by Julia Gaus
These days, the social media accounts of German climate activists are flowing over with videos of confrontations between police and protesters, accusations against the federal and state government and over and over again the cry “Lützerath bleibt!”. “Lützi”, as the hamlet is being called lovingly by its defenders, has become a symbol of the increasingly intense fight to achieve the 1.5° target in the face of competing political priorities and strong industry agendas.
Few houses, big significance: Lützerath, Garzweiler II and the German Coal Exit
Lützerath is a small hamlet in the coal-rich and formerly industrial state of North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW), Germany. There were never more than 105 people living in the hamlet (in 1970), all of whom have since been resettled after energy firm RWE acquired the ground and buildings of Lützerath . Today, Lützerath’s closest neighbour is the open cast lignite mine Garzweiler II, owned by RWE, which has already caused the destruction of several other villages in the region .
Thus, on the surface the deal struck between NRW’s ministers and RWE (to allow the company to use the coal below Lützerath in exchange for bringing the state’s coal exit forward to 2030) seemed a win for the climate movement. At the cost of one small, already abandoned village, 280 million tons of lignite would remain underground and five other villages could be saved [3, 4].
However, it is more likely that the Green Party’s politicians, Mona Neubaur, minister for the economy, and Robert Habeck, federal minister for the economy, have done a disservice, not only to the achievement of Germany’s national climate targets but also to the country’s reputation on the international stage [5, 6].
A dirty deal
In 2020, Germany set into law their exit from coal at the latest by 2038 . This legislation supports the structural transformation of the affected regions, but it also contained major compensation payments for coal companies. However, global carbon prices are expected to increase which would push coal, and especially lignite, out of the market within the next decade anyway, regardless of the law. This means that coal companies would lose business as a matter of course: consequently the government is unnecessarily compensating some of the biggest polluters in history . Following the election of 2021 the new coalition government of social-democrats, greens and liberal-democrats agreed to ideally achieve the coal exit already by 2030 . The deal struck between Neubaur, Habeck and RWE puts this intention into law for the state of NRW.
However, the process for achieving this deal has been murky at best. Complaints about the hastiness of the process, the lack of transparency and the reliance on studies provided by RWE are plentiful [10, 5, 6]. And while the energy ministry argues that in light of the current multiple crises, continued energy security can only be guaranteed by removing Lützerath and, ironically, eight wind turbines next to it, other studies find that there is no need for it [3, 11, 12]. Indeed, for achieving the 1.5° target, the coal below Lützerath must remain in the ground! Activists argue that the deal struck will not be in line with Germany’s remaining emissions budget and only front load emissions that might not have even occurred later on [5, 10, 13, 14].
Several initiatives as well as hundreds of individual protesters have gone to the hamlet since the beginning of the year and aim to delay the destruction by several weeks.
Several attempts to stop the destruction through the legal system have ultimately failed. Therefore, since 2020 climate activists have been moving to the hamlet, squatting in the abandoned houses, tents and treehouses . However, a court ruling is in place upholding the residence and entry ban that has been placed on the village from December 23, 2022 to February 10, 2023 . Since January 11, 2023 police have widely restricted access to the village and started to remove protesters. The situation is tense with reports and accusations of violence emerging on both sides [16, 17]. Several initiatives as well as hundreds of individual protesters have gone to the hamlet since the beginning of the year and aim to delay the destruction by several weeks . A big manifestation (protest) took place on Saturday 14th January, 2023 to rally further support within and outside Germany . Due to the significant scientific doubts on the necessity of the clearance of Lützerath for ensuring energy security and its counterproductivity regarding a Paris-oriented energy policy, 500 scientists and 200 celebrities have called for a moratorium on the clearance in order to have a transparent dialogue [10, 20].
Parallels are already being drawn to the “Hambi” protests, which saw a weeks-long confrontation between activists and the police, and resulted in a court-decision to temporarily hold the clearing of the remaining Hambacher Forst to expand a coal mine (which is still standing) . In France, similar clashes between environmentalists and police have increasingly been occurring over the last decade in so-called “Zones à défendre” (ZAD) .
Not only young Germans will watch closely how the Green ministers and the police continue to handle the situation; the party itself is struggling to accept the bitter compromise which goes against many of its core principles . And, unsurprisingly, several elected officials as well as the party’s youth have actually joined sides with the protesters, most prominently Luisa Neubauer . In the context of other decisions unpopular among their base, such as the construction of an LNG terminal and the extension of two nuclear reactors’ lifetime, it remains to be seen what this means for the future of these self-declared institutionalised representatives of the climate and environment.
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