“No one can save the world on their own”

The greens convene: Polar researcher, photographer and climate activist, Sebastian Copeland, and Head of Environmental Protection at Audi and Managing Director of the Audi Environmental Foundation, Dr. Rüdiger Recknagel, talk decarbonisation, responsibility and the state of our planet.

09/22/2021 Reading Time: 11 min

Stormy weather over the Melchior Islands off the Antarctic Peninsula.
Stormy weather over the Melchior Islands in Antarctica, as photographed by Sebastian Copeland. He regards the polar zones as ground zero for climate change.

Dr. Recknagel, for five years now, you have served as Head of Environmental Protection at Audi as well as the Managing Director and Spokesman of the Management Board of the Audi Environmental Foundation. It doesn’t sound like you spend much time twiddling your thumbs.

It’s true that, with the increasing focus on our planet’s health, we have a lot on our plates. But we have already made good inroads because we realised early on that industry, too, must live up to its responsibility. After all, the Audi Environmental Foundation has already been active for no fewer than twelve years. Back then, the environment was not nearly as front of mind as it is today.


Mr. Copeland, you, too, are very busy raising awareness around sustainability issues and highlighting climate change through your expeditions and photos. How is the Earth doing?

To answer that, I used to say we need look no further than the polar regions - they are ground zero for the transformations we are facing. In 2009, I traveled on foot to the North Pole for the first time. It was something that I had dreamed of doing since I was an adolescent. I attempted it again in 2017, and now, in 2021, I doubt that it’s possible to walk overland to the North Pole anymore since the ice covering the Arctic Sea is melting. The Arctic Sea is the place where climate change is most visible. I know that my five- and six-year-old daughters will never be able to reach the North Pole on foot because there won’t be enough ice to walk on. We need to keep a close watch because what happens in the polar regions is a bellwether for the rest of the planet. In other words, ground zero is increasingly in everyone’s backyards, with more serious and frequent climate tragedies happening all around the world.


What role does industry play in protecting the environment and what responsibility do companies such as Audi bear?

Recknagel: Since industry is one of the catalysts for anthropogenic climate change, it’s only logical that it, too, has a key role to play in providing solutions. Industry is capable of developing and deploying the technologies needed to achieve net carbon neutrality1 in the future. As a responsible business, Audi is committed to playing its part as well as to limiting the global temperature increase to two degrees in line with the Paris Agreement.

Copeland: There are three agents of change: elected officials, business stakeholders and public opinion, comprising the media and customers. Because these three agents are shackled at the ankle, they can’t move faster than the slowest among them. Humans are driven by complex mechanisms, but comfort is probably the most obvious one. We all want to be comfortable, and we don’t want it to cost too much. So that, ultimately, is the algorithm. Trying to somehow extract tangible solutions from those constraints is the business community’s and elected officials’ job. Transportation that is net carbon neutral¹ is low-hanging fruit. In delivering incredible technology and great dependability, Audi is one great example of the many different solutions available. My hope is that we will be able to transform transportation by exceeding the directives instead of just reacting to them.

We need to keep a close watch because what happens in the polar regions is a bellwether for the rest of the planet.”

Sebastian Copeland

A bird hovers low over the water’s surface.
Copeland’s photographs portray a natural world that few of us will ever experience in person. Images such as these are shot on his expeditions. The photographer has covered 8,000 kilometers on foot in the polar regions alone.


When talking in broad terms, people often equate environmental protection with limiting carbon emissions. Does that go far enough?

Recknagel: No, not at all. That’s why our Mission:Zero environmental program addresses the four most serious threats to the health of our planet in our time. It is admittedly a high-profile and acute concern, but the role of decarbonisation in limiting climate change is only one aspect. By 2025, we project our core plants in Ingolstadt, Neckarsulm, Brussels, Györ and San Jose Chiapa will be net carbon neutral¹. Our second goal is to reduce water use. We plan to increasingly curtail the use of drinking water in production going forward by using rainwater and circular economies. Our third focus is on conserving resources. We have set ourselves clear targets to not only minimise packaging materials, but also maximise material recycling in our production. The fourth key pillar in our environmental program is promoting biodiversity by implementing or further expanding such projects at all core Audi production sites.

Copeland: That brings me to a societal attitude that I want to see promoted - desegmenting ecology and economy. What I mean is that, in the 21st century, the environment and economy are symbiotic. But I firmly believe that humanity cannot prosper without a viable environment. And I think it is important to recognise that we have a systemic crisis in so far as the cause is fairly well understood and the solutions available.

Net carbon neutral¹ transportation along with carbon capture, a carbon tax and sequestration - which entails depositing it into the subsoil - are critical to preserving the environment. What’s more, I believe that it is equally imperative for all businesses to aim to be carbon negative. We need to regenerate the planet by producing energy renewably and distributing it globally.

We can - and must - limit the effects of climate change.”

Dr. Rüdiger Recknagel

What specific measures can a company like Audi take to meet its environmental responsibilities?

Recknagel: We place a premium on a 360-degree approach. Electric mobility plays a pivotal role for us, which is why we plan to offer 20 all-electric models by 2025. That said, determining a vehicle’s carbon footprint is very complex because it extends over several phases. This is why we look at a vehicle’s entire life cycle - i.e. from development, through the supply chain, to production at our plants - when assessing our environmental impact. But it’s important to remember that a full life cycle also includes the operational phase, return and resource recovery through recycling. Each phase of the vehicle life cycle calls for dedicated solutions. For us, production is an especially important lever in limiting our impact. That’s because here, in our own field, we have the greatest scope to take matters into our own hands and achieve results. By the same token, all our measures have a ripple effect, in that we serve as a kind of role model for our suppliers and providers upstream of our production.


And how much headway has Audi made?

Recknagel: Compared to what emission levels at our core plants would have been without the measures we have taken, we have already made good progress toward achieving net carbon neutrality¹ at our plants. Thanks, for instance, to the photovoltaic systems on the roofs, production at our Brussels plant, for one, has been net carbon neutral¹ since 2018. Another example is the Audi site in Györ, Hungary. With over 36,000 solar cells covering more than 160,000 square meters, it is one of the largest PV roof systems in Europe. What’s more, a geothermal system provides over 70 percent of the plant’s heating needs. With green electricity and other interventions, we have also moved the needle quite a way at our plants in Ingolstadt, Neckarsulm and San José Chiapa in Mexico. In fact, Ingolstadt has been powered by electricity from renewables since as far back as 2012.


How would you evaluate what Audi is doing, Mr. Copeland?

Copeland: The fact that a car manufacturer like Audi has announced that starting in 2026 it will only launch new models with electric drive systems on the global market is an important development. I think it’s vital at this point that we exceed all directives and realign our strategies to work with nature’s needs. Otherwise, we will not prosper. Audi is all about innovation. In line with the German tradition for manufacturing luxury and technology, it has set itself apart. I anticipate that Audi will be a standard bearer for technological innovation.

A whale dives into the Arctic Ocean.
Copeland took this shot of a whale diving into the Arctic Ocean. As the photographer explains, changes at the poles are not restricted to the local ecosystem but affect life across the globe.
An iceberg in the Arctic.
On one of his expeditions to the Arctic, Sebastian Copeland shot this image of an iceberg.

Dr. Recknagel, you are Managing Director of the Audi Environmental Foundation. What role does it play in this context?

Recknagel: The decision to establish the Audi Environmental Foundation twelve years ago attests to the Four Rings’ commitment to protecting the natural world. Since the Environmental Foundation regards innovative technologies as instrumental to building a sustainable future, we act as a spark plug for their creation. One of the areas we focus on in our work is promoting greenovation projects to conserve natural resources.

Copeland: And that exchange of ideas is what makes today’s technology so exciting. Corporates must take a keen interest in and interact with start-ups with solid ideas, basically stimulating and integrating high-level innovation. It’s also crucial that we create open-source technologies in some sectors because there’s an urgent need for better performing solutions with a lower CO₂ footprint at an affordable price point. Progress affects us all. And I think that if everybody moves forward, everybody benefits. Otherwise, we’re just wasting time - time that is costing us on a planetary level.


The term sustainability is often - perhaps too often - bandied about in this context. How can we counteract sustainability fatigue and further inspire people to take action? 

Copeland: I believe regeneration is a more powerful term than sustainability because sustainability has become bland. And besides, it’s not enough. At this point, we are not looking to achieve zero emissions but rather to go carbon negative. That means generating more oxygen and absorbing more carbon - not just zeroing it out. I see that as a necessity moving forward. It’s critical that we set a target below zero. Saturating the media with data is also a good strategy for countering fatigue because the data is dramatic. We are still falling short on educating the public about the science.

Recknagel: It’s true that the term sustainability is pretty much overused these days. It’s worth remembering that sustainability not only encompasses environmental protection but also economic and social components. The onus is, of course, on industry to deploy decarbonisation measures to combat global warming, which is admittedly one of the greatest challenges the world faces in the coming decades. But I have noticed that more and more people feel called to collaborate in the environmental protection effort or try to conserve nature in their personal capacity. And that’s great news. The way I see it, in order to spur people on to make a lasting commitment, you need to get them to reflect on the repercussions of their own behavior and way of living. The next step is to motivate them to make changes, before finally encouraging them to support environmental projects. I feel strongly that everyone can and must make a contribution in their own way.

An iceberg in the Antarctic seen from afar.
Entitled “Farewell,” this shot was taken in Antarctica in 2009. Copeland has been fascinated by and drawn to the polar regions since childhood.

Sebastian Copeland and Dr. Rüdiger Recknagel

Sebastian Copeland is a polar explorer, photographer and speaker who uses his expeditions to train the spotlight on climate change. His work, which has earned him several awards, has taken him to the Arctic, Antarctica, Greenland and other places. The adventurer has reached both poles on foot. Among the accomplishments of Mr. Copeland’s partnership with Audi is an exhibition of his photographs at the brand’s 2021 Greentech Festival booth.


Dr. Rüdiger Recknagel holds a number of positions focusing on environmental protection. He is Head of Environmental Protection for the Audi Group and holds this position since 2016. He is also Spokesman of the Board of Management of the Audi Environmental Foundation (Audi Stiftung für Umwelt GmbH). The environmentalist holds a PhD in process engineering and has been with Audi since 1994. Over the course of his career, Dr. Recknagel has served in various capacities, including as Head of Quality Assurance at the Ingolstadt site, where he was responsible for several models at the main plant’s paint shop.

But enthusiastic environmentalism alone cannot effect change fast enough.

Recknagel: It goes without saying that legislation and regulations, such as the European Union’s Green Deal, to name but one, are the groundwork. While ensuring compliance with the law is an important part of my job in environmental protection, the Audi Environmental Foundation’s role in motivating people cannot be overstated. No one can save the world on their own. Even a company like Audi is only a small part of the big picture. The important thing is to do something, make the right decisions and contribute in some way.


Talking about making the right decisions, how well are we doing as a society?

Recknagel: I think we’ve gotten into gear pretty late in the day. But being an optimist, I firmly believe that we can successfully limit the effects of climate change. We simply have to. While some of the damage can’t be undone, there’s still so much worth saving. I have made that my mission and I believe there’s a good chance that we can make a difference.

Copeland: Do we have a chance to stop climate change at all? Is it too late? Only if we’ve made no progress. But it’s never too late for transformative change. I think the key is exceeding the targets. We need to keep pushing ahead.


So we need long-lasting progress. What does that mean for you?

Recknagel: We need to harness technologies that, instead of further burdening ecosystems, ideally take the pressure off them. It’s not enough to simply reduce emissions and achieve carbon neutrality. All things being equal, we also should remove the excess CO₂ released into the atmosphere over recent decades. In addition to the technological levers, we must successfully sensitise people of all ages to the importance of preserving the environment. For instance, we encourage employees to launch green volunteer projects. In the best case scenario, this also galvanises their social circles into action and the impact grows sustainably.


That brings us to the Audi catchphrase “Future is an attitude”…

Copeland: Yes. Attitude has everything to do with solving the climate crisis. Embracing the future means challenging our fears. It means courage. It means participation. It means engagement. It means investment. And it means hope. Together, all those things act as the engine driving the transformation that will bring about a brave, new future and sever ties with the past.


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