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Cem Ozdemir, the co-chairman of Germany's Green Party, is in a tough situation. Greens around the world have been fighting for years to get their social-environmental agenda across, but these parties now have to stand out among the world leaders who say they're committed to sustainable development.

"We haven't changed our point of view. The other parties have come closer to us. We understand that they won't continue going in the right direction if we don't continue to put pressure on them," says Ozdemir, in Israel this week for the 12th Herzliya Conference at the city's Interdisciplinary Center. He'll be meeting Israeli green activists today.

"We have a story to tell that hasn't changed; it's about the exploitation of nature beyond its ability to renew resources and absorb the waste we produce. Industry also understands this. Although it doesn't like to be restricted, it knows that it's in its interest when we force it to prepare for more severe environmental demands worldwide. This will improve its ability to compete."

Ozdemir, the first German parliament member of Turkish descent, has been a member of the Greens for more than 20 years. He shares the party leadership with Claudia Roth, under the party's rules mandating a woman at the helm. "Two women may lead the party, but not two men," he told Haaretz. "This is how we apply the principle of equality of the sexes." The German Greens are the world's largest environmental party and the country's third largest party.

At the start, the greens were radical compared to Germany's major parties and focused on air pollution and the untrammeled use of natural resources. As the years went on, they had to make compromises to ensure they could make their mark politically.

Today they have nearly 10 percent support in some parts of Germany. They have been a partner in a governing coalition and have supported sending German forces on missions abroad.

Over the last two decades, Germany's two largest parties - the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats - have also become more environmentally friendly. This year the Greens found themselves in an unusual position when Chancellor Angela Merkel, leader of the Christian Democrats, announced after Japan's Fukushima nuclear disaster that Germany would stop using nuclear power. She was applying one of the Greens' main principles.

"It's important not to compare the current environmental situation with the past, but rather to compare it to the place we'd like it to go," Ozdemir says. "We're far from our goal of a sustainable economy. For example, the German economy is far from the situation in which it no longer depends on greenhouse gas emissions."

At the same time, Ozdemir thinks you don't have to give up on economic growth to prevent the overexploitation of natural resources. "Growth doesn't have to be stopped; instead we must change the parameters so growth in certain areas will be combined with sustainable development," he says. "For example, the waste recycling industry can continue to expand, as can public transportation."

The plan for the future

When Ozdemir got into politics, it was still hard to persuade Germans of the need to recycle waste or use public transportation. In the small town where he grew up, Ozdemir fought to get rid of a rail line. Now Germany is a world leader in recycling and expanding mass transportation.

Europe's main challenge is to develop a growth model that can cope with the financial crisis while being environmentally sustainable. This challenge is especially great for Germany, the world's fourth largest economy. Alongside its many achievements in renewable energy and preventing pollution, it remains a consumer society that inevitably has a major effect on the environment.

The Greens recently joined other environmental parties in the European Parliament in the Green New Deal, which calls for increased bank regulation, higher taxes on polluters, incentives for green investments and new ways to define the desired economic growth for each country.

"A truly green economy will advance human welfare and social equality without creating a larger burden than the planet can bear," the Herzliya Conference program notes.

Ozdemir agrees that the environment and economics go hand in hand. "There are parties that would allow a factory to dump poisons into a stream to save hundreds of jobs. We don't agree because we think that in the long run, a clean environment is also better for the economy."