For decades, German coal mining regions have been a locus of protest and social conflict. Citizens from nearby villages and cities oppose coal mining due to air pollution, clearing of forests and expropriation, forced resettlements and destruction of villages (Brock and Dunlap, 2018). At the beginning of 2019, there was a sign of hope that these conflicts could be resolved: the report of the ‘Coal Commission’ was supposed to reconcile local interests with industry interests and climate goals. But it failed. How did this happen?
A ‘coal consensus’ falling behind voters’ expectations
In early 2019, the “Commission on Growth, Structural Change and Employment” – the so-called ‘Coal Commission’ – a multi-stakeholder commission implemented by the German government, including political members as well as members from civil society, environmental NGOs, and workers’ unions, presented its final report. The report was expected to pave the way for phasing-out coal in Germany and include long-term future prospects for the affected coal regions. The commission recommended to phase-out coal-fired power generation by 2038 at the latest (Commission on Growth, Structural Change and Employment, 2019). The commission made also clear, that
“A successful long-term structural transition in the mining areas requires participation and acceptance on the part of the local population and civil society groups (clubs, initiatives etc.). Social cohesion must be strengthened, especially in regions with a history of conflict”
(Commission on Growth, Structural Change and Employment 2019, p. 100).
Thus, the aim of the commission was not only to develop a pathway for phasing-out coal but further strengthen social cohesion and resolve conflicts in the regions. After the final report was published, German politicians praised it and affirmed its implementation. Now, one and a half years later, it is time to ask what happened with the recommendations of the Coal Commission; were they implemented and were the conflicts in the coal regions resolved?
In July 2020, the German parliament adopted the Coal Exit Acts and supplementary laws, laying the groundwork for coal phase-out which includes financial compensation measures for energy companies and financial support for affected regions.
As early as the beginning of 2020, when the first plans of the laws got published, members of the Coal Commission complained that these plans did not comply with the commission’s recommendations. They pointed out that a linear phase-out of coal-fired power plants was recommended, however, the government instead planned a step-by-step phase-out. By 2030, this would lead to roughly 40 million tonnes of additional emissions when compared to the linear phase-out plan (BUND, 2020; Zeit Online, 2020). By 2040, it would lead to an additional 134 million tonnes of carbon dioxide (Oei et al., 2020).
Even though the plans were criticised at the early stages, the step-by-step shutdown appeared in the final version of the law (Welty, 2020; Wettengel, 2020a). The laws further include rules for compensations for coal-fired power plants operators as well as support for regions affected by the structural change due to the coal exit strategy (Wettengel, 2020b).
Thus, the German government has passed a law which, while paving the way for phasing out coal by 2038, does not meet the demands of the Coal Commission. It rather satisfies the economic interests of coal companies, employees in the coal sector and affected regions at the expense of climate and climate policies (Welty, 2020).
The dilution of the Coal Commission’s recommendations is particularly astonishing, as Rinscheid and Wüstenhagen (2019) showed in their study that German citizens preferred a coal phase-out as early as 2025. The recommendation by the Coal Commission already lagged behind voters’ interests and the government’s plan pushed forward does not fulfil even the weaker commission’s recommendations.
As mentioned, the aim of the commission was not only to develop a phase-out plan but also to strengthen the social cohesion to resolve the conflicts in the coal regions. In the Rhineland mining area, there are mainly two aspects that have been leading to conflicts for decades: the clearing of the Hambach Forest and the forced resettlements of villages. Both aspects are related to the expansion of opencast lignite mines.
It all culminates in the Hambach Forest protests
The Hambach Forest is an ancient forest with high and rare biodiversity that is home to several endangered species. It is disputed whether the forest should be preserved under European Law. However, since there are lignite deposits beneath the forest, it is being cleared to give way to the expansion of the nearby Hambach Opencast Lignite Mine. On the regional level, there have been protests against mining since the 1970s. Among other ways of protests, since 2012, the Hambach Forest is almost permanently occupied by activists who built tree houses in the forest and now live in them.
Until the summer of 2018, the protests for the Hambach Forest did not gain much attention beyond the region. Back then, an eviction of tree houses was announced to continue clearing the forest. This announcement turned the Hambach Forest into the key site of conflict over the German coal phase-out, as activists of the large Hambach Forest Movement mobilized people to join the various ways of protests against clearing the Hambach Forest. These protests peaked in October 2018 on a demonstration with 50.000 people (Buschmann and Oels, 2019).
While the conflict in the Hambach Forest escalated and more clearing was prepared, the Coal Commission convened in Berlin negotiating the future of coal. People went on the streets to protest against coal mining, not only near the Hambach Forest but also in other German cities and even abroad. This opened the window of opportunity for environmental NGOs and members of the civil society inside the negotiating rooms to turn the preservation of the Hambach Forest into a subject of negotiation. They achieved a statement in the final report preserving the forest: “The commission deems it desirable that Hambach Forest be preserved” (Commission on Growth, Structural Change and Employment, 2019, p. 63).
The residents of the villages that were facing forced resettlement used the momentum against coal mining as a window of opportunity to advocate. Prior to the demonstrations, residents had given up hope that their villages might be saved from devastation. However, the rising interest in the Hambach Forest coupled with the implementation of the Coal Commission, gave the residents hope. Previously, residents perceived the power company as too powerful and the context of political discussion about the subject portrayed resettlement as necessary to ensure energy supply reliability in the country. Therefore, it was unimaginable that the villages might be preserved. By joining forces with activists aiming for the preservation of the Hambach Forest, the residents of endangered villages mobilised in order to achieve their goals.
According to a contract, part of the new laws passed in July 2020, between the federal government and the coal company, the future of the Hambach Forest is secured. However, the contract allows continuing forced resettlements of villages to extract the coal beneath the villages in the Rhineland mining area (Haffert and Silberer, 2020).
Therefore, protestors could shift their focus away from the Hambach Forest to the villages threatened by resettlement. During the last weeks and months, several protests with a focus on the preservation of villages have taken place (Krischer and Neubaur, 2020).
Additionally, local residents plan to file a constitutional complaint to protect their properties from expropriation and destruction by the energy company (Wehrmann, 2020). Undoubtedly, if the recommendations by the Coal Commission had been followed, it would not be necessary to resettle villages (Oei et al., 2019).
Conflict around coal: far from over
The upshot? The so-called ‘coal consensus’, highly praised by politicians but unreflective of the citizens’ preferences, was not fully implemented by the government. Instead it was watered down at the expense of the environment and the climate. Furthermore, the ‘coal consensus’ was unable to resolve the conflicts in the Rhineland mining area. Hence, the resistance against coal mining and the fight for the Hambach Forest as well as villages continues. It remains to be seen whether the lawsuit against the destruction of more villages will be successful in the context of the Paris Agreement and the urgently needed coal phase-out. The activists announced that they will – if necessary – sue through all instances.
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