Protesters tried to save a village from being swallowed by a coal mine. The dystopian scene exposed the conflict between Germany’s climate goals and energy needs

An activist burns a flare at the Garzweiler lignite mine ahead of the imminent clearance of the nearby village of Luetzerath, western Germany on January 8, 2023.
Ina Fassbender—AFP/Getty Images

Russia’s war in Ukraine has precipitated a small battle between protesters and police in Germany, pitting the country’s climate commitments against its energy needs.

On Tuesday police in Germany’s North Rhine-Westphalia state began evicting hundreds of protesters from squats and treehouses established in the deserted town of Lützerath, where climate campaigners have gathered to prevent energy provider RWE from expanding the footprint of its Garzweiler lignite mine and swallowing the remnants of the village. 

You might have seen a popular photo from the standoff in which a line of riot police defend the giant roving teeth of an excavator in a scene that appears beamed from a dystopian sci-fi film.

Activists at the site say expanding the mine and burning the brown coal produced from its depths will make it impossible for Germany to meet its Paris Agreement target of limiting global warming to just 1.5°C. The German government, which has signed off on the expansion, says the country needs the coal to make up for the shortfall in Russian gas.

“Putin’s war of aggression is forcing us to temporarily make greater use of lignite so that we save gas in electricity generation,” Germany’s minister for economic affairs and climate action, Robert Habeck, told the Guardian this week. “This is painful but necessary in view of the shortage of gas.”

Lignite is a soft form of coal that is mined in great quarries scarred into the landscape. It has lower fuel efficiency than blacker, hard coal and produces more CO2 when burned. Lignite is also Germany’s leading domestically sourced fossil fuel, accounting for roughly 20% of the country’s electricity production in 2022. Germany has leaned heavily on lignite and coal to bolster domestic energy supplies since the war in Ukraine disrupted Russian gas supplies. 

Several EU countries have reversed track on phasing out coal consumption and have re-fired coal furnaces to help fuel local economies through the past year’s biting energy crisis, but “only in Germany…is the reversal at a significant scale,” the International Energy Agency says.

RWE has benefitted from that reversal. Two units at the company’s Neurath power plant, which the Garzweiler mine supplies, were due for decommission at the end of last year but, as per an October 2022 agreement with the government, those units will now remain active until 2024. Meanwhile, Germany’s last operating nuclear power plants (one of which is also owned by RWE) are slated for closure in April this year.

“When the current energy crisis caused by the Russian war against Ukraine began, the Federal Government sought for spare [power] capacities,” Guido Steffan, spokesperson for RWE, told Fortune. “Among other fuels and companies, RWE was asked to make [its] units temporarily available for power generation.”

Yet, despite the prolonged lifeline of its plants and the imminent expansion at Lützerath, RWE’s lignite operations are in decline. 

According to the company’s 2021 annual report, capacity at RWE’s lignite-fired power stations has declined by a third since 2015. RWE has also agreed with the German government to accelerate its planned coal exit, pledging to ditch the fuel by 2030 rather than 2038, as previously set by the government.

“RWE is going to phase out lignite until 2030, and that will be the maximum runtime of Garzweiler Mine,” Steffan says.

The early exit, RWE says, means that the Garzweiler mine will remain much smaller than previously planned, sparing five other villages from destruction and halving total planned output from the mine. Lützerath, its 100 or so residents relocated in 2017, is the sacrifice.

The onus is now on Germany’s government, with its Green Party coalition, to ramp up the country’s capacity for renewables, so Germany doesn’t sacrifice its climate commitments alongside Lützerath.

Eamon Barrett


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