Europe’s locomotive runs on coal

A bucolic idyll, scarred by the craters of boundless mines and the menacing profile of coal-fired power plants, where cooling towers spew gigantic white clouds relentlessly. 

Welcome to the Land of North Rhine-Westphalia, the most populated region in Germany. To be precise, we are just under an hour’s drive from Cologne, in one of the richest in coal areas in Europe and with two of the largest open-cast lignite mines (the most polluting type of coal) in the world: Hambach and Garzweiler, both managed by the German multi-utility RWE. 

Garzweiler – photo @catwithacamera – Archivio ReCommon

The first, up to 500 meters deep, rose to the headlines less than five years ago for the battle led by climate justice activists to save the homonymous forest. A great success which is now counterbalanced by the struggle to save some villages from the expansion of the Garzweiler mine. It would be more correct to call it Garzweiler II, because for Garzweiler I, exhausted and separated from the one operating only by a strip of highway, 11 villages had already been destroyed and 30 thousand people displaced.

The village symbol of the new front against coal is called Lützerath. The street running along the village, which ends in a sort of square, points directly to the abyss of Garzweiler II. Here hundreds of activists take turns in the tent that is the fulcrum of the protest, also visited by Greta Thunberg and Vanessa Nakate. “As long as there is a tent and at least one of us is present, they cannot kick us out. But now it is only a matter of days because the permit to stay is renewed monthly and they will certainly find an excuse to proceed with the evacuation”, explains Julia Riedel of Lützerath Lebt group, who refers to the agreement reached in recent weeks between the Land government and RWE to expand the mine. A compromise solution, because of the six villages in danger the only one “sacrificed” will be Lützerath, while in the region the phase-out from coal will be in 2030 instead of 2038. In addition to activists who have built tree houses and have repopulated the village for two years now, we met the last inhabitant of Lützerath, Eckardt Heukamp. His fellow villagers have long left and yet he has stayed to defend his farm, where we met him while he was loading on the van of household goods. Eckardt lost the last administrative case and must be relocated.    

“The problem is not the judges, but the politicians who make the laws,” he told us. Or rather that they find agreements, such as the one signed by Mona Neubaur  – Minister of Economy of the Land within the anomalous CDU-Greens coalition –  with RWE, for the aforementioned coal phase-out to 2030. The move by the regional government has effectively split the Greens  – Neubaur is a leading member of the party – so much so that there are those who are clearly opposed to the agreement. Like Bundestag MP Kathrin Henneberger, who spent six months in Lützerath before entering the national parliament. “I’ve been here for six months and now I’m trying to bring local protests nationwide.” Henneberger does not want to compromise on coal and recalls that even the 2030 phase-out is not 100 percent certain, since in 2026 a sort of “coupon” is planned with a hypothetical extension to 2033. Even if it were only until 2030, 290 million tons of coal would still be extracted, the combustion of which would be even higher than that in a horizon of 2038. Not to mention that the price of coal, until two years ago given up for dead, has returned to rise, to the happiness of the coffers of RWE, which seems to have studied the agreement with the government at the table to earn as much as possible.

On the other hand, Germany is one of the coal countries par excellences and still bases its energy mix for 30% on the most polluting among fossil fuels. In the rest of the country, especially in the economically poorest eastern regions and where jobs in the sector also count, the coal phase-out is still set for 2038, with all due respect to the energy and ecological transition. RWE plays its entire communication strategy on greenwashing operations. It is no coincidence that in North Rhine-Westphalia the skyline is dotted not only by coal-fired power plants but also by numerous wind turbines. Although many, as we could see, do not work. “Certainly eight will be shot down to make way for Garzweiler II, others are obsolete and will have to be replaced,” explains David Dresen of the local coalition Alle Dörfer Bleiben, who gives us avery illustrative framework of the force on RWE territory. “So many politicians depend on the strength of the RWE, how it can create jobs or providing funding for a disparate number of initiatives.” The company is entirely private, but has enormous power to influence German energy policies. The two main Italian banks, Intesa Sanpaolo and UniCredit, also profit from RWE’s dirty business. Sifting through the balance sheet we realize that Intesa has invested 135 million euros in the German multi-utility, the first Italian investor. Not a surprise, given that the “number one Italian fossil bank” in 2021 alone granted 6.4 billion euros of financing to the fossil fuel industry through loans and underwriting of shares and bonds. What is striking is that Intesa has justified its support for RWE on the grounds that the company “wants to get out of coal and focus on renewables”. Too bad that there is no trace of the energy transition of RWE.

photo @catwithacamera – Archivio ReCommon

In Italy and in various other parts of Europe, the coal revival was caused in large part by the energy emergency posed by the invasion of Ukraine by the Russian Federation, while Germany, a country often praised for its investments in renewables, still fails to free itself from the most polluting of fossil fuels. The climate crisis, but also the health crisis, is constantly taking a back seat. It seems impossible, but a power plant, that of Niederaußem, is located right in the middle of the homonymous inhabited village. Even on a very clear and cloudless day, as we found, the sky cannot be completely blue, but is partly covered by the usual immense white puff that comes out of the plant. White only to the naked eye.

“Two studies say that statistically there are 2,000 deaths a year due to power plants,” Christian Döring, a pediatrician who knows all too well the effects of burning coal on children, explains in his clinic in Cologne. “The damage is also significant for pregnant women, because the particles reach the placenta. In the most impacted areas, babies weigh less and are born more often prematurely”. It is almost pleonastic to reiterate the problems of environmental pollution: from the destruction of some of the most fertile soils in the country to the drying up of aquifers, as confirmed by the expert geologist Henry Risse. “Once Garzweiler II is exhausted, you would like to fill it with water, so as to create an artificial reservoir.” In fact, it would result in a lake with dimensions like the one of Bracciano, in Lazio, Central Italy. The flooding process would last decades and would draw directly from the nearby Rhine, which last summer did not suffer like the Po river, but is beginning to feel the effects of the climate crisis. A phenomenon that evidently many in Germany continues to be underestimated.  

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