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Sustainability

Berlin’s 19th Century Gas Lanterns Go Dark as Russia Cuts Fuel

The city is speeding the shutdown of traditional streetlights while citizens scramble to stay warm.

An outdoor gas lamp in Berlin.

An outdoor gas lamp in Berlin.

Photographer: Felix Bruggemann for Bloomberg Businessweek

Like other cities worldwide, Berlin began installing gas lanterns along its avenues and alleyways in the early 19th century. But while the rest of the planet has long since moved on to sodium, halide, and LED, the German capital has remained stubbornly old-school, with some 23,000 gas lanterns still illuminating the city. For years the local government has sought to eliminate the gaslights in favor of more sustainable technologies, but fans of the warm glow and sculpted lampposts have managed to slow the effort. Today, Russia’s war in Ukraine is hastening the technology’s demise. “Gas is too expensive and wasteful,” says Benedikt Lux, a city legislator from the Green Party. “They should have been converted to LEDs long ago.”

The lighting shift underscores the changes under way in Germany as the war threatens the energy supplies that fuel Europe’s biggest economy. Since February, Germany’s oil imports from Russia have fallen by two-thirds, and while the country once got more than half of its natural gas and coal from there, it now gets none. As prices for gas, electricity, and gasoline have soared, Berlin has turned off the lights at monuments such as the Brandenburg Gate, the Cathedral, and the Victory Column in the Tiergarten. The city has implemented a host of energy-saving measures such as turning down office thermostats, limiting swimming pools to 26C (79F), and shutting off the gas lanterns. “We are facing serious times,” Chancellor Olaf Scholz told reporters in August. “I think everyone in this country knows that.”