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Hambach Forest: DW fact check

Gero Rueter rr | Anika Limbach
October 5, 2018

Does RWE have the legal right to cut down the Hambach Forest? Does Germany really need the coal underneath it? Can the country burn it and still meet its climate targets? DW went in search of the facts.

Deutschland Tagebau Hambach Waldspaziergang
Image: DW/G. Rueter

Does RWE need to fell the forest now to keep mining?

No. The edge of the Hambach open-pit mine is over 300 meters (985 feet) from the forest — most of it over 400 meters away. In recent years, the diggers tearing up the earth for lignite — or brown coal — have been advancing toward the forest at pace of 120 meters per year. If they keep going at that rate, there should be enough coal for them to keep mining for at least another three years. 

Experts have also said that the mine could be operated so as to spare the forest for another six years, while feeding the power plants it supplies with the same amount of coal they currently consume.

However, coal demand is set to fall. By 2019, three of the older power station units supplied by the Hambach mine are to be transferred into an emergency reserve that will only be used when the country is short of power.

Read more: The battle for villages and forests in Germany's coal country

Is clearing the forest now legal?

The Hambach open-pit mine beside the forest
The Hambach open-pit mine: Still some way from the ancient forestImage: Michael Goergens

The Higher Administrative Court in Münster is currently examining whether the Hambach Forest is protect by EU directives, and therefore cannot be cleared. To avoid RWE preempting this process, Friends of the Earth Germany (BUND) successfully applied for the forest clearance to be temporarily suspended. 

Read more: Is the destruction of Hambach Forest legal?

On Friday, the court ruled that RWE must hold off until it has decided whether the clearance is legal, a process expected to take months. 

Under the terms of RWE's operation of the mine, the company is required to preserve the forest as long as possible and clearing trees is only allowed when it is deemed essential to mining operations. Clearing forest two years in advance of the diggers moving in is seen as necessary, and therefore legal.

"Hambach Forest Stays!" Germany and the Coal Industry

But at their current speed and distance, they shouldn't encroach on the forest for at least another three years, and the area RWE wants to clear extends a full kilometer from the current edge of the mine. 

RWE failed to meet DW's request for information demonstrating why the current forest clearance plans were legal or necessary.

This is likely to be a topic for the court. But the felling of the forest now looks unlikely before October next year.

Will the mine collapse if the forest stays?

RWE chief executive Rolf Martin Schmitz has also said the forest has to be felled because the company needs the soil underneath it to stabilize the perimeter of the mine.

A mining engineer working in the lignite sector, who asked not to be named, told DW these embankments could be stabilized from within the pit, meaning extending them to the fringes of the forest was unnecessary.

RWE already uses these methods in other parts of the mine, as revealed in satellite images. The engineer told DW that because the pit near the forest's edge was shallow, this type of reinforcement would not be particularly costly.

Infographic showing forest cleared at the Hambach mine

Can Germany burn the Hambach coal and cut emissions?

Climate scientists say we must act fast to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) — or preferably 1.5. For this reason, the German Council of Economic Experts is calling for a rapid coal exit. They have calculated how much carbon dioxide (CO2) Germany can emit over the coming decades to keep within the target.

In a business-as-usual scenario, Germany's carbon budget for coal-fired power will be exhausted by the end of 2023, after which keeping coal-fired power plants running would mean Germany emitting more than its fair share of CO2.

Scientists at the Fraunhofer Institute have proposed a path to giving up coal that would see the last power stations switched off in 2030, Germany keeping within its carbon budget — and the Hambach forest spared. 

RWE, however, rejects the economic experts' recommendation and wants to release significantly more CO2 into the atmosphere. RWE's strategy is based on a policy that would lead to global warming of more than 3 degrees.

Who is responsible for the escalating situation in Hambach?

RWE is committed to its deforestation plan, and has support from the state government of North Rhine-Westphalia.

A policeman faces protesters at Hambach Forest
Activists insist their protest has been peacefulImage: DW/G. Rueter

Activists demanding an end to coal extraction to protect the climate have been camped out in the ancient woodland for the last six years, and have broad backing from the wider environmental movement. They have now been cleared from treehouses with help from the police. Some have been arrested.

The scene in the forest has been largely peaceful. Still, some police have used pepper spray against the protesters — even as others have proceeded peacefully, and are even sympathetic to the activists' environmental concerns.

And on the other side, one eviction saw police pelted with human waste from the tree-top camp. Police have also accused activists of attacking them with catapults and stones, but there have been no arrests for these attacks, so it is not clear who was responsible.

There have also been attacks on the protesters. Two of their vehicles have been set on fire. Police and state prosecutors are investigating the arson.

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