How workers prepare ahead of Germany′s brown coal phaseout | Environment| All topics from climate change to conservation | DW | 16.01.2019
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Environment

How workers prepare ahead of Germany's brown coal phaseout

As Germany's coal commission and Chancellor Angela Merkel mull over a strategy for the country's exit from coal, DW's Gero Rueter visits the Rhineland region to meet those whose livelihoods could be on the line.

"It's scary for us," says 26-year-old Miriam Goebbels. She has been working for the energy giant RWE for over 10 years. Now she's responsible for repairing the company's coal excavation machines and hoisting equipment.

She has a lot of questions about the face of her future, about what form it will take and whether it will still be possible to build a life in the region. But despite the uncertainty, she's not angry about Germany's decision to phase out the use of coal in its energy production. "Protecting the climate is important," she says.

The industrial mechanic trusts the federal government's coal commission, which by the end of February is set to announce a plan on how Germany should manage its exit from coal.

"I'm sure they know what they're doing," Goebbels says, adding that she believes the government will take care of those working in the brown coal industry — those who stand to lose their jobs.

Read more: Thousands protest German coal phaseout

Goebbels is sure the changes will not happen overnight. After all, 40 percent of Germany's energy still comes from coal, and the mines will also need to be cleaned up and left in a safe condition. 

"I think there's still some time before I have to look for other work," Goebbels says. She feels she is flexible enough to work in another field — "that's why we keep educating ourselves."

But some of her colleagues see it differently. "They're picturing the worst case scenario," she tells DW. "But I don't think that really helps."

Lobbyists criticize focus on coal

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has warned the world should stop using fossil fuels as soon as possible if we're to cap global warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius. 

Claus Kuhnke agrees in principle. The 62-year-old engineer has been working for RWE for years. One of the four major energy giants, the company mines around half of all the brown coal Germany uses. Kuhnke also leads the national brown coal lobby group (DEBRIV).

The coal phaseout "is a really important issue for us," Kuhnke tells DW. "It's impossible to get away from it — whether at home or at work. It dominates everything."

Excavators at Hambach mines (picture-alliance/dpa/F. Gambarin)

The coal commission will decide how Germany's coal phaseout will play out

Lobbyist Kuhnke is also head of the Rhineland's School of Lignite Mining from which 40 engineers and technicians graduate every year before going on to work in mining all around the country.

It is difficult for Kuhnke to imagine Germany making a quick exit from brown coal. He finds it unfair that other countries want to increase their CO2 emissions, and that other domestic sectors won't suffer as much as the coal industry as a result of environmental protection initiatives.

"I just wonder why such radical measures aren't being introduced in other sectors, too," he says. "We could think about speed limits for example — if we introduced limits of 80 kilometers per hour on motorways and 60 on smaller roads, we would use so much less fuel. But ultimately, the most radical changes fall to the coal industry."

Read more: How Germany's coal phaseout is becoming an international movement

Kuhnke and the lobby's co-leader Uwe Maaßen are arguing for a price on carbon dioxide as a central measure for climate protection. "CO2 needs a price which is recognized at least across the G20 countries," Maaßen, an economist, says.

The two lobbyists are not keen to discuss the costs that arise from the CO2 emitted by coal power stations.

According to Germany's environment ministry, power stations in the Rhineland cause 100 million euros worth of environmental damage per day – statistics Kuhnke rejects.

Watch video 03:12

Coal mining comes to an end in Germany

Coal phaseout as an opportunity for the region?

"We all have a responsibility towards the next generation," says localmayor Georg Gelhausen, from Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative CDU party. 

The small community has worked with energy giant RWE for decades. Around 100 families' livelihoods come directly from mining work, Gelhausen says. Now the region is facing huge changes.

Read more: Growing up in Germany's Ruhr Valley coal mining district

The head of the local authority, Michael Kreuzberg (CDU), sits on the coal commission, convened by Chancellor Angela Merkel. With help from the federal government and from the EU, Kreuzberg wants to create a region that serves as a model for other areas leaving mining behind. His vision is of "Europe's greatest transformation," an area relying strongly on renewable energy sources.

"I'm optimistic. We are ready to turn the page," says Antje Grothus, who is on the coal commission as a representative of the citizens who will be affected.

"With the exit from black coal, we have seen that this can work," she says. For her, it's important to maintain social harmony in the region: "We can say goodbye to brown coal with dignity."

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