18 Sep 2018 Story Climate change

Forest or fuel: decision time for Germany

A battle is raging in the courts, on the ground and in the hearts and minds of many Germans over a remnant of ancient forest which a local mining company wants to clear to extend a lignite mine.

Coal is among the worst sources of toxic air pollutants globally, and lignite or brown coal is the dirtiest and most polluting fuel in Europe. It creates harmful fine dust and particulates which reduce air quality.

Germany has a reputation as an environmental trailblazer with numerous renewable energy installations and generous feed-in tariffs for households generating their own electricity from renewables. The country has opted not to use nuclear power to generate electricity after 2022, which means that without coal, at present, it cannot meet the demand for electricity.

Around 37 per cent of the country’s electricity is generated by coal, mainly lignite; 33 per cent comes from renewables. Other sources include natural gas and nuclear energy. The government is planning to phase out coal in the coming decades.

Where is Hambach and why is it special?

Hambach Forest is in northwestern Germany near the border with Belgium and France. Only about 300 hectares remain of the 12,000-year-old forest. 

The woodland comprises lily of the valley, common oak and hornbeam. It’s a retreat for rare animals protected under European Union law such as the Bechstein bat, the middlespotted woodpecker, the spring frog and the dormouse.

image
Fungi in Hambach Forest – a vital but little understood part of forest ecosystems.

Why is the forest threatened?

The forest is near Europe’s largest opencast lignite mine. RWE, Germany’s main energy provider, wants to expand lignite mining to meet the country’s coal energy needs in the next years. For this, the company plans to clear half of the forest in 2018 and the rest in the coming years – after ejecting some 250 activists who have been camping out in the forest since 2012.

What are the main issues?

Germany’s energy policy is at the heart of the conflict, with the environmental lobby fighting against deforestation to mitigate climate change and preserve biodiversity, arguing that coal contributes to climate change by generating carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, when it burns.

The current lignite mine, together with two others, fuel several of the most polluting coal-fired power plants in the world, owned by RWE. In 2016, the three biggest plants, dating back to the 1960s and the 1970s, emitted around 75 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, 8.25 per cent of Germany’s total emissions of 909 million tonnes.

“The Paris Climate Agreement has a specific article on the protection of forests, and Germany plays a lead role in helping developing countries to save forests in the tropics. It sends wrong signals in this context if forests at home are replaced by coal mining,” says UN Environment forests and landscapes expert Tim Christophersen.

image
Environmental activists have been camping out in the forest as an act of protest since.

There are almost ten million jobs worldwide in renewables, many more than in the coal industry. In Germany, over 330,000 people work in the renewables sector, and the trend is upwards.

Germany has a high-level process in place, the Kohleausstiegskommission (Coal Exit Commission) which will report by December 2018 on when (not if) Germany will stop using coal to produce electricity.

“It might be better to wait for that report, and for the verdict in the pending law suits, before expanding the current open pit mine which might have to be closed soon anyway. A quick exit from coal would help Germany get back on track for their climate targets,” says Christophersen.

BUND (Friends of the Earth, a German environmental non-profit organization) has filed several lawsuits against RWE, including one against the company’s permit for the continuation of the Hambach mine from 2020 to 2030. A verdict in a critical lawsuit concerning the Hambach Forest is expected in mid-October.

 

View a slideshow of the forest and protest activities https://spark.adobe.com/page/UhwXSw7SawBgi/

For further information, please contact Tim Christophersen