg founded the IFEU-Institut für Energie- und Umweltforschung Heidelberg, which was then registered as a non-profit association on 26 April 1978. At the time, the university insisted on the name “IFEU Institute” including the acronym in order to differentiate it from normal university institutions.

IFEU was one of the first self-managed research institutes in Germany. In the early years, the scientists were largely unsalaried and the proceeds from projects were ploughed into the development of an infrastructure and into financial reserves. In fact, the institute was awarded significant government research contracts after a short start-up period, and this was enough to ensure its survival.

In 1979 Richard Ratka undertook a major study on behalf of the Federal Minister for Research and Technology into the radioactive emissions from the secondary circuit of nuclear power stations. At this time IFEU underwent the first stage of professionalisation when it went from a university-based working and action group to a serious research institute.

In spite of all this, IFEU was like a work collective with the feel of a shared student house. The staff ate together every lunchtime, and often cooked as well, with 10 to 15 IFEU employees taking turns to prepare meals using fresh and ecologically grown vegetables – a tradition which is maintained today, at least once a week.

A small, inconspicuous paper on alternative energy production and savings became a bestseller: Das sanfte Energie-Handbuch (“The Gentle Energy Guide”) sold many tens of thousands of copies. The voice of the IFEU scientists was heard in the former capital, Bonn, and not just through the studies they published. In 1979, Ulrich Höpfner was appointed to the scientific staff of the German Bundestag to serve on the parliamentary Commission of Enquiry into ‘Future nuclear energy policy’, which was the first of its kind.

Power shift in Bonn – economic crisis and substantive challenge

The political landscape in Bonn changed in the autumn of 1982 when Helmut Kohl’s new government came to power. The issue of nuclear energy, which was a key focal point in the work of IFEU, was less controversial in the eyes of the state, and politicians no longer saw a need for parallel research. IFEU completed its studies on nuclear energy, but no new studies were commissioned.

During this crisis, the scientists were unemployed or on very low salaries. Without further contracts, the institute would have had to cease operations. The institute was saved when new posts were approved as part of job creation measures, which were eventually agreed by the new local CDU Member of Parliament, and later parliamentary secretary in the Federal Ministry of the Environment, Bernd Schmidbauer, after much deliberation.

This economically difficult period saw a phase of substantive realignment. The institute diversified the range of issues is addressed and no longer focussed primarily on nuclear energy. Additional content was added in the priority areas. The air pollution caused by combustion plants, power stations and traffic became an important new environmental issue, triggered by the debate on forest dieback. Dieter Teufel and Ulrich Höpfner addressed these issues and testified as expert witnesses at Bundestag hearings in late 1983. The institute began to consider how to reduce polluting emissions from the transport sector quickly and effectively. One of the immediate measures proposed by IFEU was the speed limit of 80/100 km/h. In the long term, IFEU favoured the catalytic converter, which was already standard in the USA, but which had met with considerable resistance from German businesses. In addition, recommendations were also made to promote environmentally friendly transport, such as public transport.

When the job creation measures came to an end, another area of action had been developed in addition to the transport sector. Together, Thilo Koch and Florian Heinstein, a business economist who would manage the institute from then on, created the IFEU Institute’s first municipal waste management concept.

Using the city of Bielefeld as an example, they addressed the question of whether or not waste incineration should be used. In contrast to many other bodies involved in the public discussion, IFEU advocated a moderate approach at that time, endorsing waste incineration under certain conditions, provided that systematic waste prevention and recycling were in place. Ready-made reports, which are quite usual amongst experts, were frowned upon, and each investigation had to be tailor-made.

A similar development occurred in the energy sector from 1996 onwards. In this sector too, the specific concepts for cities and municipalities replaced the national energy policy strategies which had been discussed previously. The geographer Achim Schorb, the engineer Jörg Wortmann and later Hans Hertle set up a department to deal with municipal energy supply and energy management.

In 1983, Bernd Franke founded the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (IEER) in Washington D.C. Radioecology underwent a brief public renaissance following the reactor accident in Chernobyl. Suddenly the IFEU’s expertise was in demand again, performing dosage calculations and assessing the movement of radionuclides into the food chain. A pamphlet written by Mario Schmidt about the radiation risk from Chernobyl sold 70,000 copies in just a few weeks.

The upper-case IFEU now became the lower-case ifeu, which also demonstrated a new vision – the newspaper headlines were not the be-all and end-all, but rather the serious yet environmentally committed scientific work was key. There was an understanding that ifeu was now more of a research institution and less of a citizens’ initiative.

Professionalisation and the transition to a limited liability company

With the diversification of issues and the increasingly frequent work of putting ideas into practice through concepts and consultancy, the Heidelberg tax office raised concerns as to whether all operations were non-profit and could be carried out by the registered association (e.V). This was ultimately the point at which the institute’s business was no longer conducted by a non-profit association, but by a limited liability company.

During the first four years, the limited liability company prospered. The number of employees grew to around 40, and the institute outgrew its previous rented office space. The institute relocated again, this time to suitable premises in Wilckensstraße with room for further expansion. The institute also began to address a range of new issues at this time. Mario Schmidt, Jörg Wortmann and Reinhard Six drew up a large-scale concept for the reduction of the greenhouse gas CO2 in Heidelberg. Timed to coincide with the Earth Summit in Rio, the campaign slogan was “Rio negotiates, Heidelberg acts”.

The institute continued to grow after the turn of the millennium, expanding the diversity of issues addressed and designing modules for a transition in energy, transport, food and consumption. The long-standing managing director Ulrich Höpfner handed over the management of ifeu to Markus Duscha and Jürgen Giegrich, who have headed the institute since 2014. Martin Pehnt, Lothar Eisenmann and Andreas Detzel then assumed responsibility for managing the institute’s scientists and researchers, whose numbers had now swelled to more than 70. Martin Pehnt also established the Berlin office, an important pillar of ifeu located near the main railway station.

As before, the institute thrives on its employees – the creativity, commitment and idealism of every individual. These characteristics cannot simply be delegated or shared at will.

So what remains after this 40-year history of the institute – aside from a few unresolved environmental problems and many open questions relating to content? At least once a week, there is still a communal lunch and cook-up, which some people have even claimed to be a prerequisite for employment at ifeu. And the institute’s understanding of its research and work certainly remains, and is to a large extent shaped by the ecological requirements of humankind, which is living beyond its means. Anyone who works for ifeu wants to do more than just earn money – they have visions and goals, are committed to a better environment, and they are prepared to assume responsibility. The visions of the individual have shaped the institute as a whole. After all, and this is one major change over the last 40 years, people can now also make a living from this work.

Excerpt from: Schmidt, Mario / Höpfner, Ulrich (Hrsg.), 20 Jahre ifeu-Institut. Engagement für die Umwelt zwischen Wissenschaft und Politik, Braunschweig / Wiesbaden 1998. Current additions.

© Photographies: Mario Schmidt (1,2,3), Udo Lambrecht (4)