Why Germany's coal mine struggle matters to all of us
Climate activists Luisa Neubauer, Greta Thunberg, Lakshmi Thevasagayam, and Florian Oezcan protest against the expansion of the Garzweiler open-cast lignite mine of Germany's utility RWE, in Luetzerath, Germany, January 13, 2023. REUTERS/Christian Mang
Luisa Neubauer and Greta Thunberg were carried away by police in Luetzerath, where activists say an expanded mine would ruin Paris climate goals
Luisa Neubauer is a 26-year-old German climate activist, author and podcast host who has organised protests since 2018. In 2021, she successfully sued the German government over its climate inaction.
The other day, I got carried away by the police. It had been raining all day, my boots were covered in mud, my nose red from the wind. A few days later, Greta Thunberg got carried away as well, at the same coal mine, for the same struggle.
What happens at Luetzerath, this tiny village in the German Rhineland, is not just another climate campaign. It is the story of everything.
Germany is the world’s fifth largest historic emitter, and the lignite coal burned here is the dirtiest source of energy one can find. The mine in the Rhineland is the largest single source of carbon dioxide emissions in Europe. For decades, gigantic excavators have been digging out lignite coal there, up to 400 metres into the ground. When I visited with Greta some time ago, she described the scenery with just one word: Mordor.
The company behind the coal business in the region is RWE, the biggest corporate polluter in Europe. But the carbon emissions produced by RWE don't stay in Germany - they cause climate effects around the world. In 2015, Peruvian farmer Saúl Luciano Lliuya decided to sue RWE over the damages caused by its planet-heating emissions, such as flash flooding from melting glaciers. As 0.47% of global emissions come from RWE, he argues the company should pay 0.47% of the damages caused by climate change in his Andean village. The case is still open, but the chances of success are low.
As Germany was hit with a fossil energy crisis in 2022, the government made a deal with RWE: the company would be granted the right to burn more coal in the short term, but close down its mines in the Rhineland in 2030 - eight years earlier than planned. The price tag: the village of Luetzerath would be destroyed to dig up 280 million tonnes of coal underneath. To many, this sounded reasonable: a tiny village sacrificed for an earlier exit from coal.
But a closer look at the numbers reveal that the amount of coal permitted to be dug up would be four to six times more than our CO2 budget would allow under the Paris Agreement. Without touching Luetzerath, RWE would have by far enough coal to secure the energy supply of Germany. However, when the government cheerily announced an early coal phase-out, it tried to sell a break-up with the pledges made in Paris as a “good day for the climate”.
The angry climate movement was told it would be hopeless to rebel. A coal exit by 2030 just sounds too good, and people would never understand why the deal was a bad one. As it turns out, climate education is not just learning about global warming. It is also about helping people unlearn the myths put into place to make them believe all is good. So we went to Luetzerath. Activists had been building tree houses there for more than two years. In the weeks before the eviction, more activists arrived from across the country.
Farmers, grandparents, school children and environmentalists all started to speak up for Luetzerath. Five hundred scientists came together to demand an immediate stop to the eviction. Hours later, 200 singers, writers and artists demanded climate justice. Then the press came, from Germany and across the globe. The screens in Japanese metros showed pictures of our protests in that tiny village. South African climate activists organised solidarity protests, and activists in Venezuela, the United States and the Philippines showed their support. We were told people wouldn't care but we went ahead anyway. Climate activism isn't about fighting for what is easy to win, but for what is right.
As the eviction went ahead last week, with more activists occupying the village experiencing police brutality, and 35,000 people flooding the nearby region to protest, it became clear what all this is really about: drawing the line. It is about saying enough is enough to fossil fuel giants. If humanity aims to stop the climate from collapsing, we will have to stop fossil fuels.
A recent analysis showed that 96% of upstream oil and gas companies plan to expand. Yet if all planned fossil fuel mega-projects - so-called carbon bombs - go ahead, there is zero chance of staying in line with the life-protecting international climate pledges made by 198 countries, as revealed by the Guardian newspaper.
Climate justice means cancelling fossil fuel deals - and the destruction of Luetzerath is one of those deals. Legally, RWE owns the village and has the right to clear it. Legally, however, the German government also has to stick to the 1.5-degree global warming limit in the Paris Agreement. So the RWE deal must be cancelled, like so many other fossil fuel extraction projects around the world.
That’s why I and many others decided to disrupt the mine’s expansion. Together we peacefully blocked the destruction of Luetzerath with our own bodies. If the law protects injustice, people must resist.
This is the message many leaders are scared to hear: the road to climate justice won't be easy. It is disruptive to break with business as usual. It means fossil fuel companies can no longer make the rules. Because as history has shown, as long as they get to decide when to end the fossil fuel era, we will not move away from coal, oil and gas. The rules will have to be made by democracies and informed by science - not by profit.
Luetzerath has now been evicted. But the coal is still in the ground. And hopes are high. Because after all, we - and our actions - are where those hopes lie.
Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Context or the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
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