Dirk Gratzel: On the way to a "green zero"

“Greenzero” is my project to make the ecological balance of my life a “green zero”. In other words, I am in the process of compensating, before the end of my life, for all the environmental and climate damage that I have caused and am still causing as a “modern human being”.


Achieving the “green zero”—but: How? How does life like this look? Keeping the house at 16 °C all winter? Only sustainably-produced crispbread? Self-denial and a know-it-all attitude until my friends move to the other side of the street when they see me coming? 


Not at all. Amazingly, my life and that of my family have become richer with this endeavor—in knowledge, satisfaction, fulfilling encounters and a sense of purpose. And, to my own surprise, also in value-added entrepreneurial projects. Richer in life’s fundamentals. 


I work together with scientists, environmental organizations and companies to develop well-founded measures to improve my lifestyle and to compensate for it. Our experiences touch on essential questions for the future: How do we create ecological balance? How do we eliminate damage that has already occurred, for example to the climate, water or even the destruction of biological diversity?

My life cycle assessment

WHAT IS A PERSON’S LIFE CYCLE ASSESSMENT? When I first asked this question, there was no answer. The life cycle assessment of a human being had never been calculated. So I asked researchers and experts, namely the Technische Universität Berlin (Technical University of Berlin), the Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union of Germany (NABU) and the WWF, for help. Together, we developed scientific criteria, calculation models and measurement methods.


In the months that followed, I meticulously collected data—on everything I had ever owned and consumed, as well as on my lifestyle. During this time, I looked at my world as if through Excel spreadsheets—and my wife looked at me with a questioning look on her face.


The life cycle assessment of a human being is now a bit more complex than that of a technical product, because a human being uses thousands of things: Apartments and houses, cars, food, clothing, and countless consumer items. All of these have their own life cycle assessment.

In very simplified terms, one could say: Life cycle assessment = resource consumption + emissions

My eco-balance so far has been very “lavish”. No wonder: I traveled a lot and bought a lot. I was, so to speak, a role model in a consumer economy—and eager to buy. 


In comparison, I consumed a lot of energy and emitted more than twice as much CO2 as the average German citizen. 


To determine the necessary values for my personal eco-balance, I had to painstakingly provide meticulous details about my previous consumer behavior and my current living conditions. In addition, I took a complete inventory of my material possessions (i.e. every single thing in our household). 


There were a number of questions to answer: 


– What cars and motorcycles had I driven in my life? How many kilometers? How often had I flown, and where? 


– What clothes had I worn? From which materials, for how long and how quickly did I replace them? 


– What had I eaten and drunk over the years? Organic or conventional? Coffee, tea, wine? How much meat did I eat, how many dairy products and exotic foods? 


– Which detergents and cleaning agents had I used, which shampoos and toothpastes? 


– What electrical appliances had I bought, how often had I used them and with what kind of electricity? 


– How big had my apartments been, how well insulated, and how heavily heated?

The results of my life cycle assessment

My information has been broken down in detail according to the individual environmental impacts (impact categories). Below are a few key excerpts from my life cycle assessment to date (cut-off date summer 2017):


Such graphical evaluations have been produced by the dozens. They all prove one thing: my life cycle assessment to date has been and continues to be an ecological debacle. So there’s a lot to do—so much that a nature-friendly lifestyle alone will never be enough to achieve a green zero. Therefore, I not only set out to improve my current eco-balance, but additionally launched several offset projects to make up for my past impacts.

Additional information:

Improving the eco-balance

The results of my life cycle assessment touched me deeply. They were dark red—and spurred me on to tackle two things with great determination: 


1. improving my lifestyle from an ecological point of view, and 


2. active reparations on as broad a front as possible for the damage I had caused. 


In order to proceed in a sensible and structured manner, I first worked out a list of over 50 ecological improvement measures for my everyday life with the Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union of Germany (NABU) and the WWF. I implemented all but one—giving up coffee—and then had the scientists at TU Berlin led by Prof. Matthias Finkbeiner check what effect they had on my current ecological footprint.

Overall improvements 

In all impact categories of the life cycle assessment, the changes show measurable and in some cases significant improvements. For example, within one year I reduced my overall CO2 footprint by over 70%. Whereas it was previously more than twice the average in this country, it is now significantly lower, even though I still travel a lot.


1st recommendation: avoidance of air travel and avoidance of the passenger car

My experience:

Switching from cars and planes to trains makes travel more relaxed—if the Deutsche Bahn trains are running (which they occasionally do). Rail has (often involuntarily) decelerated me—and rapidly reduced my footprint.


2nd recommendation: modernizing the house to make it more energy efficient

My experience:

An expensive affair—but it has an impact that lasts for generations. Energy optimization, modernized heating, new windows and doors, and taking care when using gas, electricity and water, with the support of an energy consultant.



3rd recommendation: vegan diet + change of dog's diet

My experience:

More fruit, more vegetables, plus just under two liters of tap water daily. Meat is out—unless I have Diana, the goddess of the hunt, on my side when hunting wild boar and deer in the nearby urban hunting ground… Game meat is low in fat, without a doubt ecologically friendly, and a pleasure to taste.


My compensation sites

Although I live in a much more ecologically friendly way today than I used to, I still cause environmental problems. Even a more conscious, sustainable lifestyle is unfortunately far from ecologically neutral.


So effective compensation measures are needed to make up for (compensate for) past and future environmental pollution. Crucially, this is not just about CO2 and other “climate gases”. Measures must also address the other impact categories such as eutrophication and acidification—their damage to the planet’s biodiversity is at least as great as that of climate heating.

My environmental projects serve to pad the "credit side" of my eco-balance sheet.

For this balance, I have launched several projects that create ecological added value (nature value) on several levels. They are the flip side of the deep red “debit side” of my life cycle assessment and actually ensure that carbon dioxide emitted by me is recaptured or that the adverse effects on habitats caused by my acidification and overfertilization is compensated for, for example by restoring biotopes.


Not an easy undertaking—because no one with scientific credentials has attempted this yet. Fortunately, however, committed and knowledgeable fellow campaigners who brought similar enthusiasm to the idea were quickly found.

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