Tuesday, June 26, 2007

You Bet! BUNDjugend

Sometimes the government moves too slowly. At least it seemed that way to the young members of the German group BUNDjugend. To them, when the government said that in seven years, Germany would reduce its CO2 emissions by 10%, it seemed about six years and five months too long.

“We bet that we can achieve the Government climate protection target at our schools within seven months, instead of seven years,” BUNDjugend wrote to the Federal Minister of the Environment. What did they want in return? Well, if they won, BUNDjugend wanted a party, of course!

This might seem like a simple enough bet to win and a simple enough prize to pay. You might think it’s like your class winning a school fund-raiser and earning a pizza party. The difference with BUNDjugend’s bet with the German government is that BUNDjugend gathered 192 participating schools with over 135,000 students. If they won, it would be one heck of a big party!

BUNDjugend also knew that to coordinate their 135,00 students, they would need more than just one hero—to win the bet, it would take an army of heroes all working together. And for each of these heroes there would have to be hundreds of kids willing to do what it takes to reduce CO2 emissions. Which raised a good point—what the heck is COs, why is it bad, and how can you get rid of it, anyway?

It was time for BUNDjugend to hit the library.

They learned that carbon dioxide gas (CO2) comes from almost everything that burns including car exhausts, energy plants that burn coal, production of cement, lime, iron, and steel, and especially from breathing. So all they needed was for everybody to hold their breath! As you probably guessed, this doesn’t work for long. In fact, BUNDjugend found that most “breathing” in the world is actually done by microscopic animals that live in the ocean. These little guys release over 60-thousand-million tons of carbon into the air each year—that’s the same weight as 50 million elephants or the weight of 75 times all the cars in the world!

BUNDjugend also learned the problem with COs is that it acts like a giant earth sweater, forming a cozy blanket in the sky and making everything heat up. Also, the little microbes whose breathing produces millions of carbon dioxide elephants every year like the heat. So, if it warmed up a little there would be more microbes and it would warm up a lot, and soon water would cover the Earth and we would be ruled by giant alien squid (not really...). And BUNDjugend decided their school principals were already too much like giant alien squid!

Once they figured out that CO2 comes from using energy, they knew how to win the bet—cut down on their schools’ energy consumption! With a hero in charge of each school, BUNDjugend turned down the heat, installed energy-saving light bulbs, reduced their water use, and installed solar panels. Kids also brought in plants and turned their classrooms into mini rainforests (because all plants breathe in carbon dioxide and change it back into oxygen). And they had to be fast because the clock was ticking!

At the end of seven months, Germany’s Federal Environmental Agency went to the schools to see how they had done. As the inspectors in white coats poked around the schools with their beeping electronic meters and clipboards, BUNDjugend and the other 135,000 students crossed their fingers. After checking 20 schools, the agency found that BUNDjugend schools easily reduced their CO2 emissions by 10% and won the bet!

On September 17, 1999 there was one heck of a party in Bonn, Germany.

But the BUNDjugend didn’t stop there. Kathrin Gutmann and Nadine Evers had been part of the original bet and in the year 2000 they were sitting in a cafeteria talking about what a shame it was that the project was over. What could they do to keep the idea alive? The two girls knew that the European Union planned to cut their CO2 emissions by 8% over eight years. Could it be possible to do “the bet” all across Europe? Of course it could!

Gutmann, Evers, and the rest of BUNDjugend organized schools in 16 countries to bet they could reduce 8% in eight months. Most people didn’t think they could do it. “The Bet,” as it was known around the world, included schools from Belgium, Bulgaria, Denmark, Estonia, France, Germany, Italy, Lithuania, Luxemburg, Macedonia, Portugal, Romania, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and The Netherlands. Whew! There were so many schools involved in The Bet that BUNDjugend had to organize themselves like a small government and everything was linked by the website www.thebet.de.

In 2001 the schools of the 16 European countries won their bet, too! You can only imagine the size of the party.

Maybe it’s time for somebody to organize The Bet in the United States.

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