German activists weigh climate crisis as election looms

Environmental campaigners say authorities are not moving fast enough to cut carbon emissions and curb climate change.

Activists build defensive structures to resist mine owner RWE's plan to clear the trees from Lutzerath before demolishing the village [Ruairi Casey/Al Jazeera]

Lutzerath, Germany – A tiny painted sign reading “1.5 degree limit” stands outside what remains of Lutzerath, a village in Germany’s northwest.

Beyond, the vast Garzweiler mine stretches almost to the horizon. Across, the open pit towering excavators wielding 22 metre-wide blades work day and night, ripping millions of tonnes of lignite coal from the earth to generate electricity at nearby power stations.

Lutzerath, like 20 neighbouring villages before it, is slated for destruction in the coming months as the mine continues its advance.

Over the past year, the site has become a magnet for German climate activists.

They are drawn to Eckhardt Heukamp, the farmer who has stubbornly refused to relinquish his land to energy firm RWE, which owns the mine.

Here, in the remote countryside, they hope their campaign of obstruction and resistance can save the village and keep the coal in the ground.

Climate change has been the defining issue of Germany’s election campaign, receiving top billing during televised debates and featuring prominently throughout party programmes.

But activists in Lutzerath say the constant hum of the excavators belies politicians’ promises to take action on the dire warnings set out by climate scientists.

Germany plans to phase out coal-generated power by 2038.

Yet coal continues to provide about a quarter of the country’s electricity and accounts for a significant share of greenhouse emissions, which are by far the highest in Europe.

Germany is the world’s biggest producer of lignite, low-quality coal that accounts for about 20 percent of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions [Ruairi Casey/Al Jazeera]

A study published by Greenpeace found that under a framework of limiting global warming to 1.75 degrees Celsius (3.15 degrees Fahrenheit), no more than 280 million tonnes of lignite, a particularly dirty form of soft coal, should be extracted from Garzweiler and the nearby Hambach mines.

Plans shared by RWE and the state government of North Rhine-Westphalia anticipate the number will be 680 million tonnes.

“If Lutzerath goes and Garzweiler keeps on going for five more years, Germany can just say goodbye to respecting the Paris Agreement,” said Nef, a Cologne-based student who is camping in Lutzerath for the weekend.

“It’s always funny to me when we’re described as radical because I just feel like we’re doing just the basics, which is to try to keep 500 million tonnes of CO2 in the ground … I don’t see how that’s radical in any way.”

At the encampment

A cottage provided by Heukamp has become a hub of activity before RWE’s tree-clearing season, which begins in October, and after which security personnel and police are expected to evict anyone remaining on the land.

In the surrounding fields, dozens of volunteers prepare defensive structures for the showdown, lashing together scrap wood to build towers and huts. Above them, elaborate cabins are hoisted high into the boughs of trees.

Under one, an instructor gives a workshop on climbing with ropes and harnesses, teaching volunteers to cling to treetops with the aim of holding up the clearing process.

The encampment attracts a diverse crowd – local residents mingle with anarchists, communists, student strikers and young Green party members – all under the umbrella of Germany’s climate justice movement, a loose grouping of organisations dedicated to fighting for an environmental transition that addresses social injustice.

On weekends, dozens of volunteers arrive to help with construction. Hundreds are expected to resist the mine’s expansion in late October [Ruairi Casey/Al Jazeera]

Luisa Neubauer, the most prominent face of Germany’s Friday for Future campaign, made a pilgrimage here in August.

Hopes are high that numbers will swell into the hundreds in late October, when Lutzerath becomes the latest flashpoint in the battle against “extractivism” in Germany.

“[RWE] have to move in a line,” says Emil, a member of the local chapter of Ende Gelande, a direct-action group known for sabotaging the fossil fuel industry by disrupting mines and pipelines.

“If we defend Lutzerath, the mine will be stopped. They cannot go around it.”

Many here are veterans of a years-long occupation of the nearby Hambach Forest. The ancient and biodiverse woodland became a symbol of environmental resistance when activists there blocked the expansion of another of RWE’s lignite mines.

Despite an enormous police operation in 2018 to clear the forest and tear down the treehouses, the occupiers eventually won out.

Last year, Germany’s federal government agreed to halt development at the site and declared a moratorium on logging, a victory climate radicals hope can be repeated.

Germany lags on climate

Germany’s vulnerability to extreme weather events was brought into sharp focus in July, when torrential rain sent floodwaters sweeping through the Ahr and Eft river valleys in western Germany, killing at least 220 people.

Visiting the region, Chancellor Angela Merkel said Germany needed to “up the pace in the battle against climate change”, which one study found had made the disaster up to nine times more likely.

Yet Europe’s biggest economy still struggles to meet its own climate goals.

The Garzweiler mine in North Rhine-Westphalia covers an area of more than 3,000 hectares (7,400 acres) and produces nearly 30 million tonnes of lignite coal annually [Ruairi Casey/Al Jazeera]

In April, Germany’s Supreme Court found its existing climate targets to be insufficiently ambitious, leading to parliament deciding to reduce emissions by 65 percent by 2030, compared with 1990 levels.

However, a draft government report from August found that Germany is only on track to achieve 49 percent.

An analysis from the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW) said no party’s manifesto has a coherent plan for reaching the 2030 targets, with the Greens and the Left party coming closest.

“There is lots of action in Germany, but it’s not enough, not quick enough,” said Stefan Lechtenbohmer, a climate expert at the Wuppertal Institute.

Germany remains the world’s largest extractor of lignite, and the coal phase-out date has been debated during the campaign.

The Greens and the Left party support exiting coal by 2030 through a big boost in renewables.

The Social Democrats (SPD) and Free Democratic Party have signalled that they want an earlier exit, and the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) expects the European Union’s emissions trading system to price out coal before 2038.

Compared with the complexity of retrofitting millions of buildings, or greening the entire transport sector, ending coal dependency can be a relatively cheap and easy process, Lechtenbohmer told Al Jazeera.

Disillusionment at politics

Over dinner at the encampment, topics of discussion include the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, the need for “post-growth” economic planning, and the latest video by popular YouTuber Rezo, which scolds German politicians for their inaction on climate change.

Neither men fighting to succeed Merkel as chancellor can claim a supporter here.

CDU leader Armin Laschet is the premier of North Rhine-Westphalia, a tireless supporter of the coal industry who approved the police clearance of the Hambach Forest occupation, which a court this month ruled illegal.

Centrist SPD candidate Olaf Scholz is remembered for his stint as mayor of Hamburg, where he defended the police against allegations of brutality towards protesters during the 2017 G20 summit.

There is disillusionment too with the Green party, which was originally established as a radical outgrowth of the anti-war and anti-nuclear movements. Over the decades, it has shifted to the centre, refashioning itself as a modernising, professional and pro-business force.

“Lots of people think voting for the Green party is enough to change the world,” said Momo, who spent two years occupying the Hambach Forest.

Climate activists have gathered on the land of farmer Eckhardt Heukamp, who has refused to give up his land to energy firm RWE [Ruairi Casey/Al Jazeera]

Like everyone Al Jazeera interviewed in Lutzerath, he plans to vote this week; and believes a government with the Greens would be an improvement over Merkel’s conservatives, even though their policies would likely be watered down during coalition negotiations.

The gulf between its leadership and the wider movement irks him. He pointed to the state of Hessen, where the Greens rule in coalition with conservatives and have opposed the occupation of the Dannenroder Forest by activists trying to block the construction of a motorway.

“The Greens benefit from a huge and strong movement,” he told Al Jazeera. “In the end … we help them and their standing, and now they enforce law and order.

“It will continue how it was before, even after the elections. Even with the Greens in government.”

For Emil, the Greens stand for the environment, but fail to address climate justice, anti-capitalism, or the debt owed to the Global South, which has suffered most from Germany’s historical emissions.

“We demand real justice, for society and for the climate. Not just [being] sustainable and CO2 neutral,” they said.

“That is what we have to bring into the discourse and politics.”

The next morning, local Green party members arrive on bikes to survey the mine pit. They listen attentively to speeches by the residents at the encampment.

Rumours of an appearance from a prominent Green MP known for working closely with conservatives turn out to be unfounded – a relief for some activists, who are happy to mingle with the party faithful, with whom they share many of the same goals, if not the means of achieving them.

“Political parties fill one role in an ecosystem,” said Nef.

“Direct action groups, occupations, or structured politically-minded groups are going to all fill a different function because every single one of them is going to speak with a voice and with an imagination that is going to speak to different people in society.”

Source: Al Jazeera