Germany’s Coal Problem: A Growing Question Mark At the UN Climate Summit

“Germany’s Hambach lignite coal mine is the largest coal mine and largest single emitter of CO2 in Western Europe,” explains Jus, who runs the information center at a site in Hambach Forest, located in western Germany between Cologne and Aachen. The site has been squatted for the last five years in efforts to save the remainder of the 12,000-year-old forest from the ever-expanding open cast mine. Hambach Mine is owned by the German energy multinational RWE, which Jus says is fighting hard to greenwash its reputation.

“They have placed windmills nearby a large wall covered in solar panels to block the view from a newly built autobahn. They want drivers to think they are green, to hide their toxic project,” he says.

It reflects the way globally carbon-intense corporations are going to extraordinary lengths to sanitize their image as their social licence comes under increasing threat. In large part, the threat is spearheaded by protest camps and direct action. Ironically, the cost of solar power is already making coal unviable.

Less than 50 miles east of here lies another epicenter of the climate struggle: Bonn, where Fiji is midway through hosting COP23, the annual UN climate summit. In what may come as a surprise to some, Hambach and the extent of Germany’s lignite mines show that the country’s green reputation is questionable — as do recent reports that Germany will fail to meet its 2020 climate commitments. For the Fijians visiting Bonn, big states failing to deal with climate change threatens their lives and livelihoods.

“Rising sea levels stop us eating the natural organic food that our bodies are used to. For me, it means whether my family can continue fishing, something that they have done for generations,” Lice Movono from The Fiji Times tells me on the streets of Bonn. She and nine other South Pacific journalists were picked by the UN to report back on the progress of the conference that runs from November 6–19.

Movono says the whole Pacific region wants progress on the “Paris rulebook,” turning the promises made in Paris 2015 into solid commitments. She adds: “We may have to abandon our lifestyle, one that is not expensive and does not impact on the world, due to decisions made elsewhere in the world. Economic profits are placed above people’s livelihoods and lives.”

The COP event at the UN campus in Bonn has its own high security wall, providing a buffer between citizens and the official proceedings. “I guess this is standard protocol, but it is not an event that everyone who wants can come and listen to,” Movono adds.

But perhaps what is most interesting about climate summits — compared with other international meetings such as the G8 or G20 — is the way that real solutions are discussed both inside and outside the official venue. Next week, will report on the progress inside. But the periphery is a key climate battleground.

Two days before the summit, Bonn witnessed Germany’s biggest ever climate march, attended by more than 25,000 people. The next day, 4,500 people peacefully invaded Hambach mine. Organized by the activist group Ende Gelände, groups split into “fingers” that splintered to evade the awaiting riot cops. Some people made it on to excavation equipment, shutting down operations.

Yet despite Ende Gelände employing peaceful civil disobedience, the police responded violently, including pepper-spraying sitting protesters. German state violence against anti-coal demonstrators has happened before. Jus says police violence is commonplace.

“We have been attacked by thousands of cops, with helicopters, tanks, horses and command centers. Not only during a time of supposed austerity, but when we face climate collapse, [the state] spends hundreds of millions of dollars on repression to support one of the most toxic and destructive multinationals,” he says.

Many agree that Germany’s continued mining of lignite coal — the dirtiest type there is — undermines its green image. The nation is often associated with its green Energiewende, or Energy transition.

“We need to be honest about the energy transition: it is only about electrical transition,” Stefan Kunath explains. Kunath, who works for the ecologically and socially progressive Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, says the problem is that Germany is exporting more and more energy, while using coal to power its nuclear phase-out, and has weakened its once powerful 2,000 clean energy laws.

As everyone here acknowledges, coal makes neither ecological nor economic sense. The real problem is political will. Yet, “not only do we have a Conservative neo-liberal party, but they are in coalition with the Greens, who will eat a lot of shit to get into the government,” adds Kunath.

Since our interview, the Greens in Germany agreed to drop their commitment to stopping coal and reducing car emissions. But Kunath still is optimistic that the country will phase out coal soon.

“The civil disobedience is building beyond Germany and the public discourse is shifting. You can see it in the media coverage. Many people who may not necessarily want to join in see we need change, and this makes it difficult for the [coal and big oil] lobby to continue.”

Zoom out from the Bonn conference and Germany’s lignite mines, and direct actions against Big Fossil Fuels are slowing down and stopping the industry in its tracks worldwide. The recently published Environmental Justice Map shows direct action and protests happening all across the globe.

Climate litigation is one strategy that has recently risen up the climate justice agenda. The People’s Climate Summit that took place before the official COP showcased real solutions, including climate lawsuits. The opening speakers of the conference were Fijian Makereta Waqavonovono, a lawyer examining how climate change violates human rights in Fiji; Saul Luciano, a mountain guide from Peru who spoke about his suit against RWE for its greenhouse emissions; and Carroll Muffett, the President and CEO of the U.S. Center for International Environmental Law, which is facilitating similar types of litigation.

As previously reported, a trial against Norway’s Arctic drilling actions starts this week in Oslo, and more cases are being brought every week. It was recently announced that young people in Pennsylvania are suing President Donald Trump over his climate denial.

This adds to teenagers suing the State of Alaska; Californian authorities suing Big Oil over 2017 wildfires; Texan pensioners taking on Exxon; and related cases in Portugal, the Netherlands and Belgium. In New Zealand, the last administration was found to have acted illegally by not dealing with climate change.

Perhaps next someone will map all the legal battles currently underway against Big Oil, which, in tandem with direct actions, could break the global dependence on costly dirty energy and jump-start a new wave of investment in renewables. Now that would be COP23 results we could believe in.

Originally published at on November 13, 2017.

Freelance journalist focused on political alternatives, universal rights and ecological survival