Obituary: Professor Klaus Töpfer

June 12, 2024.  

We are very sad to note that the first Chair of ZEF's International Advisory Board, Professor Klaus Töpfer (born 1938 in Waldenburg, province of Silesia) passed away on June 8, 2024. He chaired the ZEF Board from its inaugural meeting in March 1998 until 2006. Professor Töpfer made important contributions to the design of ZEF’s governance, including forming the influential international Advisory Board, engaging for a ZEF Strategy with a focus on sustainability science, regular ZEF external evaluations, and facilitating a global reach of the institute through strategic networking and partnership approaches. 

Töpfer strongly supported the creation of the interdisciplinary ZEF Doctoral Studies program, and enjoyed interacting with junior researchers. We remember fondly Prof. Töpfer’s last visit to ZEF in 2022 on the occasion of the Klaus Töpfer Prize given to a young researcher for innovative soil science, a topic he had been working on and promoting for a long time. 

Klaus Töpfer was a senior German politician and former Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). He served as Federal Minister for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety from 1987 to 1994. Until March 2020, Töpfer was an elected member of the German Bundestag and Bundesrat. He also taught as a university lecturer.

Professor Töpfer studied economics in Mainz, Frankfurt am Main and Münster, graduating with a degree in economics in 1964. From 1978 to 1979, he was a full professor and director of the Institute for Spatial Research and Planning at the University of Hanover. In addition, he has been Professor of Environment and Sustainable Development at Tongji University in Shanghai since 2007.

Töpfer had been a member of the Christian Democratic Party (CDU) since 1972. In 1987 he was appointed Federal Minister for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety in the federal German government led by Helmut Kohl. He played a key role in making the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio 1992 a success by creating the Climate, Biodiversity and Desertification Conventions that still shape global sustainability policies today. In 1994 he was appointed Federal Minister for Regional Planning, Building and Urban Development. 

Töpfer resigned from the German government to take up his post as Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in Nairobi, Kenya, to which he had been unanimously elected by the UN General Assembly in 1997. His second term of office formally ended in 2006. Töpfer held various public offices, including Vice President of Welthungerhilfe, a large German NGO. He received many prizes, awards and honors.


Joachim von Braun

Prof. Dr. Joachim von Braun


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