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Prof. Dr. h.c. mult. Klaus Töpfer †

Prof. Dr. h.c. mult. Klaus Töpfer †

Klaus Töpfer, Germany, Potsdam IASS Klaus Töpfer, Germany, Potsdam IASS Klaus Töpfer, Germany, Potsdam IASS
Photo: Arno Mikkor, Lizenz CC BY 2.0

Prof. Dr. h.c. mult. Klaus Töpfer died on the 8th of June 2024 at the age of 85. He was best known as the former German Federal Minister for the Environment. Throughout his life, he was a passionate advocate for the environment, sustainability and climate protection - in politics as well as in science.

Klaus Töpfer was born on the 29th of July 1938 in Waldorf, Silesia. After leaving school, he studied economics at the universities of Mainz, Frankfurt/Main and Münster. He received his doctorate in 1968 on the subject of "Regional Policy and Location Decisions". From 1970, his academic career took him from the Central Institute for Spatial Planning in Münster to the Business Academies in Münster and Hagen and the University of Administrative Sciences in Speyer, before he became Head of the Planning and Information Department in the Saarland State Chancellery.

In 1978, Klaus Töpfer joined the University of Hanover as a full professor and director of the Institute for Spatial Research and Planning. At the same time, he made a name for himself as a member of the German Advisory Council on the Environment. In 1979, Klaus Töpfer took a leave of absence from the University of Hanover to work as State Secretary in the Ministry of Social Affairs, Health and the Environment in Rhineland-Palatinate. 1985 he became Minister of the Environment in Rhineland-Palatinat.

From 1987, Klaus Töpfer was Germany's second Environment Minister. During this time, he made significant and globally recognised contributions to environmental and climate policy in the governments of Chancellor Helmut Kohl. He played a key role in shaping the legendary "Rio Conference" in 1992 and was a co-founder of the UN climate conferences. It was largely thanks to him that Germany was seen internationally as a pioneer in environmental protection. In the 1990s there was a "renaissance of spatial planning", not least in the context of the spatial disparities following reunification, which was decisively supported by Klaus Töpfer as Federal Minister for Spatial Planning, Building and Urban Development (1994-1998). In this time he also prepared the move of the German capital from Bonn to Berlin.

From 1998 to 2006, Klaus Töpfer was Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in Nairobi and at the same time Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations. Since then, he has been involved in a wide range of environmental, sustainability and climate protection issues in politics and science, both nationally and internationally, and has been described by many as the "green conscience of German politics" (Süddeutsche Zeitung). In 2009, he founded the IASS research institute in Potsdam, which focuses on the social and cultural dimensions of sustainability and has been part of the Helmholtz Association since 2023 as RIFS Potsdam. In 2011, Chancellor Angela Merkel appointed him co-chairman of the commission that prepared the nuclear phase-out.

In addition to his political work, Klaus Töpfer remained committed to science, teaching as an honorary professor at the Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz and the Eberhard Karls University in Tübingen, as well as Professor of Environment and Sustainable Development at Tongji University in Shanghai. However, he remained associated with the University of Hanover and regularly lectured there. In 2002, the University of Hannover awarded him an honorary doctorate from the former department of Landscape Architecture and Environmental Development.

Prof Dr Klaus Töpfer was an early and passionate advocate of sustainability, environmental and climate protection in politics and science. He recognised the importance of spatial planning in achieving these goals and, particularly during his time as Federal Minister for Construction, ensured that it was given the recognition it deserved. With his death, not only has environmental policy lost an internationally recognised voice, but sustainability science has also lost an important supporter.