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Germany's mining communities brace themselves for coal exit

Katharina Wecker Zeitz
June 1, 2018

The coal industry is the biggest employer in some regions of Germany. In the east German city of Zeitz, people fear for their jobs and demand concrete plans for their future once the climate-killing fuel is phased out.

Zeitz Kohleausstieg
Image: DW/K. Wecker

What future for coal workers?

Stephan Barth steers his SUV across the hilly terrain of the Profen open-pit coal mine, monitoring conveyor belts transporting freshly extracted coal.

He is out in the mine come snow storm or heat wave. He works weekend and night shifts. It's a tough job but, he says, it is his dream job. And now, he could lose it. "What will happen when it's all over here?" he asks.

No other country burns as much lignite, or brown coal, as Germany. Around a quarter of the country's energy comes from lignite. But it's a dirty fuel, responsible for almost a fifth of Germany's CO2 emissions.

Germany must shut down its coal-fired power plants as soon as possible if it's serious about reaching its target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 55 percent by 2030 compared to the 1990s levels, experts say.

In a few weeks, a commission is to begin the task of preparing a coal phase-out and deciding when the last coal power station will close. Its main focus is on securing jobs in coal-mining regions.

But despite the government's commitment to a "socially acceptable" coal exit, Barth and his colleagues fear the future. Because so far, no one has given them anything to look forward to.

A community dependent on coal

A 50-minute journey by car from the east German city of Leipzig, past abandoned villages and lakes that bear witness to decades of coal mining, lies Zeitz, home of coal company Mibrag.

Zeitz Kohleausstieg
Half the population of Zeitz has already left and every third house stands emptyImage: DW/K. Wecker

Although not far from one another, the difference between Leipzig and Zeitz, cities that were once part of the German Democratic Republic, couldn't be starker. Leipzig is a booming university town popular with young people. Zeitz is often referred to as a ghost town.

Once an industrial city with piano, stroller and machine manufacturers, Zeitz's economy collapsed after German reunification in 1990.

Companies closed, around 20,000 jobs were lost, and half of the population moved away. Today, every third house in the city is empty. Factory buildings loom in a state of decay.

Only two major companies still operate in Zeitz, food manufacturer Südzucker and Mibrag, which employs 2,000 people, including Barth. 

"Lignite is the biggest industry round here, providing good, secure jobs. You won't find that anywhere else in this region," Barth told DW. He has been with Mibrag since 2003, working his way up from trainee to supervisor.

He recently took out a mortgage to build a house. Now he worries about how he will repay his debt when coal production is eventually shut down.

Infografik Arbeitsplätze im Braunkohleabbau DE

There aren't many other jobs in Zeitz or the surrounding area, Barth says: "There might be something for a few, maybe 10 to 15 people. But for everyone to find a new job in this region, all at once — no chance."

Barth is one of 20,000 people employed by the German lignite industry. Compared to the 340,000 jobs in the renewable energy sector, that's a small number. But for Zeitz, the end of coal threatens the economic downfall of its community.

Mibrag pays €550 million ($644 million) in taxes to the local district every year, making up 16 percent of its total revenue, explains Zeitz's mayor, Christian Thieme.

"For the federal government this might not be a lot, but regionally it's a big amount. Losing it would be a huge blow to our economy," Thieme told DW.

Climate protection for whom?

Like most people in Zeitz, Mayor Thieme acknowledges that lignite is a climate killer. But they are in no rush to shut down their open-pit coal mines.

Climate change still seems a remote threat. Losing the coal industry will have immediate consequences. And Zeitz has been on the losing side of history once before — when local companies went bankrupt or moved to western Germany after German reunification.

Now, many feel they are being forced to carry the unfair burden of losing a vital industry due to an abstract threat, according to Sabrina Schulz, energy expert at the think tank E3G.

Zeitz Kohleausstieg
"Glück auf!" is the traditional German miner's greeting and a byword for the country's long mining traditionImage: DW/K. Wecker

"It's difficult to explain to people that they will lose their jobs because of climate protection, because island nations are already drowning. That's happening a long way from people here," Schulz told DW.

This is why it's important that the government talks to people and involves them in the process of change. "To put it bluntly: Why should we do things to benefit the climate if they don't benefit the people? Of course nature has a value in itself, but politicians need to provide prospects for people in this new world," she adds.

For Barth, this means concrete measures in the region to create secure, well-paid jobs or retraining opportunities. Home for him is a village close to Zeitz and he doesn't want to leave his community to find work elsewhere. But he doesn't see the government is providing real alternatives at the moment.

"Politicians talk about structural change. But so far, it's just theory," says Barth.

No plan without an exit date

The quest for a sustainable post-coal future is starting slowly in Zeitz.

As part of the government's "Climate Protection Plan 2050," the Federal Ministry of Economics and Energy set up working groups in Germany's lignite regions last year, tasked with finding possible alternative industries.

Zeitz Kohleausstieg
The coal company Mibrag plans to extract lignite from the open-pit coal mine Profen until 2035Image: DW/K. Wecker

Jörn-Heinrich Tobaben is head of the working group for Central Germany. Together with local politicians, representatives from universities and Mibrag he's gathering ideas.

Upcoming industries like autonomous driving, drone technology, 3D printing and biotech are among the possibilities. "In principle, anything is possible that provides jobs for people," Tobaben told DW.

The working group is still at the beginning of a process expected to last years. But Tobaben believes real progress will only be made once the federal government sets a deadline for Germany to give up coal. "At the moment, it's impossible to plan," he says.

The coal commission has been given until the end of the year to decide that date.

In the meantime, coal companies are left in limbo too, over investments. Coal is a dirty business, and for all the economic benefits, coal communities also suffer from the industry's pollution. Only a final coal exit date will tell operators whether investments in new machinery or filters for better air quality will pay off.