During the COP23 in Bonn, November last year, over 15 countries including several US states such as California and Washington and 58 private companies joined the Powering Past Coal Alliance against coal. Carbon pollution from coal is considered a leading contributor to climate change. Coal-fired power plants produce almost 40% of global electricity but generate per unit of electricity twice as much CO2 as gas. The Alliance’s charter underlines that meeting the Paris Agreement - keeping global temperature increase well below 2°C, and to pursue efforts to limit it to 1.5°C - traditional coal power in the OECD needs to be phased out by no later than 2030, and no later than by 2050 in the rest of the world. Within the European Union, almost a fifth of the European Union's CO2 emissions, with Germany and Poland responsible for half of it, stems from from coal power plants. Despite Germany's intent to transition away from coal, 77 coal power plants, more than in any other country in Europe, remain on the grid. The newest units of the lignite-powered facilities are even expected to operate until 2055.The health effects of air pollution from burning coal, including respiratory diseases and premature deaths, impose massive costs in both human and economic terms. According to the Europe’s Dark Cloud report by the Health and Environment Alliance, Climate Action Network Europe, WWF’s Europe office and Sandbag, 3.630 Germans died of carbon-related diseases in 2013.
The 2018 Environmental Performance Index (EPI) by Yale Centre for Environmental Law and Policy in collaboration with Earth Institute of Colombia University finds that air quality is the leading environmental threat to public health. On a global scale, more than 800,000 people die from the pollution generated by burning coal each year. Within the EU, an analysis of 257 of the EU’s 280 coal plants found that their emissions caused the deaths of 22.900 people. Tens of thousands more suffer from illnesses, including heart problems and bronchitis, directly related to the burning of coal. The corresponding health cost is estimated to exceed €60 billion. With 6.5 million victims annually worldwide the issue of air pollution starts to rank up on the policy ladder and it will drive WHO’s first global conference on air pollution and health on 30 October – 1 November 2018 in Geneva.
So why is it that Germany considered one of the pioneers in the fight against global warming failed to sign this charter for cleaner power sources?Although in recent years, there has been a huge surge in renewable energy in Germany, coal still supplies about 40 percent of the country's total energy. Half of that supply is lignite or brown coal, considered the biggest CO2 pollutant of all. Rhineland-Palatinate for example, considered being a pioneer state in the ‘Energiewende’, imports most of its 30% of electricity from North Rhine-Westphalia’s coal power stations.
There’s no bigger impact on the environment than brown coal mining, and we’re the world champion,” said Dirk Jansen, a leader of the local chapter of Friends of the Earth in Germany’s coal heartland of North Rhine-Westphalia. “If we want to stop climate change, we have to start here.”
With the last underground mines closing next year, Germany appears to reconvert. But then again, there is lignite. It is mined in giant open pits located in Germany’s Rhineland, a petrified 25-million-year-old swampland. Its extraction is easier (read: cheaper) but of lower quality and dirtier to burn as compared to hard coal. Together with the relatively low price of carbon under Europe’s emissions trading system, there appears little financial incentive to give this brown coal up all together.
“There’s no real economic incentive to phase out coal,” said Ottmar Edenhofer, chief economist at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. “To stimulate clean innovation, we need a minimum price for CO2.”
Germany is already getting out of the nuclear energy business. Following Japan’s 2011 Fukushima disaster, Merkel decided to close all nuclear plants by 2022. Simultaneously leaving behind coal, say critics of a quick exit, would leave the country without the necessary resources to ensure it has the energy it needs. Also RWE AG, with its headquarters in Essen and responsible for power generation on a gas, hard coal, hydropower and biomass, reiterated during its last shareholder gathering 26 April 2018 that in order to meet energy demand lignite remains a viable solution at least until 2045. It claims embracing its role as good corporate citizen by investing in green energy sources and community development. At the same time RWE seems to take a more complacent role for the future while urging other industries do their homework now too in terms of greenovation. Remarkable, one of the attendants to the shareholder meeting stated that RWE’s commitment to renewables is about 13% and below average as compared the national observed 33% in green energy supply. When visiting their Weisweiler brown coal power plant near the town of Eschweiler one cannot help notice that investment in green energy appears to be restricted to a number of scattered wind turbines in the Rhineland’s landscape and several acres of solar panels around the power plant’s site, while on the other hand over 8300 hectars of the adjacent 12.000 year old Hambach forest have been reduced and will continue to be reduced to a 500 meter deep coal pit that in terms of vastness can hold the entire inner-city of Cologne, including its dome. This has been the result of approximately 45 years of mining, not counting the health effects and the impact on climate change. Weisweiler is not the only powerplant in the region. Niederaussem Power Station is another lignite-fired power plant in the Bergheim Niederaussem/Rhein Erft circle, owned by RWE. It is the second-largest brown coal power plant in operation in Germany, with a total output capacity of 3,864 MW and a net capacity of 3,396 MW. According to Euractive Slovakia, the Neurath RWE coal power plant, not so far from the lignite mining site in Hambach, ranks second in the EU in terms of both installed capacity and CO2 emissions.
But perhaps Germany’s adherence to coal is not so much a coal addiction issue or the result of a simple cost-benefit analysis, as it is a matter of politics and vested interest. Besides employing over 20.000 voters in the coal industry, and 60.000 employees in RWE alone, energy companies including those who provide the raw material lobby hard to keep German politicians from disrupting their business and short-term profits.
Besides the disastrous impact on climate, health and woodland, coal exploitation comes yet at another human cost. It has caused an internal displacement of people. Villages needed to be evacuated, demolished and reconstructed to give way the world’s largest excavators. One of these villages up for demolition is Immerath a once-quaint farming village in the fertile western Germany countryside near Hambach, about 40 kilometers from the RWE mine and home to 1200 people. One inhabitant who was willing to give a short statement mentioning that for 20-30 years they know RWE would demolish their village to accommodate mining activities in the region. Over the last 7 years, people have been given a new home in Neu (new) Immerath, 20km down the road. Although inhabitants have been compensated for the move, according to some sources, they were urged to accept the resettlement deal before it would expire. Another remaining inhabitant was unwilling to comment and merely stated that their deal with RWE forbids them to communicate any public opinion on the matter.
Excavation of the Hambach site also commonly known as “Mordor” began in 1978 when mining operator RWE acquired the land. The first lignite was extracted January 1984. The surface mine is approximately 500 meters deep with the total area of 85 km² designated for mining About 40 million tons of lignite are produced annually and it has been estimated that 1772 million tons of lignite are still available for mining. The extracted lignite is transported via the Hambachbahn to Bergheim - Auenheim and from there transported via the north-south railway to the power stations Niederaussem, Neurath, Frimmersdorf and Goldenberg near Hürth-Knapsack.
Since 2004 protest against further excavation and forest destruction starts to grow. In that same year, Greenpeace activists demonstrated against power generation by using lignite. They flew over the open pit with a hot air balloon, occupied an excavator for several days and painted it partly pink. As from 2008 the number of complaints against further excavation grew due to possible damage to the hill in the Elsdorf-Heppendorf area. This led to the establishment of the Bergschaden Braunkohle NRW reclamation service for damage victims in the Rhenish lignite mining area.
On 13 May 2009, the joint action of the local action group of citizens' initiatives and Friends of the Earth Germany (BUND) to stop the relocation of the A4, which was deemed necessary for the planned extension of the open pit mine and justified this, inter alia, with feared noise pollution as well as the possible threat to the protected Bechstein’s bat and other species, failed.
Around 2012, an area of 200 hectars of remaining Hambach Forest became occupied by environmentalists trying to prevent its planned destruction by RWE.
The occupation involves a number of self-sufficient settlements or “barrios” with around two-dozen tree houses and numerous road barricades to prevent the RWE mining company and police vehicles from entering. Activist who have been caught trespassing by RWE have been given an written ultimatum not to come back to the forest or face a heavy fine of several thousands of Euros.
Ironically, the site is situated 50 kilometers from last year’s COP23 in Bonn. A recent court ruling has overruled a previous one that had halted RWE who owns the land from logging Hambach forest. The court ruled that the remaining 200 hectars of forest was now too small to protect any of the species living there, thus refuting the argument that logging should be halted for the benefit of those protected species. The logging, will as a result, continue as of October this year, aiming to cut down another 100-150 hectars of Hamach forest. The environmentalist occupying what is left of the forest are committed to protect it, although they are unsure of what will happen to them and what might used to be Hambi forest an ancient mixed forest, home to number of protected species and made up of a specific vegetation mix consisting of English oak trees, hornbeams and lilies of the valley. Although RWE has been replanting a new and neatly layed forest on the external slopes of the open pit mine, this patchwork of tree monocultures, according to research by Markku Larjavaara from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama, seems not beneficial to the conservation of biodiversity of trees and other organisms.