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Big coal and the battle for Lützerath

Gero Rueter
January 9, 2023

Police are poised to clear Lützerath in western Germany to expand a massive coal mine. As activists stand in their way, the village has become a symbol of the fight for a clean future.

Police and climate activists face off in the village of Lützerath
Police and climate activists have been facing off in the village of LützerathImage: Henning Kaiser/dpa/picture alliance

The tiny village of Lützerath has become a magnet for activists hoping to stop the expansion of the open-pit coal mine on its doorstep. Many have come from far away.

David Dresen, spokesperson for the citizens' initiative All Villages Must Stay — which campaigns for the preservation of the villages in Germany's lignite mining areas, in keeping with climate goals — is deeply moved by the mass mobilization.

Activists in western Germany protest against coal mine

"It is incredibly good to feel the support of a huge movement," he said. "There are people here from all over Europe and we've received expressions of solidarity from all over the world."

Next to the village, a gaping a hole up to 200 meters (around 650 feet) deep marks Europe's most controversial open-cast lignite mine.

The Garzweiler mine resembles a surreal lunar landscape. Huge excavators have been mining coal across more than 80 square kilometers (30 square miles) for decades, destroying around 20 villages in the process.

Layers of a massive hole in the landscape
Mining over the decades has left a vast gaping hole in the landscapeImage: INA FASSBENDER/AFP/Getty Images

Activists standing up for the climate

Lützerath is next in line for destruction. In Germany's Rhineland region, it will be the last village lost to coal mining since the beginning of the lignite industry back in the mid 19th century.

The last farmer, Eckardt Heukamp, sold his plot to German mining conglomerate RWE and moved out a few weeks ago.

Now the more than 1,000 activists based there are aiming to prevent the demolition of the village. They have set up a fortress over the last two years, living in empty houses but also building numerous treehouses and a camp on Heukamp's old cow meadow.

There has been controversy about whether the village can still be mined at all, with a 2021 study by the German Institute for Economic Research showing that mine expansion does not comply with Germany's climate commitments under the 2015 Paris agreement. The study highlighted the need to reduce coal production, which would would mean all the remaining villages around the Garzweiler open-pit mine could be preserved, including Lützerath.

Garzweiler coal mine has swallowed 20 villages

Coal phaseout moved up, but Lützerath not spared

On October 4, the German federal government and state of North Rhine-Westphalia agreed with the coal company RWE to phase out coal in 2030, eight years earlier than planned.

Five villages that would have fallen prey to the Garzweiler open-cast mine could thus be saved, but Lützerath would have to be sacrificed, said Mona Neubaur, the economics and climate minister for North Rhine-Westphalia.

"Even if I would have liked things to be different, we have to acknowledge the reality," she said. 

At the time of the decision, there was increasing concern about a severe winter gas shortage in Germany due to loss of supply from Russia, an implication that climate goals would have to be compromised to address the energy crisis— including maintaining coal-fired power plants, which Robert Habeck, the federal minister for economics affairs and climate action, sanctioned in June.    

In October, Habeck stated it would be necessary to "reconcile energy security, affordability and sustainability."

"To this end, we must do the right things in the short term to ensure security of supply," he added.

Activists protest at the edge of an open cast mine
Activists have been protesting at the Garzweiler lignite open-cast mine ahead of the imminent clearance of LützerathImage: Ina Fassbender/AFP/Getty Images

Linda Kastrup, a spokesperson for the Fridays for Future climate movement in Germany, said "Robert Habeck and Mona Neubauer have decided on a dirty deal with RWE based on questionable figures, which in the end only helps one thing: the coal company itself."

Claudia Kemfert, head of the department of energy, transportation and environment at the German Institute for Economic Research, said the decision is difficult to understand. She believes there should have been a transparent dialogue process with all parties involved. 

Is the coal under Lützerath still needed? 

Kemfert said the coal is not required to meet Germany's energy needs.

"Our study clearly shows that Lützerath does not need to be destroyed and mined," she said. "There is enough coal in the existing areas." 

Despite the gas shortage, a secure and climate-friendly energy supply is also possible for Germany through the expansion of renewable energies, Kemfert continued, adding that the pace of expansion must be "at least tripled, if not quadrupled."

Lützerath has become a symbol in a global climate struggle

Kemfert said the government should institute an immediate coal moratorium.

"New negotiations must be made possible," she said, adding that there needs to be "an exchange with those affected, demonstrators, businesses, the economy and civil society."

Luisa Neubauer against a backdrop of the mine
Luisa Neubauer of Fridays for Future is among those fighting to save LützerathImage: Christoph Reichwein/dpa/picture alliance

Climate activists in Lützerath and environmental campaigners see it similarly.

"We now need a last-minute stop to the eviction of Lützerath, the state government must now pull the emergency brake," said Christoph Bautz of the citizens' movement Campact. 

The climate movement has made Lützerath a symbol in a global struggle to phase out fossil fuels. 

"The world is looking here because we are also fighting for them, that we use our privileges, that we live up to our responsibility here," said Fridays for Future climate activist Luisa Neubauer at a rally in the village.

"If we want to limit this crisis, then there has to be an end to the destruction."

This article was originally published in German.