As Germany battles to balance its international environmental commitments with its booming coal industry, an endangered forest just outside Cologne has been put under the spotlight.
Hambach Forest, in western Germany, has always been a big part of Kathrin Henneberger’s life. Growing up 20 minutes away from the ancient forest in the nearby city of Cologne, Henningerber developed a deep love for it from childhood.
Unique in its ecology, it’s one of Europe’s oldest forests and is described as “the last remnant of a sylvan ecosystem that has occupied this part of the Rhine River plain between Aachen and Cologne since the end of the last ice age”.
But decades of deforestation and mining has meant that this uniqueness is fast disappearing and today just 10 percent of around 13,500 acres of forest is left. Last month, energy company and forest owner RWE agreed to stop logging until 2020, but the future of the forest remains uncertain after that. For climate justice activists like Henneberger, who have been campaigning against the felling for years, it marks the latest step in their ongoing struggle.
Henneberger, a spokesperson for the anti-coal Ende Gelaende campaign group, told TRT World: “With its diversity of flora and fauna, the forest offers a habitat to a multitude of species including tawny owls, bats and dormice and many migratory bird species use the forest as a resting place. In the remaining parts of the forest you will find Hornbeam and English oak that are over 300 years old.
“But politicians are completely failing to protect this. Coal corporations and the German government are burning our future. We can not rely on anyone, including the courts. We have to save the Hambach Forest and stop the coal mines ourselves.”
Germany’s dirty coal problem
The fate of the forest has been a big issue in Germany for the last few years, drawing together climate activists, energy companies, large coal mine communities and the government. As well as having domestic ramifications, arguments have also centered around Germany's climate change commitments globally.
A major industrial nation, fossil fuels such as black and brown coal - or lignite - have played a key role in Germany’s economic success in the post-war years. The industry has also provided thousands of jobs in the east and west of the country - in 1960 around half a million people worked in black coal mines, while 150,000 worked in brown coal mining. Today coal provides around 35 percent of the country’s power.
Yet coal is also one of the largest emitters CO2 and its continued use has placed Germany in a difficult position. Not least because the country, which has committed to cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent by 2020, is looking at a bill running into billions of euros to support former mining regions.
Doctor Benno Hain works with the German Federal Environment Agency, which specialises in exploring scientific questions on energy policy as well as supporting the Ministry for Environmental Affairs and the Ministry for Economy and Energy.
He said: “There is a long, centuries old history of coal mining and industrial production in Germany. It's not just that this is the end of an era, but a start of a new one and there’s a big transformative process going on. On the one hand this is about jobs and society, on the other we are all very aware of the need for transformation and the need for sustainable development in the future.”
“The issue is complicated,” Energy Finance Consultant Gerard Wynn added. “By arguments around a fair transition of workers, decarbonisation, compensation for workers and for utilities who owned the mines.”
The fate of Hambach has come to embody this struggle. “It’s a symbol of the question of how to continue the interaction between society, policy and the companies responsible for the production of lignite coal electricity, ” said Hain.
Since the late 1970s, the forest has been owned by Rhenish-Westphalian Power Plant (RWE), Germany’s second largest energy company headquartered in the western city of Essen. The Hambach mine is the country’s largest open-pit lignite mine, and, according to the company, produces 40 million tonnes of lignite per year, providing work for around 1,300 people.
RWE says that the mine must be expanded so that the country’s energy needs can be met, and that “closing even a portion of the mine also would change the economics of the whole operation”.
Analysts challenge this argument. Wynn works at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) and has been researching RWE and its mine at Hambach.
In a recent report, Wynn explained RWE’s position: “In other words, lignite mining works best, or exclusively, on a monumental scale. Once you start tinkering at the edges, to slow excavation or close a power plant, the overall operation starts to make less sense. The trouble for RWE is that monumental excavation of coal or lignite to burn to generate electricity, emitting in the process tens of millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide annually, has had its day.”
Among some of their arguments, protesters say that a real assessment of the forest’s ecolife hasn’t been carried out. They say that clearing the forest for coal mining would increase significant amounts of CO2, adding to its reputation as the biggest single emission source of CO2 in Europe, and the move would go against Germany's climate change commitments on an international level.
The struggle has been playing out in Hambach, with activists occupying the forest in treehouses, trailers and tents and clashing with police. Protests reached a peak last summer when around 50,000 people from across Europe and the global south blocked the mines, amid violent clashes with police and a number of arrests.
Henneberger said: “The forest is a symbol of what is wrong with our society and our economy. We need to protect it, not destroy it for the profit of just one big company. The climate crisis is a reality an we have to act on now but RWE and other big fossil fuel companies won't stop digging coal. In today’s climate reality, we shouldn’t be cutting down three hundred-year-old oaks to get to the coal 400m deep in the earth, just to burn the coal. It will only produce more CO2.”
In an attempt to deal with the issue, the government initiated a coal exit commission report, the results of which were published last month. Put together by those working in the industry, including environmental agencies, NGOs and policy makers, the commission sought to address how to economically support former mining communities, manage the price of power and how to make the transition to clean energy. They announced that Germany should end coal-fired power generation by 2038, with an option to end it by 2035.
Wynn said: “2038 is too late, given that analysis shows that in order to comply with the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, coal power should be phased out by 2030 in developed countries. A date of 2038 also sends a poor signal to developing countries that are making energy sector investment decisions today.”
Henneberger added: “The paper states that it’s ‘desirable to save the forest’. So it’s not 100 percent certain, but it’s a step forward. The plan to exit coal is very fragile. 2038 is by far too late. We won’t hit the targets we need to stay under 1.5 degrees. It’s a huge disappointment.”
RWE, however, said the date would have “significant consequences for the country's energy sector” and in particular the company. It said that the proposals "can form the basis for policy makers to create a reliable planning framework for companies, employees and regions”.
It added: “It is important that this does not result in any disadvantages for the people affected. Thus it is coherent that the commission recognizes compensation for the economic disadvantages that companies will suffer as a result of politically motivated intervention in their property.”
With uncertainty around the forest and the report doing little to clarify the situation, it’s unlikely that this issue will be resolved anytime soon.
But those speaking from an environmental perspective say the sooner the issue is dealt with, the better.
“We’ve come to a point of hot discussion with this topic in Germany but it is still unclear as to how we will phase out the use of coal in order to reach our climate targets,” said Dr Hain. “There is not only a need for this to be dealt with inside the country, but also to give a signal to other countries, especially when it comes to international discussions on climate transformation and how to fight the risks of climate change all over the globe. It's a discussion that needs to be dealt with urgently.”
“The forest is a huge symbol of hope,” Henneberger added, saying more direct action is being planned for the summer. “As people of the global north, we should finally take responsibility. This is where the climate crisis begins so this is where we stand and and say: No more!”