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Opinion: Why the climate demands a last stand at Lützerath

Stuart Braun | DW Reporter
Stuart Braun
January 11, 2023

It seems unbelievable that in 2023 climate activists in Germany need to block massive excavators readying to devour a village and the coal seam below it, writes DW's Stuart Braun.

A climate activist climbs to the top of a pole at Lützerath protest
Image: Henning Kaiser/dpa/picture alliance

The vast Garzweiler opencast coal pit in western Germany has already consumed some 20 villages. But as it grows tumor-like across fertile farmland, a monstrous excavator with its spinning guillotine demands one last sacrifice.

After a long battle, all residents of the humble hamlet of Lützerath have now sold up to coal giant RWE, the last holdout having left a few weeks ago. But the village itself is only a symbol. Campaigners fear its destruction will be a license to mine 280 million tons of lignite, or brown coal — the most polluting of its kind — that sits underneath.

Hundreds of climate activists have spent two years establishing a blockade in Lützerath to prepare for this moment. They have created a DIY fortress and last line of defense against the expansion of the 200-meter-deep mine they view from their tree houses.

Though one might debate the merits of throwing soup at art masterpieces to publicize the climate emergency, this youth-driven movement is now battling on the front line to limit temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius — that mythical Paris Climate Agreement target that might already be out of reach.

After saving the nearby Hambach forest and several other villages on the edge of Garzweiler that were earmarked to be chewed up and spat out, these climate activists believe they can hang on in Lützerath for a stay of execution. And they are doing it during the warmest start to the year on record.   

As a phalanx of police in riot gear surrounds Lützerath and sometimes clashes with the defenders, it was encouraging to see the world finally take note of this last stand happening on the edge of an abyss.

Activists in western Germany protest against coal mine

Mining coal that Germany does not need

The Lützerath blockaders rightly feel betrayed by the German Green Party, now part of the ruling federal coalition government. Greens co-head and Economic Affairs and Climate Action Minister Robert Habeck gave the go-ahead for the village to be destroyed after getting RWE to agree to a 2030 coal phase-out — eight years ahead of schedule. He blamed the war in Ukraine and the energy crisis for the compromise, having already reactivated several coal power plants. 

But Habeck has put Germany's climate goals on the line. This one village is a Trojan horse. There is rightful concern that Europe's biggest polluter will now intensify its coal extraction before the phaseout — meaning emissions won't in fact be lowered. And let's not forget that RWE is suing the Netherlands government for billions of euros because it dared to exit coal and limit its profits.

The fact that Germany does not even need the Lützerath coal makes the mine expansion an even greater insult to the climate movement.

recent study by the Technical University of Berlin and the European University of Flensburg is one of several that concluded Germany has sufficient existing coal reserves to make up for the loss of Putin's gas. Either way, the Lützerath's coal won't be processed in time to deal with the current energy shortfall.

Energy crisis does not justify compromise

And still the media continue to ask climate campaigners the same question: It's just one village, why not walk away and accept a compromise, after that it will be all over?

But with temperatures set to rise by at least 2.5 degrees Celsius under the current —insufficient— Paris emission reduction pledges, there is no more room for compromise. 

As the Russian war in Ukraine drags on indefinitely, energy crises can no longer be weaponized by governments and Big Coal to justify climate-killing fossil fuel expansion. 

Which is why thousands more protesters from across Germany and beyond gathered at Lützerath  — and will come again this weekend.  

As the occupiers stood on the thin wedge of land between the 900-year-old hamlet and Garzweiler's precipitous edge, they marked a line in the proverbial coal sands.   

If they last out the week and more reinforcements and global media attention follow, the village standing in the way of a last fossil fuel grab deserves to survive.   

Edited by: Tamsin Walker

Stuart Braun | DW Reporter
Stuart Braun Berlin-based journalist with a focus on climate and culture.