Coal In Germany: Defend The Climate, Or Comply With The Law?

ERKELENZ, Germany (AP) — The fate of a small village has sparked a heated debate in Germany over the country’s continued use of coal and whether tackling climate change justifies breaking the law.

Environmental activists have been locked in a dispute with police, who on Wednesday began eviction operations in the village of Lützerath, west of Cologne, which is to be bulldozed to allow for the expansion of a nearby lignite mine. Some fireworks and stones were thrown at riot officers as they entered the town, who cleared roadblocks and removed protesters.

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The activists had refused to obey a court ruling issued on Monday that prohibited them from being in the area. Some dug ditches, erected barricades and stood on top of giant tripods in an attempt to prevent heavy machinery from reaching the village, before police forcibly forced them back.

“People are putting all their efforts, their whole lives into this fight to keep coal underground,” said Dina Hamid, spokeswoman for the activist group Lützerath Lebt (Lützerath Live).

“If this coal is burned, we are really going to blow our climate goals,” he declared. “So we’re trying to protect climate goals through our bodies.”

The debate resurfaced hours later at a meeting in the neighboring town of Erkelenz, when a regional official accused the activists of being willing to “shed human blood” to defend the village, which has since been abandoned.

Stephan Pusch, who heads the district administration, said that although he sympathized with the goals of the protesters, the time had come to resign from Lützerath. The last inhabitant of the village left in 2022 after being forced to sell to the electricity company RWE.

“You have already reached your goal. Now clear the field, ”he declared amid boos.

Many disagreed, claiming that the town is more than a strong symbol of the need to stop global warming.

Studies indicate that approximately 110 million tons of coal could be extracted from Lützerath’s subsoil. The government and RWE say this coal is needed to ensure Germany’s energy security, which is under pressure due to a cutoff in Russian gas supplies over the war in Ukraine.

Critics counter that burning so much coal would make it very difficult for Germany, and the world, to keep global warming to a maximum of 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 Fahrenheit), as agreed in the 2015 Paris Agreement.

“Right now nobody wants to be out in the cold, defending a forest or a village,” said Maya Rollberg, a 26-year-old student who had traveled from southern Germany. “But I think people have realized that they have to do that to (protect) future generations.”

Dietmar Jung, a retired priest who attended the meeting, said he was tired of hearing authorities say that RWE has the law on its side.

“They continue to resort to the legal situation,” he said. “But the right to live does not play a role here (for them).”

Pusch, the head of the regional administration, warned the protesters that intentionally breaking the law would not help their cause in a country where the violent seizure of power and the horrors of dictatorship are still in the memory of many people who lived them.

“I will tell you honestly that I am afraid that my children will grow up in a world that is no longer worth living in,” she said. “But I am at least as terrified that my children will grow up in a country where everyone takes the law into their own hands.”

“You will not save the world’s climate by yourself,” Pusch declared. “Only (we will) if we get the majority of the population to support us.”

Similar debates have been taking place in Germany and elsewhere in recent months about how far civil disobedience can go, amid a wave of roadblocks and other clampdowns by protesters demanding tougher measures to combat climate change.

Some climate activists say the law is on their side in the end, citing a 2021 Supreme Court ruling that forced the government to step up efforts to cut emissions. They also note that the commitments Germany made in the Paris Agreement are legally binding.

In remarks after the meeting, student Jannis Niethammer acknowledged that the dispute over Lützerath touches on fundamental issues.

“It’s a question of democracy and how do we actually move a democracy in the direction of climate protection, towards climate justice,” he said.

Janine Wissler, a federal legislator and co-leader of the opposition party The Left, suggested that the way out of this confrontation would be for the government to reverse its decision to allow the village to be demolished.

“If we want to meet our climate goals and take the Paris climate agreement seriously, then the coal under Lützerath needs to stay in the ground,” he told The Associated Press on the sidelines of the protest.

Wissler criticized an agreement reached last year between the government and RWE to allow mining below the village in exchange for Germany ending coal use ahead of schedule. Some experts say that, in short, that agreement will lead to more emissions.

“We are already experiencing droughts, famines and floods. Climate change is already happening,” she noted. “And therefore it is necessary to correct the wrong decisions.”

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Frank Jordans is on Twitter as: @wirereporter

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The Associated Press’s coverage of climate and the environment is supported by several private foundations. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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