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Germany's coal phaseout becoming int'l movement

Tereza Stastna
November 16, 2018

Germany's Hambach Forest has become a symbolic battlefield and magnet for the global climate protection movement. Over past months, hundreds of people from abroad have traveled there to call for an end to coal.

Czech activists hold up a banner from a train window: "Ich bin ein Hambacher"
Image: Limity jsme my/Petr Vrabec

Climate change has no borders, nor does it discriminate. It affects everyone, regardless of age, gender, race or nationality. 

And as the consequences of climate change become even more apparent — from rising sea levels and an increase in extreme weather events to melting ice caps — it's clear big changes are necessary if the world intends to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit), as urged in a landmark report from the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

One of the biggest changes will undoubtedly include the phaseout of coal.

And Germany, with its large and entrenched coal industry, has become a key battleground in the fight to end use of the fossil fuel — as well as a magnet for international activists. 

Germany is under increasing pressure to end coal useImage: Ende Gelände

'Ich bin ein Hambacher'

When German energy giant RWE announced its plan to fell the remaining 10 percent of the ancient Hambach Forest to make way for a coal mine, few could've predicted the rollercoaster of events that would follow.

Activists who had occupied tree houses in the forest for years came up against one of the largest police operations in Germany's history. Eviction ran over weeks, accompanied by mass protests in support of the forest activists. One video blogger died in an accident.

Over this course of events, the protesters' slogan of choice — "Hambi bleibt" ("Hambi stays") — become known beyond Germany's borders.

And the Hambach Forest saga became about much more than simply protecting that scrap of ancient forest.

Read also: Opinion — Hambach Forest a battlefield for the planet's future

6 years of coal protest coming to an end at Germany's Hambach forest?

Activists have uprooted their lives to save a German forest from being sacrificed to a gigantic coal mine. Now, German police are overseeing the clearing of the Hambach forest as the plans for mining go ahead.

Image: DW/G. Rueter

Primal forest

At the heart of Europe, in western Germany, near the border to France and Belgium, a scrap of ancient forest holds thousand-year-old trees along with abundant wildlife. But there's another species living there in the forest as well — our own.

Image: DW/G. Rueter

Life among the treetops

About 150 people currently live in what's left of Hambach forest, many in makeshift tree houses. Although living in a tree house may appear idyllic, many of the environmental activists have uprooted their lives for the better part of six years — living without electricity and running water — to protect the forest, and take a stance against the power of the fossil fuel industry.

Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Bildfunk/C. Gateau

Evictions begin

Several hundred police officers accompanied RWE workers for protection as they visited the forest on Wednesday, September 5, to expel the protesters in preparation for clearing. Although the operation was mostly peaceful, one activist was arrested after resisting police.

Image: DW/I. Banos-Ruiz

Nonviolent resistance

Activists joke about their "dangerous weapons," such as an empty fire extinguisher. Just days before the police action on September 5, Herbert Reul, the interior minister for the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, warned that police and RWE staff in the Hambach forest were dealing with "extremely violent left-wing extremists." Members of the protest group have denied Reul's description.

Image: DW/G. Rueter

Not the first forest confrontation

Over the years, police have clashed with protesters in the Hambach forest. In 2017, police employed pepper spray to disperse protesters in advance of planned logging. The looming eviction is likely to result in the largest confrontation there yet.

Image: picture-alliance/dpa/M.Becker

Trees for coal

Here is the result of a recent RWE clearing campaign, which ran from October 2016 to March 2017. In the background, the smokestacks of the Niederaussem power station can be seen. With a CO2 output of more than 29 million tons yearly, this is Europe's third-dirtiest power plant. Due to massive toxic emissions such as mercury and sulfur, it is also considered Germany's second-most-toxic power plant.

Image: Elian Hadj-Hamdi

'Critical turning point' for climate policy

"Clumsy" has lived among the treetops in the Hambach forest since the resistance against the RWE coalmine project began in 2012. He believes the battle over the forest is a critical turning point for German climate policy, and the government's decision is one between "giving in to the lignite hardliners, [or] protecting our life support basis on this planet."

Image: DW/G. Rueter

Small forest with big stakes

Only about 10 percent of the once sprawling Hambach forest has survived the mine's onslaught. What's left appears miniscule in comparison to the vast expanse of the mine, which already covers about 85 square kilometers (33 square miles). But environmentalists say the forest holds enormous ecological value, and is home to abundant and biodiverse ecology, including endangered animal species.

Ever-hungry coal industry

The Hambach mine, located between Aachen and Cologne, is Germany's largest open-cast mine. Here, RWE uses enormous excavators to extract brown coal, also known as lignite, from the earth. Lignite is among the fossil fuels that emit the most carbon dioxide when burned. What remains of Hambach forest is the last bastion in a long battle against the expansion of the mine.

Image: Michael Goergens

Save the forest, save the world

Environmental activists have undertaken nonviolent resistance against the RWE coal mine expansion for more than six years. Through their actions, they claim to not only want to save the Hambach forest from destruction, but also send a message to the world about the dangerous consequences of prioritizing fossil fuel extraction over important ecological sites.

Image: DW/G. Rueter

Global support

Activists from all over the world have supported the action by staying for days or weeks at a time. Over the past six years, activists have literally built up an alternative community within the forest. Although it is still unclear what exactly will happen in the struggle between the protesters and the fossil fuel giant, potential eviction is an ever-present possibility for the forest dwellers.

Image: DW/G. Rueter
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Germany's dirty coal secret

Although Germany has been widely hailed as a world leader in renewable energy, around 40 percent of its electricity is still sourced from coal.

Germany is in the spotlight with regard to its ambition and political will to meet its greenhouse gas emission reduction targets, especially since the country admitted it won't attain it's self-imposed target of a 40 percent reduction by 2020. 

And so other countries will be watching very closely as Germany plans and implements its long-awaited coal phaseout, says Lisa Göldner from Greenpeace Germany. 

"Germany holds the special responsibility to lead by example and show that decarbonization is possible," she told DW.

Fossil fuels — an international issue

Claudia Kemfert, head of the Department of Energy, Transportation and Environment at the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW), said policy failures are behind the civil society movement for action against climate change.

"There are no active and effective measures for phasing out fossil fuels early enough," she told DW. "The role of civil society is growing." 

From the 50,000-strong demonstration at Hambach Forest at the beginning of October to the smaller — but just as determined — protests by German activist group Ende Gelände, ever more people are joining the fight for climate protection. 

Given that fossil fuel pollution is an international issue, that's no surprise. During the most-recent Ende Gelände demonstration, spokeswoman Karolina Drzewo confirmed that an increasing number of supporters from outside Germany are joining the protests. 

Support for Hambach Forest has spread to neighboring countries like the Czech RepublicImage: Limity jsme my/Petr Vrabec

Germany as inspiration

Germany is a powerhouse in the European energy market, so its next move in the coal phaseout could also have ramifications for the energy sector elsewhere — especially in neighboring countries, as well as those that still rely heavily on fossil fuels. 

On the one hand, a quick and just coal phaseout in Germany may encourage these countries to do the same.

On the other hand, if Germany continues dragging its feet on the coal phaseout, this may set the example for other countries to also do so.

Radek Kubala from Czech anti-coal grassroots movement "Limity Jsme My" says he has been inspired by the way German groups such as Ende Gelände put pressure on the government to act on climate change — especially given the Czech government seems more reluctant to commit to such a big change. 

"The Czech government doesn't deal with the root cause of climate change: The extracting and burning of fossil fuels," he told DW. "Instead, it's discussing whether old Czech coal-fired power plants should be given an exception from the European limits for air pollution."

Kubala rode from Prague along with hundreds of Czech activists in a special protest train to the Hambach region in Germany, to take part in the protests.

Also present at the Hambach protests were participants from other countries. Paul from Switzerland told DW that melting Alpine glaciers convinced him of the need for climate action, while Rafael Gonzales from the United States was there as a representative of his indigenous group in Minnesota, where he said deforestation for coal mines has negatively impacted his community. 

Protester Michal, who traveled from Slovakia, lamented how his country still extracts poor-quality brown coal despite vast potential for renewable energy.

"We don't have time to wait for political action — therefore we act ourselves. If not today, when? And if not we, then who?"

Rising support

Support for Hambach Forest has connected people from all over the world — solidarity protests took place as far away as South Africa and the US.

Much of this support can be traced back to the efforts of German environmental groups, said Greenpeace's Lisa Göldner. "On October 8, Greenpeace activists scaled the German embassy in London to urge Germany to stop mining coal," she told DW. This, too, was in solidarity with the protests in Germany.

And although Hambach Forest saw a last-minute court reprieve from razing, the fight to save it has made at least one thing abundantly clear: The will to protect the environment and our climate also has no borders.

Demanding a coal phaseout: In the thick of Hambach

At least 6,000 people protested against lignite extraction in western Germany last weekend, blocking a railway used to transport brown coal from the controversial Hambach mine to power plants.

Image: DW/I. B. Ruiz

Hambi stays: Local slogan, global movement

At least 6,000 people gathered in the heart of western German coal country Saturday to demand an end to coal use. People from around the world joined forces with a local movement that started back in 2012 with a handful of activists trying to stop the expansion of a brown coal mine and save the last 200 hectares of the millennia-old Hambach Forest. The message was clear: Coal is a global problem.

Image: DW/I. B. Ruiz

Old and young stand together

The protestors spanned many ages and walks of life. There were young activists dressed in wigs or hazmat suits, but also families and the elderly. People with reduced mobility followed the march at their own pace. A nine-year-old boy was keen to voice his view on the dirty fossil fuel, telling DW he was worried about his future but expected the authorities to do the right thing and give up coal.

Image: DW/I. B. Ruiz

Time for action

Demonstrators split up, some continuing the authorized protest while others took direct action to block coal infrastructure. A hundred people tried to stop the diggers at two nearby coal mines; close to 40 people were arrested. Trying to reach the train line, another 1,000 protestors ended up on the nearby A4 highway, resulting in around 250 arrests. Both the diggers and traffic were stopped.

Image: DW/I. B. Ruiz

Next stop: Coal transport lines

A third group was determined to block the railway transporting coal from the Hambach mine to the three power plants where it is destined to be burned. They had their work cut out, with police attempting to block the activists from approaching the railway. In the end they had to change their route several times, running through fields and navigating dense forest to reach their target.

Image: DW/I. B. Ruiz

A tense ride

On route to the rail lines, there were no major clashes with police but the atmosphere was extremely tense. Police officers on horseback followed protesters up to the edge of the forest, preventing them from changing course. Outbreaks of nerves rippled through activists and horses — without it being clear who triggered what.

Image: DW/I. B. Ruiz

The path narrows

Once the protesters entered the forest, the situation became more fraught. They had to walk carefully to avoid tripping over branches while dodging the police — who physically shoved them as they approached — or each other as, from time to time, the crowd suddenly surged without warning.

Image: DW/I. B. Ruiz

Sticking close together

In the midst of the chaos, activists called for calm, shouting to one another to stick together and remain peaceful. They held on to each other so no one would fall, get lost, or get caught by the police. Others conferred over the best route to proceed toward the rail line.

Image: DW/I. B. Ruiz

On target

Eventually, thousands of protesters arrived at the rail lines. Police officers initially tried to prevent them from climbing down on the tracks, but they were outnumbered. Activists had hung guide ropes down the slopes beforehand, but most people simply slid, ran or tumbled down the bank. Within just a few minutes, the railway was engulfed in a crowd of protestors.

Image: DW/I. B. Ruiz

Sit-in for a break

After an exhausting two-hour scramble, protesters sat down for a rest. The weather was bitingly cold, but there was an air of cheer as the crowd made itself comfortable on the tracks. For now at least, the energy companies couldn't transport coal from mines to their power plants — a victory celebrated under the watchful eyes of police on the hills above.

Image: DW/I. B. Ruiz

A 24-hour victory

The police warned that the direct action was illegal, and offered protesters the chance to abandon their blockade without penalties. But most stayed put overnight. Organizers said their protest blocked coal infrastructure for around 24 hours — which they judged a success. The last 50 to leave the protest had chained themselves to the tracks and had to be forcibly evicted one by one.

Image: DW/I. B. Ruiz
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