How useful is demographics

Demographic change

Fritz Habekuss

Fritz Habekuß, born in 1990, is an editor in the science department of ZEIT. He was born in Brandenburg and studied science journalism with a focus on biosciences and medicine at the TU Dortmund.

Effects of demographic change on the environment

Forests and meadows, water and housing: the change in the structure of the population will also have an impact on the environment and nature conservation. Not only in the country, but also in the cities.

Demographic change will change Germany permanently. Life expectancy in Germany has been increasing for decades and the birth rate has fallen sharply since the 1960s. The development will gain momentum in the coming decades.

The term "demographic change" is a bit misleading because there is no such thing as "one" change. Rather, many changes are coming to Germany from a wide variety of directions: economically, socially, infrastructurally and socially. In two decades, society will look completely different than we know it today. If you want to summarize the various results of these changes, you come to three main points. First: Germany is getting older. The baby boomers of the 1950s and 1960s (the so-called baby boomers) are retiring. Second: Germany is becoming more diverse through immigration. And third: Germany will lose residents. More old people die in Germany than children are born.

All of this will have an impact on the environment. However, not much is known about it today.

On the one hand, this has to do with the fact that the discussion is still concentrating on how pensions should be paid in the future or how to ensure that even remote areas can be adequately supplied with hospitals and kindergartens. On the other hand, because there is no simple answer. In most cases, the effects are indirect and can only rarely be traced back to individual demographic changes. In addition, developments vary greatly from region to region.

More nature protection?

Even if exceptions confirm the rule, it can be said that cities where the average age is lower than in rural areas are less likely to lose inhabitants. More people than ever before will live in cities that will be even more densely populated than they are today. Two defining trends in urbanization are the formation of suburban areas and increasing deconcentration. As various studies have shown, it is therefore not to be expected that falling population numbers will be accompanied by lower land consumption.

Maintaining and creating green spaces such as parks, playgrounds or botanical gardens is a question of quality of life. They help to reduce noise and pollutants, offer relaxation, increase biodiversity and are places where you can learn something about nature. But if more and more people want to live in the metropolitan areas, space in the city center is becoming scarce. Cities must therefore ensure that they maintain and maintain open spaces.

A good example of how sensitivity towards nature, the environment and food can be increased in a densely populated area can be found in Berlin. In the Wedding district, which is often referred to as a socially problematic district, there is the Gardening School Initiative. The aim is to encourage participants from different social classes and generations to work together to learn while gardening. It's not just about differentiating a carrot from a potato. The practical work provides children, young people and adults with a lot of knowledge about plants and animals, sustainability and nutrition.

But even in urban areas there are districts in which the population is more likely to decrease. This opens up opportunities for the creation of green spaces: through sensible demolition and strategic planning, parks or gardens can be created where industrial or residential wastelands are planted and not built on.

Demographic change also offers new opportunities for nature conservation in rural areas. According to current forecasts, the German population will have shrunk to 72.5 million by 2050, and rural regions in particular will lose their inhabitants, above all structurally weak areas. Industrial and residential complexes that nobody needs today could be demolished in order to create new areas for nature. This can lead to land use conflicts, for example in agriculture.

The designation of protected areas is an opportunity for nature conservation. There are different categories of protection in Germany. Nature reserves enjoy the highest protection, of which there are more than 8,500 with a total area of ​​960,000 hectares. The largest of these is the North Frisian Wadden Sea with an area of ​​more than 136,000 hectares. Areas with less strict protection in Germany are the 15 national parks, more than 8,100 landscape protection areas, 15 biosphere reserves and more than 100 nature parks.

Such protected areas give animal and plant species the opportunity to live without being influenced by humans. In the strictly protected nature reserves in particular, various ecological niches exist side by side, which is why the biodiversity there is higher than in conventionally used areas.

A lot of work in nature and environmental protection is done by volunteers. Due to the expected decline in population, the non-profit associations face problems with young talent. With a falling population, the federal, state and local governments will have less tax money at their disposal. This can become a problem for work in the areas of nature and environmental protection, which are often at least partially publicly funded.

In order to be able to safeguard the interests of nature conservation even in times of demographic change, it will be important to coordinate environmental protection with the interests of tourism, agriculture and the energy sector.

Recreation for bogs and the groundwater

Filter hall of the Tolkewitz waterworks in Dresden: Germany's sewage system is currently not designed for the consumption of significantly less water - which a shrinking population entails. (& copy picture alliance / ZB)

Germany has a safe and well-developed drinking and sewage system. However, the systems that exist today were not designed for a shrinking population. If the utilization drops because the number and density of inhabitants are falling or people are consuming less, problems arise: Deposits can form on the pipes, if the water is in the pipe for too long, an unpleasant smell develops. Waterworks in rural regions must therefore regularly flush their networks with fresh drinking water that cannot be used for other purposes. Another negative effect that demographic change will bring with it is the increased discharge of medication into the groundwater, as the group of people over 65 years of age is growing - and they also consume the most medication. What effects this will have is currently the subject of numerous research projects.

Regions in which the water network has a decentralized structure are advantageous, i.e. where a large number of small waterworks bring drinking water to consumers. Brandenburg is an example of this. Overall, the per capita consumption of drinking water in Germany has been falling continuously for years. In 2012 it was 121 liters per day.

In order to react to the problems of demographic change, the water suppliers will have to reduce existing capacities and reorganize their structures, they will have to merge plants and raise prices in order to be able to maintain the supply structures.

The environment also benefits from the falling water consumption: The rise in the groundwater level will create wetlands and bogs in some areas. Both are species-rich habitats and offer plants and animals refuge and habitats, such as rare species such as the black grouse, the golden plover, the moor blue butterfly or the moor frog. Moors also act as an effective carbon dioxide store.

At the same time, the rise in groundwater can in turn lead to major problems: if the root zone of forests is exposed to permanent moisture, they could die. Older buildings that are not protected against moisture from below could be damaged.

A positive effect of demographic change on species protection has been observed for several years in Saxony and other eastern federal states: the wolves are returning, in 2000 a couple who immigrated from Poland raised a puppy for the first time, which it had had in 150 Years in Germany. Species that used to be widespread, such as the lynx and bison, are now at home in Germany again. In addition to efforts to protect species, the decreasing population density is the main reason for the return of large mammals.

Living together: benefits for the environment and society

The fewer people live in a household, the higher the per capita consumption of energy, heating costs or water. The Energy Agency NRW found in a survey that a one-person household consumes an average of 2,256 kilowatt hours, a person in a two-person household 1,624 kilowatt hours and a person in a three-person household only 1,415 kilowatt hours.

Households in rural areas have disadvantages compared to those in cities: the distances between the individual consumers are greater and the fixed costs are passed on to fewer people. Take heating, for example: Systems that transport heat over short distances only make sense if many people live close together. Otherwise too much energy will be lost along the way.

So it would be better for the environment if more people shared living space. There are some interesting approaches that also bring social and societal benefits. In 2009, for example, the "Living for Help" project was started in Cologne. Since 70,000 students live in Cologne and there are also senior citizens who would like to stay at home, these two groups were brought together. The deal: Students help seniors with shopping, cleaning or just keeping company, in return the young people are allowed to live rent-free. The project is still successful today and has also been exported to other German cities.

Friendships arose at "Wohnen für Hilfe", the project brought generations to talk to one another who are otherwise often strangers to one another. Society benefits from such models. "Living for Help" also has an advantage for the environment: unused living space is used and is not empty, which eases the tense housing market in many cities. This means that fewer new apartments and houses have to be built, which saves resources and reduces space consumption.

The district of Tübingen pursued another idea and launched a project that advises older people on how they can remodel their house in an age-appropriate and climate-friendly manner. After initial skepticism, the project, which was funded by the district, health insurance companies, banks and the Chamber of Architects, has become a success. In the first year alone, more than 1,000 consultations were carried out, and in half of all cases the buildings were actually renovated in the end.

It is also unclear how the declining funding will affect environmental and nature conservation measures: They are highly dependent on state or European funds. As a slowdown in economic growth is expected as a result of demographic change and social and care systems are becoming more expensive, less money could be left for nature conservation measures, for example for the preservation of nature reserves, youth work by environmental associations or nature-friendly road construction.

However, the model projects mentioned show that it is entirely possible to shape demographic change in such a way that not only nature but also people, communities and society can benefit.

Further source

Andrea Wagner (et al.): Demographic Change - Challenges and Recommendations for Action for Environmental and Nature Conservation, ed. by the German Institute for Urban Studies (Difu) on behalf of the Federal Environment Agency, Dessau 2012. Online at: