What the protests against Garzweiler lignite mine expansion mean for global energy politics
The past week witnessed thousands of climate activists coming together in the Lutzerath village in western Germany to protest against the expansion of a lignite mine by RWE, a major global energy company. The company controls all lignite extraction and power plants in the western part of Germany.
The Lutzerath village sits at the edge of the open-cast lignite coal mine, Garzweiler II, and an expansion into the village will give RWE access to 280 million tonnes of coal apart from the existing reserves.
Over the last two years, the village has become the flash point of climate movement. The climate activists took residence in the buildings abandoned by the locals to peacefully oppose the proposed mine expansion.
The two 600 megawatt thermal power plants, for which RWE plans to use lignite from beneath the village, were supposed to be shut down by the end of 2022. But they are being resurrected to ensure enough power supply in western Germany during winters.
The need for more coal extraction by way of expansion to ensure energy security, however, has in itself become a point of contention between the German government and climate activists.
A study by the German Institute for Economic Research had suggested that Lützerath should remain untouched if Germany wants to meet its Paris climate agreement targets and limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels.
Coal conflicts & major turning points
The conflict over lignite (brown coal) mining in Germany (west and east) is not new, Jöerg Haas, division head of international politics, Heinrich Böll Foundation, told Down To Earth (DTE).
The protest to save the Hambach forest from coal mining expansion became a turning point in the coal history of Germany. It started in 2012 with the activists occupying the area in tree houses for months and successfully culminated in blocking the destruction of the forest in 2020.
In 2015, the conflict took a new turn with the Ende Gelände movement, a civil disobedience movement started by climate activists to raise awareness about climate justice in Germany. “The Ende Gelände brought shock waves across industries at that time and it is this movement which underpinned coal phase-out in Germany,” said Haas.
Three years later, during the Merkel government in 2018, a commission was formed to manage the phase out of coal-fired power production in the country. In 2020, the commission finally agreed on 2038 as the deadline for the same and announced that the coal exit roadmap shall be inclusive of provisions for fair compensations for the affected population.
“The environmentalists were unhappy and wanted the deadline to be 2030. But with the might of industries and corporations, along with strong trade unions involved in the fossil industry, 2038 was finalised,” Haas shared.
Geopolitical tension, political support
Russia has been the main supplier of oil, gas and coal to the European Union (EU). The war between Russia and Ukraine in February 2022 prompted energy security concerns and brought forth the question of fuel import dependency.
Oil occupies the highest share of Germany’s energy mix, followed by gas and coal. Initially, Germany increased its dependence on imported natural gas to replace lignite and consequently, emerged as one of the world’s biggest natural gas importers — in 2021, around 95 per cent of its gas consumption is met by imports, according to the Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources (BGR), a German agency within the Federal Ministry of Economics and Technology.
In late August 2022, following the geopolitical tensions, the natural gas supplies from Russia to Germany were stopped, leaving Germany in an energy lurch.
Haas told DTE:
Germany used natural gas in three major areas — industry, power and space heating. To reduce this usage, in terms of power, Germany started shifting to coal-based power and, international media reports suggested, as many as 20 coal thermal power plants have been proposed to be revived.
Germany reduced local manufacturing and increased imports. Space heating temperature was brought down by 2°C.
The shift back to coal was bolstered by regional political support. The Green Party, the country’s political outfit that promotes environmentalism and part of the ruling coalition, supported the protest against the coal mine expansion in Lützerath two years ago.
However, after coming to power and in the face of the energy crisis wrought by the Russia-Ukraine war, the party signed an agreement with RWE in October 2022. Under this, the energy giant was allowed to go ahead with mine expansion with certain conditions.
RWE had initially planned to extract coal from six villages but the agreement restricted mining to Lützerath, making the remaining five villages out of bounds.
The energy firm also committed to advance the deadline for its coal phase out to 2030 from 2038.
Is coal expansion required?
The expansion of the Garzeweiler mine may not even be required to meet Germany’s energy demand, said Katrin Gandswindt, campaigner with Urgewald, a human rights non-profit based in the country.
The existing mine already has around 170 million tonnes of coal reserve. The demand for coal for the energy needs of Germany is only slightly above this. Then, why can’t we take it up as a challenge to fulfil this short gap of a few million tonnes of coal through renewables, rather than expanding the mine?”
“We have been working for many years to build pressure on companies like RWE around the world and this mine expansion is more of a show of power by RWE,” Gandswindt opined.
So, what is stopping Germany from ramping up its RE capacity at a faster rate? “Germany already has an ambitious target in place of reaching 80 per cent RE from the current 47 per cent. But there is a shortage of qualified labour and issues in the supply chain required for RE installations,” Haas explained.
There are also issues with permits and objections are being raised by the local communities who do not prefer wind and solar farms to be set up around their habitat,” he added.
Where does the buck stop?
As many as 35,000 climate activists gathered in Lutzerath to protest against the lignite mine expansion, media reports suggested. Greta Thunberg, the Swedish climate activist, who has been a prominent climate protestor and joined the campaign, was briefly detained by the police on January 17 but later released.
— Raphael Thelen (@RaphaelThelen) January 14, 2023
The protest has gained international traction but the question is, will the climate activists be able to get their demands fulfilled?
“It will be challenging to get as much a successful outcome as they got in the Hambach forest movement as the houses in Lutzerath are already being demolished as we speak,” Haas noted.
But the purpose of making this protest a symbol of resistance against coal mining has been achieved for sure, the expert added.
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