As Vattenfall confirms the sale of its German lignite assets to Czech firm EPH, environmental groups call for a quick phase-out of the CO2-heavy industry.
Czech energy company Energetický a Průmyslový Holding (EPH) has signed an agreement to buy Vattenfall’s German lignite operations.
Germany has a global reputation for action on climate change and the shift to a carbon-free energy supply. But it is a major producer of lignite – or brown coal – which emits far more CO2 than hard coal, oil or gas.
In October 2014, Vattenfall, which is owned by the Swedish state, announced plans to sell off its five opencast lignite mines and four lignite-burning power plants in the Lusatia region of eastern Germany.
The move has been billed as a bid by the Swedish government to decarbonize its assets. But environmental groups said the company should accept responsibility for shutting down the climate-damaging business.
"It makes no difference if Vattenfall is clean but the pollution is still being produced by someone else – that's not a step forward," said Greenpeace spokesperson Kerstin Doerenbruch, speaking outside the Vattenfall headquarters where the company's German board approved the sale today.
Vattenfall is to sell four lignite-burning power plants, which activists say should be shut down by 2025 at the latest
More mines or a green transition for Lusatia?
Last year, Greenpeace commissioned a study proposing an exit strategy for Vattenfall that would see mined land restored and jobs in renewable power provided for the industry's local workforce.
The Lusatia lignite industry employs over 8,000 people.
EPH already owns lignite operations in east Germany through its subsidiary Mibrag. Environmentalists fear the company will pursue plans to extend the Lusatia mines – resulting in more damage to the local environment and increased carbon emissions.
"We shouldn't open new coal mines in Germany," Greenpeace volunteer Josephine Lauterbach told DW. "If German politicians take the responsibility they have (committed to) in Paris they should not allow new mines in Germany."
Although Germany now covers around a third of its power demand with renewables, its dependence on lignite means emissions have often risen even as solar and wind power production shot up.
Germany dithers over coal phase-out
Environment minister Barbara Hendricks has said Germany will give up coal – just as it is in the process of phasing out nuclear power – but the government has yet to announce concrete plans for how this will be done.
Greenpeace activists in Berlin hold up a banner reading: "Responsibility cannot be sold - climate protection means a coal exit"
"They say they want to phase out coal but they haven't given a date yet – that's the problem," Doerenbruch told DW.
Lauterbach added that government confirmation of a timely exit from coal – Greenpeace says this must happen by 2025 to meet goals set in Paris – could have impacted the sale.
"We are asking Mrs. Hendricks to make a law to phase out coal," she said, hours before the sale was confirmed. "If that law was already in place, the sale would probably not go ahead because no potential buyer would see the chance to make a profit."
Activists said Germany had a responsibility to take the lead on decarbonization, given its international reputation as a pioneer of the transition to green power.
"Germany tries to look very moral. But if it says its number one in reducing greenhouse gases then it has to take action and stop coal combustion," said Helge, an activist with anti-nuclear and coal group Ende Gelände, which protested alongside Greenpeace today ahead of the announcement.
Greenpeace wants to see the Lusatia mines filled in and the land recultivated. Instead, they fear EPH will extend them
World leaders are to sign the Paris Agreement later this week. But many believe the international agreement doesn't go far enough and the onus is now on governments and individuals to take more decisive action.
"We think that the COP21 conference hasn't solved any problems because it just resulted in voluntary emissions reductions," Helge told DW. "If politics doesn't solve these problems then we have to solve them."
With this in mind, Ende Gelände is planning three days of direction action in May to shut down operations at the Lusatia coal mines.