Töpfer studied economics in Mainz, Frankfurt and Münster. In 1968 he earned his doctorate at the University of Münster. After functioning as government official, professor and adviser on development politics he became minister for the Environment and Health in the regional government of Rhineland-Palatinate in 1985. In 1987 Töpfer became German Federal Minister for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety under ChancellorHelmut Kohl. From 1994 to 1998 he served as Federal Minister for Regional Planning, Civil Engineering and Urban Development. He was member of the Bundestag from 1990 to 1998 and member of the Steering Committee of the CDU from 1992 to 1998.
Since 2013 he is head of the project “DEMOENERGY – The Transformation of the Energy System as the Engine for Democratic Innovations” together with Claus Leggewie and Patrizia Nanz (both Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities Essen, Germany).