Prize celebrates climate action in Bonn

When flash floods engulfed German towns and cities in 2021, the devastating effects of climate change were hammered home for much of the German population. Among those spurred into action was Monika Hallstein, who decided to leverage her expertise in urban planning by joining Bonn’s Local Administration. “That’s the reason why I want to engage now in the theme of climate,” she explains.

A city government might not seem like the obvious career choice for someone dedicated to climate, but Bonn’s local government has long been a proponent of climate-conscious policies. The city council’s acknowledgement of the climate emergency in 2019 catalysed a series of proactive measures with the ambition of making Bonn climate neutral by 2035.

This objective required a comprehensive plan, crafted with the help of specialists, engineers, and academics. “The Bonn Climate Plan…defines the first important activities that we will implement over the next three years,” Hallstein, now working in the Climate Neutral Bonn Programme Office says. However, as well as all the specialists, there was one group that the city saw as more essential to have on board than any of the rest, one on whom the success or failure of the plan would truly depend: local residents.

The city had to engage these groups and get their input, as well as plumb them for ideas on how to move forward. Two key strategies for achieving this were ‘Bonn for Future’ and the ‘Bonn Climate Prize.’

A climate of inclusion

We know for years that the global climate crisis can only be answered locally
— Monika Hallstein

Hallstein emphasises the crucial role of local action, “We’ve known for years that the global climate crisis can only be answered locally.” This led Bonn’s administration to spearhead a unique participatory process: ‘Bonn for Future.’ Between 2020 and 2022, this initiative provided a platform for the residents of Bonn to voice their ideas and concerns, playing a direct role in shaping the city’s environmental policies.

Bonn for Future was not just about gathering ideas, it was a concerted effort to ensure that every segment of Bonn’s population had a say in the city’s climate future. “Climate protection affects everyone. That’s why it’s particularly important to leave no one behind – the participation of citizens and their ideas are an essential element for transformation,” Hallstein states.

A key concern for the Bonn administration was the tendency for environmental initiatives to attract participation predominantly from certain demographic groups. “We often see the same types of people, the same socio-economic groups, the same ethnic groups even participating in these competitions,” Hallstein explains. To counteract this trend and foster inclusivity, the city adopted a more proactive and targeted approach to community engagement.

This outreach was particularly focused on those who might not typically engage in climate discourse, such as migrants and residents from less affluent areas. To achieve this, the city went to its register of residents to directly connect with a broader cross-section of the population. “We used this register to write letters to several people,” says Hallstein, noting that this direct and personalised outreach was instrumental in overcoming barriers to participation and ensuring that a diverse array of voices was heard and represented in Bonn for Future.

It's very important to reach especially the people who don’t talk about climate crisis at home
— Monika Hallstein

“It’s very important to reach especially the people who don’t talk about climate crisis at home” Hallstein emphasises, “and who don’t believe that it’s possible and that it’s important to engage against the climate crisis.”

A prize for climate ideas

The Bonn Climate Prize emerged as a key initiative in the city’s broader climate action strategy, conceived to highlight and reward local efforts in sustainability. “It was a proposal from us as the local government to make this Climate Prize,” Hallstein elaborates. The prize showcases exemplary practices in climate action that could inspire and be emulated by others. This initiative was both about recognition and catalysing the transfer of innovative and practical solutions to environmental challenges across the community.

The Climate Prize particularly focuses on projects that demonstrate tangible results and potential for replication. Hallstein underscores the criteria: “We wanted to make the local engagement visible…it was important to us that these ideas had already been implemented.” By spotlighting projects already in action, the prize emphasized the feasibility and impact of local initiatives in real-world settings. This approach was designed to encourage more residents and organisations to translate their environmental concerns into concrete actions.

We wanted to make the local engagement visible
— Monika Hallstein

In its inaugural year, the Bonn Climate Prize attracted diverse applicants and ideas. Groups, including associations, parishes, schools, kindergartens, and companies, all jumped on board to showcase their initiatives. This reflected the city’s commitment to engaging a broad spectrum of society in climate action, recognising that effective solutions can come from any sector.

A climate lottery

The civil society organisation Vilich-Müldorf clinched the first prize, along with €3,000 in prize money, for their project ‘Climate Day and Climate Pot.’ This initiative blends information dissemination, educational programmes, individual consultations, and direct actions at the community level.

Since 2019, Climate Day has been an annual event, featuring a range of activities from seed exchanges and garden earth transport via cargo bikes, to lectures on solar photovoltaic systems, solar thermal energy, biodiversity, and mobility. These events have fostered community discussions and awareness on climate and environment.

The Climate Pot, launched in 2021, offers a more hands-on approach for CO2 reduction in the district. Residents can contribute CO2 compensation payments to the Climate Pot. Those planning to install solar systems can participate in a lottery with the funds collected. Once the pot reaches €2,000, the amount is distributed to a household chosen through a lottery. This funding mechanism not only aids in financing local sustainability projects but also encourages community participation and replication.

It's a very young idea, and this makes very local contribution
— Monika Hallstein

“It’s a very young idea, and this makes a very local contribution to greenhouse gas reduction and motivates other people to follow suit,” Hallstein says.

Car-free students

The second prize, amounting to €1,500, was awarded to the student representatives of the Integrated Comprehensive School Bonn-Beuel for their project ‘CarFreiTag’ (Car-Free Friday). Launched in December 2022, CarFreiTag aims to reduce car traffic, particularly around schools, promoting a more sustainable and safe environment for students.

On CarFreiTag, parking spaces and roundabouts near the school are adorned with self-painted banners, visually demonstrating the students’ call for less car traffic. Those arriving without a car receive fruit as a token of appreciation, while car drivers are handed flyers encouraging them to consider alternative modes of transport in the future. The students also designed stickers, flyers, and posters to raise awareness about the initiative. This project was implemented in cooperation with the school management and a parent-founded traffic committee.

CarFreiTag is planned to be a monthly event, and the student group has made materials available for download to help other interested schools easily adopt and implement the concept.

An impossible decision

It is a cliché to say that the quality of submissions to the prize was so high that the judges had difficulty in selecting the best ones, but in this case, it is true: “Normally we wanted to make three prizes, but in the end we selected four projects,” Hallstein recounts. The selected projects were not only diverse but also characterised by their originality and innovation.

Through the Climate Prize, Bonn’s administration succeeded in bringing local environmental efforts into the limelight, showcasing how community-led initiatives can make a substantial impact. This initiative played a crucial role in not only acknowledging the work of local actors but also in motivating others to think creatively about how they can contribute to the city’s climate neutrality goal. The success and reception of the Climate Prize – highlighted across newspapers and on German television – reinforce the notion that community involvement is indispensable in creating sustainable urban environments.

The climate prize was a very great success... Everybody talked about it
— Monika Hallstein

As Bonn looks to the future, the city is determined to build on the momentum generated by the Climate Prize and other participatory initiatives. “The climate prize was a very great success… Everybody talked about it,” says Hallstein, “and that is why we want to offer the prize now every year.”

The goal is not only to sustain the momentum but also to continuously inspire and engage the community in meaningful climate action. Hallstein acknowledges the budgetary considerations in this endeavour, “The budget was very small for this prize…but it is relevant for an initiative. Or for students at school, €3000 is a lot of money.”

The experience with the first Bonn Climate Award went so well that the City of Bonn decided to announce the award in 2024 again,  this time with even more prize money. “We can only achieve climate neutrality if everyone helps to reduce greenhouse gases,” Hallstein underscores, “and it can only be done together.”

Anthony Colclough Eurocities Writer