National and regional story (Germany) - The way toward unifying environmental protection

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Published: 26 Nov 2010 Modified: 21 Mar 2015 Feed synced: 23 Nov 2010 original

Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall – the way toward unifying environmental protection

The former German Democratic Republic – initial situation and transposition of environmental law

One distinctive feature of Germany is its political division in the period from 1949 to 1989, which led to different political, economic and societal developments. Fourty years of a socialist planned economy in the former German Democratic Republic (GDR) resulted in massive environmental damage. Industrial productivity in 1989 was running at just one-third of the West German level. The capital stock was completely outdated. Urgent investments in the environmental infrastructure had not been made, and the air and water pollution represented acute risks to human health.

Following the collapse of the political system of the GDR and the fall of the Berlin wall on 9 November 1989, the ecological rehabilitation and development of the new Länder became one of the urgent priorities of environmental policy. The essential provisions of the environmental legislation of the Federal Republic of Germany came into force in the German Democratic Republic as early as 1 July 1990 – at the same time as the economic, monetary and social union. Transitional periods were fixed in order to meet the various standards. Comprehensive aid programmes were set up in order to support ecological reconstruction. The environmental legislation of the Federal Republic of Germany also became applicable in the new Länder with the integration of Brandenburg, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt and Thüringen in the Federal Republic of Germany on 3 October 1990.

Environment and Nature in the new Länder

The starting situation in the new Länder in 1990 was characterised, in particular in the industrial centres and the main population centres, by a high level of air pollution with harmful substances. Modernisation of the energy industry, restructuring of industry with the decommissioning of obsolete manufacturing facilities and their replacement with modern equivalents together with a series of additional factors, such as the renewal of the motor vehicle stock, very quickly led to a decrease in pollution in the new federal Länder.

Air quality

Until the start of the 1990s, the air pollutant sulphur dioxide (SO2) was still one of the main components of urban air pollution in Germany. Whereas SO2 pollution in the old federal territory had already fallen drastically in the 1970s as a result of emission reduction measures, until 1990 the industrial conurbations in eastern Germany continued to belong to the regions of western Europe that were most seriously affected by environmental pollution because of the outdated chemical and lignite processing industries. Around one-third more sulphur dioxide and particulates were emitted in the territory of the present-day Saxony-Anhalt alone in 1989 than in the whole of the former federal territory. SO2 emissions are now at a level at which harmful effects on human health and vegetation are scarcely detectable. This positive trend can be attributed to the systematic modernisation of the large combustion plants and conversion to new energy sources (natural gas and mineral oil), including in the case of small combustion plants.

The successful reduction of SO2 pollution by emission reduction measures, above all in power stations and industrial plants, has resulted in a situation in which today air pollutants from the transport sector are increasingly in evidence. These include above all particulate matter (PM10) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) which, because of their high concentrations of airborne pollutants and the resulting risks to health, are at the forefront of public interest.

PM10: From the late 1980s/early 1990s to the end of the 1990s, there was a steep reduction in the concentration and a continuous alignment of the particulate matter level in the new Länder, above all in conurbations like Halle/Leipzig. Stagnation has been noted in both east and west since 2000 (see the figure below).

The applicable annual NO2 limit value for the protection of human health (a mandatory 40 µg/m³ for 2010) is not being met at many urban measurement points in Germany. Recordings at more than half of the urban traffic-oriented air measurement stations exceed this value. In residential areas remote from roads with heavy volumes of traffic, only a small number of measurement stations currently exceed the annual NO2 limit value that will be applicable from 2010. However, NO2 pollution in the new Länder - and also in the Halle/Leipzig conurbation - is lower than in the old Länder. This is because of the smaller number of vehicle mileage per year, the high proportion of new, relatively low-emission vehicles and the different composition of the fleet (diesel/petrol) in the east and west. In Halle/Leipzig the NO2 annual mean values lie below the stipulated limit values. Nevertheless, there are still instances of the limit values being exceeded at urban, traffic-oriented stations (for example: Leipzig city centre measurement station).

Rivers and brooks – once more a natural habitat for animals

The pollution of all German rivers by nutrients and harmful substances has fallen significantly since the construction of wastewater treatment plants with third-stage (phosphorus removal) and fourth-stage (nitrate removal) cleaning and the restriction of industrial discharges. From 1990, these measures were also adopted in the new Länder, with the result that the water quality in the eastern German rivers recovered significantly. The connection of the eastern German population to wastewater treatment plants at between 69-90 % is quite high (old Länder: 94-100 %), as is the performance of the purification plants (level of oxygen demand: new Länder: 1.3 –1.5; old Länder 1.3 – 1.4).

The impact of wastewater treatment plants can be seen, for example, in the distinct reduction in the pollution of the River Elbe by ammonium-linked nitrogen (see the figure below). Nitrate concentration, on the other hand, is decreasing only slowly in all German rivers, because the nitrate originating from agriculture which enters watercourses via diffuse sources cannot be controlled.

Rehabilitation measures and the disappearance of many branches of industry – for example in the area of the River Mulde and River Saale, which are tributaries of the River Elbe – have also brought about a significant reduction in the discharge of industrial heavy metals. This could be seen particularly clearly by the mid-1990s in the reduction in pollution of the River Elbe with mercury from the chemical industry in the region of Halle and in the Czech Republic. Nevertheless, mercury is still present in higher concentrations (from former contamination) than in other rivers.

The content of harmful substances in the water of the River Elbe has fallen significantly, on the whole, in some cases by as much as 90 %, since the early 1990s as a result of the disappearance of many branches of industry and thanks to wastewater treatment plants. Thanks to this positive development, the first International Elbe Swimming Day was held in June 2002, after swimming in the River Elbe had not been permitted for many decades for health reasons (Source: ARGE Elbe).

The water structure of watercourses in the new Länder is far better than in the old Länder. The following figure shows that, morphologically, the River Elbe is in a better position than other German rivers by a considerable margin. Because the economy was weak, the rivers in the GDR had been narrowed and ‘managed’ significantly less than in the old Länder. More natural habitats survived as a consequence of this – one of the reasons why the rivers were able to recover relatively quickly once the levels of harmful substances had been reduced.

The number of fish species and microorganisms is also increasing in eastern Germany along with the constant improvement in the water quality of the eastern German waters. The River Elbe was once one of the most abundant fish rivers in Europe. Even in 1900, the catches of the Elbe fishermen, at around 100 kilograms per hectare, were twice as high as in lakes. These included both indigenous fish species and migratory fish, which moved between the river system and the open sea. The most spectacular migratory fish species included the sturgeon, of which specimens of more than three metres in length were taken on occasion. Stocks were already on the decline in the 19th century – caused by expansion measures in the river and finally by industrial effluents in the 20th century. A number of fish stocks have recovered since the noticeable improvement in water quality around 1990. Since then, approximately 45 species are once again being recorded in the Middle Elbe, and there are even over 90 species in the Lower Elbe. One particularly positive feature, compared with rivers such as the Rhine or the Mosel, is that barrages are almost entirely absent in the German section (exception: Geesthacht), allowing endangered migratory fish to reach their spawning grounds.

Land and area conservation

Reclamation of contaminated sites – organisation and financing

The ecological crisis points in the economic zones of the former GDR, which were characterised by serious soil and groundwater contamination, were exposed with the unification of the two German states. In addition to extensive areas with contaminated sites left behind by the military and by uranium extraction in Thüringen and Saxony, these included above all the main centres of the chemical industry and the mining of lignite in the greater Leipzig/Bitterfeld/Halle/Merseburg region, copper mining and processing in the Mansfelder Land region, the lignite region of Niederlausitz and the coastal region of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania. Damage to the countryside over a large area in the form of extensive holes left over from opencast mining and tips, a seriously disrupted water balance and abandoned landfill sites – in particular from lignite processing facilities and the chemical industry – represented a considerable risk to the environment.

With the completion of German reunification, either the new Länder or the Federal Republic of Germany became successors in title and as such were responsible for the rehabilitation of the contaminated sites on the former territory of the GDR. In December 1992, the Federal Government and Treuhandanstalt (THA) reached agreement with the Länder of Berlin, Brandenburg, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt and Thüringen for the joint financing of these tasks. An administrative agreement in respect of the financial arrangements for the contaminated sites was concluded for this purpose.

This agreement regulates proportionate funding by the Federal Government and the Länder. Prerequisite is the exemption by the Land authorities of the investors from responsibility for and the costs of all environmental damage that occurred before 1 July 1990, in accordance with the Environmental Protection Framework Act (Umweltrahmengesetz) / Act to Remove Obstacles to the Privatisation of Enterprises and to Promote Investment (Hemmnisbeseitigungsgesetz). Under this exemption, any claims asserted against the Länder are shared in the proportion 60 (Federal Government) to 40 (Länder). A cost-sharing arrangement of 75 (Federal Government) to 25 (Länder) was laid down for large-scale ecological projects. These costs will be reduced by the amount taken over by the purchaser of the property. The Federal Government and the Länder have already spent more than EUR 3 billion on more than 20 large-scale projects (see the locations overview below).

The Federal Government and the Länder have also been working together since 1992 on the task of lignite rehabilitation (for more details, see the section entitled Lignite rehabilitation) and have already invested EUR 8 million in this. The financing of the specific measures for lignite rehabilitation is met 75 % by the Federal Government and 25 % by the Länder. Supplementary measures to avert risks posed by any increase in the level of the groundwater are financed in equal parts by the Federal Government and the Länder.

A further mining rehabilitation programme should be completed by the year 2015, when the so called “Wismut rehabilitation programme” to rehabilitate and revitalise the radioactive and chemically and toxically contaminated legacy of the former uranium ore mining in Saxony and Thüringen. The Federal Government has sole financial responsibility for this programme, with a budget appropriation of EUR 6.2 billion.

Furthermore, numerous areas that were previously used by the military were returned to the economic cycle once again and rehabilitated for end users in the course of the conversion.

Locations overview for large-scale projects in the new Länder (Figure 6)


1) Spree industrial area


2) City of Brandenburg

3) Oranienburg region

4) BASF Schwarzheide

5) PCK Schwedt

Mecklenburg Western Pomerania

6) Wismar

7) Rostock

8) Stralsund

Free State of Saxony

9) SOW Böhlen

10) Saxonia Freiberg

11) Dresden Coschütz/Gittersee

12) Lautawerk

Saxony Anhalt

13+14) Bitterfeld/Wolfen

15) Buna

16) Leuna

17) Zeitz

18) Mansfeld

19) Magdeburg Rothensee

20) Erdöl-Erdgas Gommern

Free State of Thüringen

21+22) Kali Werra, Kali Südharz

23) Rositz

Rehabilitation of lignite mining areas – from open-cast mining deserts to a growth region of the future

Attractive regions with a high landscape, natural and recreational value as well as modern locations for industry and commerce have been established on the former lignite open-cast mining sites of the German Democratic Republic’s lignite industry. Lausitzer Seenland and Leipziger Neuseenland are prominent examples of these ‘succession landscapes’. The rehabilitation and redesign of the sites is the responsibility of the government-owned company, Lausitzer und Mitteldeutsche Bergbau-Verwaltungsgesellschaft mbH (LMBV), which is managing a non-privatised area of around 100 000 ha and rehabilitating and remodelling it according to the provisions of the mining and water use legislation of the Länder authorities.

The mining-related land rehabilitation is now largely complete, and almost all the planned lakes have been flooded. In view of the risk of acidification due to the high iron and sulphur content of the soils and the water logging of locations as a result of an increase in the level of the groundwater, the aftercare of stretches of water is particularly problematic, and for this reason science, administration and business were required to develop problem-solving strategies in close cooperation with one another. The scientific and technological expertise acquired in these regions has attracted considerable international interest and will henceforth also be made available to other countries via an international subsidiary company of LMBV.

Agricultural land use – past and present

The farmers in the GDR used 10 % more fertiliser per hectare of agricultural land than their counterparts in the West. 65 % of the fertiliser consisted of sewage sludge from in part heavily polluted wastewater treatment plants. ‘Liquid manure high load areas’ came into being, and high eluviation losses resulting from the heavy spatial concentration in ‘livestock production’ and the large quantity of liquid manure. Vegetation damage on a massive scale occurred around animal husbandry facilities within a large radius as a consequence of ammonia gas concentrations in the air.

By comparison with the West, twice the quantity of pesticides was applied. This resulted in the severe impoverishment of agricultural soils and contamination of stretches of water. Tests on cereals, vegetables and fruits revealed high concentrations of harmful substances.

Since reunification, agricultural land use, in particular in the new Länder, has changed for the better. Farmers now apply fertilisers and pesticides only to a limited extent. Many areas were no longer fertilised at all in the period following reunification in an effort to allow them to recover. The instruments that have brought about significant changes in the new Länder include the German fertiliser regulation (Düngeverordnung), according to which the rate of application of commercial fertilisers is limited to 170 kgN/ha, and a core waiting period must be observed for application outside the growing season.

Since 2000, the new Länder, like the old Länder, have promoted the expansion of organically cultivated agricultural land. Brandenburg and Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, where organically cultivated agricultural land has a share of more than 8 to 10 % of the total cultivated area, are today among the leading federal Länder.

Conservation areas – scenic beauty in eastern Germany

Particularly at a time of drastic decline in the biological diversity of Germany, in which an increasing number of habitats are being destroyed and as a result plant and animal species are threatened with extinction, eastern Germany can report some encouraging successes in the area of nature conservation. The populations of white stork, eagle owl, peregrine falcon, otter and salmon are recovering. It has also been possible to downgrade a number of highly threatened species on the Red List, for example several species of bat, into lower threat categories.

The proportion of the land area represented by national conservation areas in the new Länder is directly comparable with that of the old Länder. It is appropriate at this point to highlight the areas that have a particularly strong need of protection, such as the nature conservation areas. According to § 23(1) of the Federal Nature Conservation Act (BNatSchG), these serve the conservation, development or restoration of biotopes or communities of wild animal and plant species. The national parks fall into the same category. According to § 24 of the Act, these are areas that have to be uniformly protected, are extensive in size, have particular features, meet the requirements for nature conservation areas in most of the area they cover, and are in a condition that is only slightly if at all influenced by humans in most of the area they cover. As the figure shows, in addition to North Rhine-Westphalia there are two new Länder that exhibit the highest land area proportion for nature conservation areas/national parks in Germany: Brandenburg with 7.4 % and Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania with 6.3 %.

The ‘Grünes Band’, the strip of land which formerly included the border between the Federal Republic and the GDR, deserves special mention at this point. This green belt, an area of around 7 000 hectares that had been inaccessible to people for decades, is characterised by its particular abundance of endangered species and habitats and functions as a nationally important biotope network.

Energy efficiency and climate protection

The increasing use of renewable energy, the systematic promotion of the efficient use of energy, the replacement of obsolete industrial plants by modern industrial plants and climate-relevant measures for waste management, such as the closure of dumps and their modernisation in line with the very latest technology, have ensured a drastic reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in the new Länder. In this way, since the 1990s, energy-related carbon dioxide emissions in the new Länder have been reduced by about half and this has helped enormously towards the achievement of Germany’s climate protection goals. Saxony alone, a traditionally industrial location, reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by 63 % in the first decade following reunification (Environmental Report 2007, Free State of Saxony).

The new Länder in particular have been given a new impetus by the boom in renewable energies. Leading companies for wind power, photovoltaics and biofuels have relocated here. In the energy supply sector, the eastern part of Germany thus plays an increasingly important role – supported by funding from the European Union (EU).

Status 2008/2009:

  • Germany is an increasingly attractive location for solar energy. The country already has 150 factories for the manufacture of solar technology for the production of heat and power. Most new start-ups are in eastern Germany.

  • Brandenburg, with 3 128 megawatts of newly installed wind power capacity, occupies second place in Germany after Lower Saxony. Saxony-Anhalt follows in third place with 2 533 megawatts, and Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania is in sixth place with 1 233 megawatts (in each case this means new capacity since 2006).

  • In view of the very high consumption of non-renewable raw materials, the supply and use of renewable raw materials are becoming increasingly important. Germany leads the world in the production of biodiesel. Two-thirds of all German biodiesel production plants and the largest bioethanol plants are in the new Länder. The high technological level, both in the eastern German research sector and in the companies themselves, has contributed to this. In Saxony, according to the Ministry of the Environment of Saxony, there are 210 plants in which solid or liquid biomass (predominantly wood and vegetable oil) is used for heating and energy production. The generation of electricity from solid biomass has more than doubled compared with 2003. In addition, 54 biogas plants supply electricity and to some extent heating to public and private supply networks. 640 biogas plants could be operated in Saxony with the potential available in the agricultural sector alone.


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