Greta Thunberg protests German town's demolition for coal mining extraction
Last weekend, at least 35,000 demonstrators protested the evacuation and mining of the German town Lützerath. The climate activist Greta Thunberg (20) joined the demonstration but was detained by police for a day after a clash.
Last weekend, Greta Thunberg joined in to protest the evacuation and mining of the German town Lützerath
German Green party agreed to let RWE AG demolish Lützerath for mining in an agreement to quit coal by 2030
The energy company will extract 280 million tonnes of lignite by 2030
Critics believe Germany will struggle to stay in line with its CO2 target
While the protestors were clashing with police in Lützerath, Germany inaugurated its second liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal about 730 km to the North-West in the Baltic seacoast town of Lubmin. Chancellor Olaf Scholz took part in the ceremony on Saturday and implied that the terminals will prevent energy shortage and permanently put behind a dependency on Russian energy sources.
The opening of this LNG belongs to Germany’s current plan to meet energy demand, which also includes temporarily reactivating coal-fired power stations and extending the operation of Germany’s last three nuclear power plants until spring this year. The nuclear power plants in Germany were supposed to be switched off at the end of 2022.
However, it was the action in Lützerath that took enormous attention and the majority of space in German newspapers this week. Last year, the German Green party’s top leaders agreed with RWE AG (the largest coal company in Germany) to phase out coal in the region by 2030.
In return, the company received permission to demolish Lützerath and start mining the coal beneath the town. It is believed that approximately 280 Million tonnes of CO2-releasing coal are located in the area, and if it goes as planned, many critics believe it will only jeopardize Germany’s ambition to reach net-zero by 2050.
The clash between protestors and police became intense, resulting in a triple-digit number of injuries. As a result, activists reported life-threatening injuries, although both sides accuse each other of violence.
Two activists voluntarily locked themselves in a tunnel beneath Lützerath. RWE negotiated with them for three days with the offers included, the prospect of waiving the ‘filing of a criminal complaint’ and the ‘assertion costs’ if they left the tunnel voluntarily. If the negotiation failed, the possibility of using physical force to bring them out was open. The activists accepted the offer after three days on Monday, after which the demolition proceeded and is expected to go on for eight to ten days.
Lützerath falls, RWE rises
Since the demonstration began, about 150 criminal cases have been filed for resisting police officers, assault, and breach of the peace. The German newspapers showed two policemen grabbing Greta Thunberg and carrying her away as she failed to comply with the police's request to leave the area. The news was out that individual demonstrators also attacked police emergency vehicles on Saturday, which injured more than 70 police officers.
The opencast lignite mine and Lützerath village belong to RWE. So, technically, they are allowed to do whatever they want to. However, the question here really is the environmental cost of the activities. RWE argued that coal in Lützerath will temporarily boost its use of power plants in response to Europe's energy crisis.
Do we need Lützerath’s coal?
After Russia stopped gas delivery at the end of August last year, Germany has been busy storing up enough gas to get it through winter. Last week, Germany’s network regulator said that a gas shortage was increasingly unlikely this winter.
Chancellor Scholz himself confirmed on Saturday that gas supplies are not impaired. The question now is if we are dependent on the coal under Lützerath to meet our energy needs, for which we can get two versions of the answer. The expert report commissioned by North Rhine-Westphalia believes we need Lützerath's coal to secure our electricity and energy supply. On the other side, several German research institutes, including the Coal Exit Research Group believe we already have enough coal for security and Lützerath does not have to be sacrificed.
Legally and politically, the matter is closed— RWE wins, even if this is extremely damaging to Germany's image as a climate protector. Researchers from the European University of Flensburg, Technical University of Berlin, and the German Institute for Economic Research have studied the effects of gas shortages on the utilization of the Hambach and Garzweiler II coal-fired power plants and compared them with the demand with and without the coal under Lützerath. This study concludes that the coal demand can be met without Lützerath's coal. Even at maximum capacity utilization from 2022 to 2030, 271 million tonnes of lignite is estimated to be consumed.
The currently approved area of the Hambach and Garzweiler II opencast mining complex provides approximately 301 million tonnes of coal reserve, which means we have a leftover of around 30 million tonnes.
A study commissioned by RWE takes a different view. RWE believes that the coal under Lützerath is needed to make the best use of the lignite fleet during the energy crisis, and the production volumes would not be sufficient without the Lützerath coal. Without it, there would be a shortfall of at least 17 million tonnes of lignite to meet the demand.
Lützerath’s contribution to emissions
The CO2 emissions from coal in Germany are shown in Figure 1. The data shows that in 1960, 700 million metric tons of CO2 (MtCO₂) were released, after which the emissions have fallen considerably.
By 1990, the emissions dropped by 20% to 569 MtCO₂. In the following decades, the increased popularity of renewable energy pushed the emission from coal even further down, and by 2020, it was about 197 MtCO₂. However, Lützerath’s coal alone is expected to add 280 MtCO2 in the next decade, which means adding emissions from other coal operations will only bring the value much higher.
A report from Bundesministerium für Wirtschaft und Klimaschutz (BMWK), as shown in Figure 2 states that to reach net-zero by 2050, Germany has to stop approving new coal mines and mines extension by 2021. So this means, extracting 280 million tonnes of lignite by 2030 in Lützerath will only disrupt the milestone.
Germany’s new target to reach net-zero as revised in 2021 is 2045. This means the country has a challenging way forward to keep up its word. Its action will be closely monitored in the coming months to see how it plans to offset the emissions from Lützerath and still manages to meet net-zero target, if it can.
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