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ILR Fellowship in Germany: Civil Action and Lawyering for Climate Change

February 27, 2023

The International Legal Research (ILR) Fellowship offers Penn Carey Law Students financial support for a short-term summer legal research project abroad.

Sammy Wong L’23

Everyday people who are concerned about the climate crisis may say, “But what can I do?”—thinking that individual actions can’t affect large-scale, national projects.

In my time at Penn Carey Law, however, I have learned how civil engagement and law can intersect at the local level to effect change in the climate space. For example, I have studied how community energy (CE) projects—renewable energy projects that local communities own and that benefit communities economically while providing renewable energy to customers who may not otherwise have access—have given ordinary people opportunities to influence climate action, often while dealing with incumbent utilities. I have also researched the power of local engagement in improving city climate plans.

I have learned, too, how communities in parts of Europe have flourished well beyond the United States in local climate engagement. In Germany, in particular, many communities have been successful in affecting their Energiewende—energy transition. This led me to want to examine more closely how communities in small German cities and rural areas had shaped the passage of local ordinances in the energy and climate space. I hoped to find lessons from Germany’s systems that U.S. communities and regulators could apply to their own energy transitions.

Although I had taken most of the available energy and environmental courses at Penn Carey Law, the Law School’s International Legal Research (ILR) Fellowship allowed me to travel to Germany over the summer to see firsthand how citizen engagement in small cities and rural areas has affected, and continues to affect, subnational energy operations and climate action.

In Freiburg—a small city that many consider to be one of the most sustainable cities in Europe, if not the world—I met with Giulia Sabbatoli from the Innovation Academy, a local nonprofit dedicated to education about sustainability and city planning. Walking around Freiburg with Giulia, I observed a noticeable difference in urban design within a city that puts people, communities, and sustainability first.

Frieburg’s layout is planned with walking, public transit, and biking accessibility in mind. Throughout the city, Green projects featured meters that measured how much energy the projects had used and by how much carbon emissions had been reduced. An above-ground circular garage exclusively stores bicycles, and city planners trimmed car lanes on the highways to make way for bicycle paths. Frieburg embraces a notion of “democracy of the streets,” that is, the prioritization of the people who live in the city over auto transit in urban planning—a notion that makes sense, given Freiburg’s long history of citizen engagement.

I visited Vauban, a neighborhood of Freiburg, where community engagement has pushed local ordinances that allow residents to collectively regulate their own streets to be more ecologically friendly.

In Vauban, groups of houses known as baugruppen line U-shaped streets. Baugruppen have the power to set communal rules for the land and residents of their areas; for example, drivers may not drive faster than a few miles per hour so that children can play safely outside, and residents have largely banned parking on the streets—a measure that is not a problem for most, as 70 percent of people in Vauban do not own a car. In addition, architects and planners design houses within baugruppen with passive heating and cooling systems to retain and dispel heat as needed, making houses more energy efficient than those using traditional heating systems.

Input from local citizens was the initial impetus for the idea of a car-free, sustainable eco-city in Vauban, but that input was not sufficient on its own. The citizens’ dream of a sustainable, partially self-regulated neighborhood was able to gain traction because the local government was receptive to citizen engagement at the time the government was planning and building the district. Today, Vauban continues to serve as a model of local engagement and government responsiveness.

In contrast to the Vauban neighborhood and the city of Freiburg, there are areas of Germany where citizens have needed to push back against entrenched status quos. But even there, there have been many success stories. I learned how communities, rather than single actors, have been at the heart of many of Germany’s energy and environmental battles fought and won, such as against utilities for the right to build and interconnect wind turbines.

In Germany, smaller communities, which tend to be close-knit to begin with, have been especially effective in pushing for change. As far back as the 1980s, many farming communities in rural Germany began planning for, and even building, wind farms. I learned that many of these farming communities had conservative church groups at their centers. Today, the Protestant church in Germany is still a major force for citizen and community involvement in the Green movement, and church groups have remained major players in Germany’s energy transition.

When I asked about the overall notion of “communities” in Germany, I was told that community groups in the small cities and rural areas of the country have always been strong. Beyond baugruppen, there is also a concept of verein, which are registered voluntary associations in Germany that anyone can join, built around varied common interests and establishing bonds among community members.

How much of Germany’s success in local climate and energy planning can be attributed to more ingrained, or at least more easily accessed, existing communities? Although there is a clear correlation between communities and successful citizen engagement, I’m continuing to research whether it is a causal relationship, knowing that other elements may be at play.

Visiting Germany with the help of Penn Carey Law’s International Legal Research Fellowship gave me a rare, in-person opportunity to learn about a different country’s trials of citizen and community participation in local climate and energy planning. Although lawyers are not a necessary component of local climate action, my visit to Germany taught me how a receptive, responsive, and active government can work with engaged local citizens to integrate regulation and city design for the benefit of both residents and the environment.