The opencast brown coal mines in Germany's Rhineland are among Europe's largest. The mining process radically transforms the landscape - and emits massive pollution. But what is done with the land once the coal is gone?
Brown coal lies in seams between sand and clay underground. To get to this, the surface of the earth is stripped away. The coal is transported via conveyor belts to nearby power plants, and burned to produce energy. Coal extracted at the Hambach mine (pictured above) alone produces 5 percent of Germany's electricity supply - about a quarter of all electricity in Germany comes from brown coal.
Jobs and smoke
German power company RWE says it provides 2,000 jobs in the Rhineland mining region. The brown coal industry employs around 21,000 people in all of Germany. Yet brown coal or lignite is among the most-polluting fossil fuels available - it emits about twice as many carbon dioxide emissions as natural gas.
Entire villages displaced
When the village Lohn in Eschweiler became part of the mining zone, nearly 700 people were resettled into Neu-Lohn, some kilometers away. As RWE seeks to extract more coal from the region over the years to come, thousands of people will be forced from their homes. The villages are literally wiped off the face of the Earth - although graves are reburied.
The highly polluting brown coal operations have been the target of protest for years. RWE has permission to extract brown coal in the Rhineland mining area until 2045. Yet Germany still hasn't clarified how it intends to reach its emission reduction pledges while continuing its massive brown coal mining.
Environmental activists from around the world have occupied the forest around Hambach off and on since 2012, protesting plans to expand the mine into the ancient forest there. Police clear the camp with some frequency. The 5,500 hectares of forest, including old-growth, represents an ecologically valuable area.
New plantings take root in soils that have been laid bare by mining. Over seven years, RWE has seeded plants such as Lucerne, which loosens compacted soil and helps to enrich it with nitrogen. The goal is to make this land arable - however, it will take some years until the fields can be used by farmers.
Wildlife also relocated
Also animals have been forced from their habitats. Here, RWE biologists use old paint buckets to trap newts. The amphibians enter the bucket through the large hole on the side, and are later released into suitable spots.
Rooted in the soil
Those who don't suffer from vertigo can visit a restaurant atop the "Goltsteinkuppe" slag heap for a view over the vast landscape. On the horizon, the 300-meter-high "Sophienhöhe" can be seen - with its 100-kilometer network of hiking trails. RWE must restore spent mining land, including mitigation of CO2 emissions - new forests, playgrounds and sports facilities are the result.
Leisure attraction plans
The largest lake in Germany is planned for the hole that is the Hambach mine. Filling of lake is expected to take 60 years, ending by 2100. The area is planned to become a leisure attraction, boosting tourism and creating new jobs when those in mining industry have dried out.
The alternative and the uncertainty
Highly polluting brown coal has been described as a fuel of the past - the future points to renewable energy sources, such as wind power. But even using former mining land for wind turbines might not work out, as some point out how it's susceptible to landslides. There's even the possibility that planned leisure projects won't be carried out - if RWE can't make enough money with brown coal.