Germany's cities show Britain how to do green

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After a week in green Germany, returning to Britain brings more than the usual end-of-holiday bump. It feels like leaving a society humanely and intelligently engaged with the 21st century to one still groping its way through the last one.

This isn't being down on my home country: it's hard to be easily impressed by anywhere else after savouring a stretch of the Pennine Cycleway as I did earlier this year. When you take your bike off the train at Appleby-in-Westmorland and pedal with the prevailing wind to Berwick, it's hard to think there are better places in the world.

But the sturdy efforts of underfunded Sustrans to provide safe and attractive cycling options seem paltry when taking to the bike in Germany. Cycling routes criss-cross Berlin, linking seamlessly into the rest of the transport network, spectacularly so in the capital's new main rail station.

The S-Bahn and U-Bahn networks there and in other cities I visited readily accommodate cyclists. On Thursday I spent hours a with a friend's two-year-old as he rode his pedal-less bike safely and happily around suburban Hamburg. In how many British cities would that be possible?

Traverse the country and wind turbines are a routine part of the scenery as increasingly seems to be the use of solar energy. The sense one has is of a country whose environmental concern is not just civilised and eco-friendly but hard-headed and businesslike, too.

Investing in the technology to develop renewable energy sources plays an important part in the German economy. In Britain, what's left of manufacturing seems ridiculously dependent on the arms trade.

Between Berwick and Berlin I heard one of the drivers of this German revolution, the Social Democratic MP Hermann Scheer, speak in a large but crowded Commons committee room.

Scheer – styled by Time magazine as one of its five "Heroes for the Green Century" – had just five MPs in that audience. Two of them – both Labour MPs – shared the platform and his enthusiasm. Neither will be standing at the next election.

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