Germany plans to destroy this village for a coal mine. Thousands are gathering to stop it
It’s a grim image in 2023: Police in riot gear flood a village, pulling people from homes and destroying structures to make way for the arrival of digging machines to access the rich coal seam underground.
Since Wednesday, as rain and winds battered the small western German village of Lützerath, police have turned away hundreds of activists. Some have been in Lützerath for more than two years, occupying houses abandoned by former residents after they were evicted, most by 2017, to make way for the mine.
More than 1,000 police officers are involved in the deportation operation. Most of the buildings have now been cleared, but some activists remained in tree houses or huddled in a pit dug in the ground as of Friday, according to Aachen city police.
Protest organizers expect thousands more to pour into the area on Saturday to demonstrate against its destruction, though they may not be able to enter the village after all. After the eviction is complete, RWE plans to complete a 1.5-kilometer perimeter fence for the snake around Lützerath, sealing off the village’s buildings, roads and sewers before they break down.
However, activists vow to continue fighting for the village.
“We are taking action against this destruction by putting our bodies in the path of the excavator,” said Ronni Zeppelin, from the campaign group Lützerath Lebt (Lützerath Lives).
Lützerath, about 20 miles west of Dusseldorf, has long been a climatic hotspot in Germany due to its position on the edge of the Garzweiler II opencast lignite mine.
The mine spans about 14 square miles (35 square kilometers) in North Rhine Westphalia (NRW) – a large, jagged blip on the landscape.
Its slow creep out over the years has already swallowed villages where families have lived for generations. It has caused the destruction of centuries-old buildings and even a wind farm.
RWE has long planned to expand the mine further, in the face of criticism from climate groups. Lignite is the most polluting form of coal, which itself is the most polluting fossil fuel.
As recently as 2013, German courts ruled that the company was able to expand, even at the expense of nearby villages.
After the Greens’ successes in the 2021 federal election, some hoped the expansion would be scrapped, said David Dresen, part of the climate group Aller Dörfer bleiben (All Villages Stay), who lives in Kuckum, a village that was planned for destruction .
But in October 2022, the government reached a deal with RWE that spared several villages – including Kuckum – but allowed Lützerath to be demolished to give RWE access to the coal beneath it.
In return, RWE agreed to advance its coal phase-out from 2038 to 2030.
The Greens present it as a victory.
“We were able to save five villages and three farms from destruction, spare 500 people a forced relocation and advance the phase-out of coal for eight years,” said Martin Lechtape, a spokesman for the Green Party of North Rhine Westphalia. email to CNN.
The Greens and RWE also say the expansion will help ease the energy crisis caused by the war in Ukraine, which has limited gas supplies.
“It’s not a renaissance of lignite or coal, but just a side step — helping Germany deal with the energy crisis,” RWE spokesman Guido Steffen told CNN in an email.
Climate groups strongly oppose the deal. Continuing to burn coal for energy will reduce planet-warming emissions and breach the Paris Climate Agreement’s ambition to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.
RWE and the Greens reject the claim that the mine expansion will increase overall emissions, saying European restrictions mean the extra carbon emissions can be offset.
Many feel betrayed by the Green Party, including the people who voted for them.
“It is such an absurd and catastrophic scenario that Germany, the country where everyone else thinks we have green [policies]it’s destroying a village to burn coal in the middle of the climate crisis,” said Dreseni, who voted Green in the last election.
Fabian Huebner, energy and coal campaigner at Europe Beyond Coal, said: “I think the Greens, faced with very difficult decisions, took the wrong turn and de-prioritised climate policy.”
Germany should accelerate the clean energy transition instead, he added, including a faster roll-out of renewables and energy efficiency measures: “You cannot solve the energy crisis that essentially created this crisis.”
Some studies suggest that Germany may not even need additional coal. An August report from international research platform Coal Transitions found that even if coal plants operate at very high capacity by the end of this decade, they already have more coal available than is needed from existing supplies.
It is a deeply uncomfortable moment for the Greens and an incomprehensible disaster for those who want to save the countryside.
“The pictures from Lützerath are certainly painful, as we have always fought against the continued burning of coal,” said Lechtape, on behalf of NRW Greens. “We know the importance of Lützerath as a symbol in the climate movement. However, this should not overshadow what has been achieved,” he added.
The party’s embarrassment could deepen on Saturday when a protest, organized by a coalition of climate groups, is expected to draw thousands of people to Lützerath – including Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg.
“Now it’s up to us to stop the wrecking balls and coal excavators. We will not make this eviction easy,” said Pauline Brünger of the climate group Fridays for the Future.
Even if the village is completely evicted before Saturday and access is blocked, climate groups say the protest will still continue.
Dina Hamid, a recently expelled activist with Lützerath Lebt, told CNN, “In the end, it’s not about the village, it’s about the coal that remains in the ground, and we’re going to fight for it as long as it takes .”