Europe is going coal-free, but a vast lignite mine is expanding in eastern Germany and coronavirus has delayed new climate laws

03/06/2020 08:49 Coal


The landscape makes you think of the surface of the moon. As far as the eye can see, deep gashes scar the earth. At the spot where the giant machines stand, ancient layers of bared coal are visible all the way to the base of the pit.

Georg Ortmann walks along a bridge 40 metres above the mine to check that sand and gravel taken from the earth’s top layers are not sticking to the conveyor belt removing them from the precious lignite beneath.


“My job is to make sure the dirt is moved from one side of the pit to the other,” he jokes.


This is Reichwalde, one of two open-cast lignite mines that supply Boxberg coal-fired power plant. Boxberg was East Germany’s biggest power station and climate campaigners now rank it high among the “dirty 30” of Europe’s most polluting.


Reichwalde operates 365 days of the year, in all weathers. It is a physically demanding job and Ortmann has spent his entire working life in these craters.


The 62-year-old is one of about 6,000 coal miners left in eastern Germany’s Lusatia region, once the German Democratic Republic’s mining and industrial heartland. “In East Germany, people who went through the school system had a chance at the nicer indoor jobs. I quit school early,” he says.


Before the collapse of East Germany and reunification, the brown coal industry in this region directly employed 100,000 people.


Coal was not just the main employer in Lusatia. Miners enjoyed a special status as proud contributors to energy independence in the socialist state. Ich bin Bergmann, wer ist mehr? (I’m a miner, who is more?) was a phrase commonly heard during the cold war.


Germany pledged last year to end all coal mining by 2038 in line with its EU and global climate obligations. This has deepened existing political tensions in its coal-dependent regions.


In Lusatia, it has placed climate activists on a collision course with local politicians, the coal companies and the communities whose incomes depend on coal.


“Coal is a very emotive topic here,” says Adrian Rinnert from the local NGO Strukturwandel Jetzt, which has opposed the expansion of these mines for nearly a decade.


The big problem, he thinks, is the lack of alternative economic opportunities. Although tens of thousands of mining jobs have been cut since the 1990s, most available employment in the region is still tied to coal.


Mainstream German parties still champion the industry, and as in other parts of Europe, the impact of green policies on traditional or left-behind communities has become a convenient agenda for populists and far-right politicians to latch on to.


“When people here discuss whether environmental protection or jobs are more important, it’s always the jobs that win,” Rinnert says.


Coronavirus brought the coal plant sit-ins and the conflicts to a temporary halt in March, but the battle is resuming as Germany gets back to business.


Brown coal, or lignite, of the kind mined in Lusatia is the most polluting fuel in the world, and it still powers 14 % of Germany’s energy, which is a higher reliance than any other EU country. The global climate movement has repeatedly demanded that Germany decarbonise faster.


For Wiebke Witt, a brown coal expert for the NGO Klima Allianz Deutschland, Germany’s 2038 closure timeline fails to honour the 2015 Paris climate agreement on ending coal energy production.


“When the end date for coal was negotiated, talks revolved around the amount of energy produced from coal and not for instance the impact it continues to have on the climate,” Witt says.


Belgium, Austria and Sweden are already coal-free. The UK, Ireland, France, Portugal, Italy and Slovakia will all exit coal before 2025. Spain produced 70% less coal-powered energy in 2019 and is predicted to achieve full closure by 2027. But Germany wants to keep production going well into the 2030s and some mines are expanding. Witt cites the new Datteln IV coal plant that Germany will add to the grid this summer, a move protesters call “climate policy madness”.


The coal lobby, and many politicians, argue that Germany still needs lignite because it is already committed to shuttering nuclear power plants by 2022. And renewables are being built at a pace too slow to meet the country’s current energy needs.


“The energy to sustain the minimum level in the power grid needs to come from somewhere, and that is coal for the time being,” says Ortmann, the miner.


He points to the dark layer at the bottom of the pit. Here, plants and trees that grew on this spot 17m years ago are exposed by the machines, now mostly in the form of black coal. Some of the wood is still visible, but once laid bare it will decompose quickly in the fresh air.


The coal companies’ logic is that since the damage to the environment has already been done, existing mines should be exploited to the maximum. But that can mean expanding brown coalfields by digging them out from underneath existing villages.

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