Ger­many’s coal re­al­ity smudges green rhetoric

Cheap source of en­ergy is prov­ing ir­re­sistible


im­merath, ger­many — The hos­pi­tal is gone. So are most of the houses, with more be­ing knocked down daily. Not even the bod­ies re­main in the tree-shaded ceme­tery, where cen­turies-old bones were re­cently dug up and moved.

There is far more dig­ging to come — enough to ex­tin­guish any trace that Im­merath, a on­ce­quaint farm­ing vil­lage in the fer­tile west­ern Ger­many coun­try­side, ever ex­isted. Be­cause be­neath the rich soil lies a sub­stance even more valu­able: coal.

The de­mo­li­tion of Im­merath — mak­ing way for the ex­pan­sion of mega-mines that will pro­duce bil­lions of tons of car­bon emis­sions in the com­ing decades and leave a deep gash where vil­lages dat­ing to Ro­man times once stood — rep­re­sents the dark un­der­side of Ger­many’s ef­forts to ad­dress cli­mate change.

The growth of Ger­man coal mines at a time when the fuel is be­ing rapidly phased out else­where also shows how dif­fi­cult it can be for coun­tries, even ones that ag­gres­sively com­mit to cleaner tech­nolo­gies, to make the switch.

For Ger­many, the gap be­tween its bright-green rhetoric and coalsmudged re­al­ity has never been more vivid.

In the for­mer West Ger­man cap­i­tal of Bonn, the coun­try is host­ing a U.N. cli­mate con­fer­ence this month that is seen as crit­i­cal to global ef­forts to ful­fill pledges made two years ago in Paris. To slow the cli­mate’s po­ten­tially cat­a­strophic warm­ing, ex­perts say the gov­ern­ments rep­re­sented in Bonn will need to ac­cel­er­ate their

em­brace of re­new­able en­ergy.

But just an hour’s drive away is Im­merath, which in its dy­ing days has be­come an em­blem of Ger­many’s strug­gle to break its heavy ad­dic­tion to brown coal, the dirt­i­est of all fos­sil fu­els.

“There’s no big­ger im­pact on the en­vi­ron­ment than brown coal min­ing, and we’re the world cham­pion,” said Dirk Jansen, a leader of the local chap­ter of Friends of the Earth in Ger­many’s coal heart­land of North RhineWest­phalia. “If we want to stop cli­mate change, we have to start here.”

The in­gre­di­ents for that start would seem to ex­ist. Ger­many is led by An­gela Merkel, who is known as the “Cli­mate Chan­cel­lor” for her global lead­er­ship on the is­sue even as the Trump-led United States has aban­doned it.

Af­ter fall elec­tions, Merkel’s con­ser­va­tives are now ne­go­ti­at­ing to gov­ern in a coali­tion with the Greens party, which has long ad­vo­cated an end to Ger­man coal.

Opin­ion sur­veys show wide ma­jori­ties of the Ger­man pub­lic fa­vor get­ting out of the coal busi­ness, and the gov­ern­ment has already com­mit­ted to largely de­car­boniz­ing the econ­omy by the mid­dle of the cen­tury, with re­new­ables fill­ing the void.

But Ger­many is also on course to badly miss its emis­sion-re­duc­tion tar­gets for 2020. Lead­ing politi­cians — Merkel in­cluded — have staunchly re­sisted tak­ing steps that ac­tivists say could help the coun­try get back on track, in­clud­ing quickly shut­ting down the dirt­i­est coal-fired plants and set­ting a firm dead­line for phas­ing out coal al­to­gether.

The rea­sons are var­ied, but they all come down to this: Ger­many’s am­bi­tious vi­sion for “en­ergiewende,” or en­ergy trans­for­ma­tion, has proved far more dif­fi­cult to ex­e­cute than it was to plan.

“It’s not just a tech­ni­cal shift. It’s a so­ci­etal shift,” said Re­becca Ber­tram, an en­ergy ex­pert with the Greens party-aligned Hein­rich Böll Foun­da­tion. “There are so many vested in­ter­ests in keep­ing the old struc­tures, and peo­ple will cling to them as long as they can.”

The Greens are push­ing Merkel to agree in coali­tion talks to an end for Ger­man coal by 2030. It’s a dead­line, party co-chair Si­mone Peter said, that would “show Eu­rope, but also the rest of the world, that in­dus­trial coun­tries are tak­ing re­spon­si­bil­ity. We can’t leave that up to de­vel­op­ing coun­tries. We have to show that we have bet­ter tech­nolo­gies than coal.”

But Ber­tram said that, given the pol­i­tics in­volved, 2030 is look­ing un­likely. “It would be more re­al­is­tic to think about 2040 or 2045,” she said.

Push­ing the coal phase­out back that far could doom Ger­man chances of hit­ting its am­bi­tious emis­sion-re­duc­tion tar­gets not only in 2020 but also far beyond. En­vi­ron­men­tal ad­vo­cates say it would also mean po­ten­tially ir­re­versible dam­age to the planet at a time when gov­ern­ments such as Ger­many’s need to be mov­ing faster to pivot to cleaner sources of en­ergy.

But the Greens’ likely coali­tion part­ners in­sist that the coun­try has lit­tle choice than to keep burn­ing coal — at least for the im­me­di­ate fu­ture.

Ger­many is already get­ting out of the nu­clear en­ergy busi­ness. Af­ter Ja­pan’s 2011 Fukushima dis­as­ter, Merkel de­cided to close all nu­clear plants by 2022.

Si­mul­ta­ne­ously leav­ing be­hind coal, say crit­ics of a quick exit, would leave the coun­try with­out the nec­es­sary re­sources to en­sure it has the en­ergy it needs.

“We don’t want to exit coal en­ergy na­tion­ally only to im­port coal or nu­clear en­ergy from other coun­tries,” said Her­mann Otto Solms, point per­son for the probusi­ness Free Democrats, the party that is likely to join the Greens and Merkel’s con­ser­va­tives in the next Ger­man gov­ern­ment.

Re­new­ables are the fu­ture, Solms said. But the coun­try needs to build the net­works nec­es­sary to trans­port that power.

Right now, much of Ger­man re­new­able ca­pac­ity is in the north, along the gusty Baltic Sea coast, while Ger­many’s en­ergy-in­ten­sive in­dus­tries are con­cen­trated in the south.

“If we push re­new­ables, we have to cre­ate the in­fra­struc­ture,” Solms said.

Mean­while, brown coal is plen­ti­ful and cheap.

Ger­many already plans to get out of hard coal, with the last un­der­ground mines clos­ing next year. But brown coal, also known as lig­nite, is an­other story.

Mined in gi­ant open pits, it is eas­ier to ac­cess but lower qual­ity — and, there­fore, dirt­ier to burn — than hard coal. And in parts of west­ern Ger­many known as the Rhineland, it’s ubiq­ui­tous — the left­over re­mains of 25-mil­lionyear-old swamp­land.

You don’t have to dig far to find it, and given the low price of car­bon un­der Eu­rope’s emis­sions trad­ing sys­tem, there is lit­tle fi­nan­cial cost to burn­ing it.

“There’s no real eco­nomic in­cen­tive to phase out coal,” said Ottmar Eden­hofer, chief econ­o­mist at the Pots­dam In­sti­tute for Cli­mate Im­pact Re­search. “To stim­u­late clean in­no­va­tion, we need a min­i­mum price for CO2.”

Also work­ing in coal’s fa­vor is that the in­dus­try em­ploys about 20,000 peo­ple, and the en­ergy com­pa­nies lobby hard to keep Ger­man politi­cians from dis­rupt­ing their busi­ness.

“This is a re­gion where just about ev­ery­one de­pends on the brown coal in­dus­try in some way or an­other,” said Nor­bert Mat­tern, a 50-year-old who has been work­ing for the mines since he was an apprentice in high school.

Mat­tern said he has been lis­ten­ing to politi­cians talk about shut­ting down the coal busi­ness for years. But, he says, he will prob­a­bly re­tire long be­fore that ever hap­pens.

The min­ing com­pa­nies, too, see a rea­son­ably long-term fu­ture in coal. Rather than scale back as the world turns to­ward cleaner fu­els, they are forg­ing ahead in Ger­many with am­bi­tious ex­pan­sion plans.

Among them is the one that will wipe Im­merath from the map.

Or, at least, the old Im­merath. The owner of the area’s mines, an en­ergy colos­sus known as RWE, is con­struct­ing a new ver­sion of the vil­lage seven miles up the road.

But the two bear lit­tle re­sem­blance to one other. The new one is tidy and aus­tere, with sub­ur­ban-style hous­ing and a cen­tral plaza an­chored by a squat, beige, nearly win­dow­less chapel.

It hov­ers above a sculpted replica of the old Im­merath’s soar­ing, dou­ble-spired 19th-cen­tury church. The minia­ture sculp­ture is a memo­rial to a building that isn’t gone yet but will be within weeks.

The rest of the old vil­lage will soon fol­low. Im­merath, once home to 1,200 peo­ple, is now down to seven fam­i­lies who live in a place that shrinks a lit­tle more each day, with streets turn­ing into dead ends and houses fall­ing to de­mo­li­tion crews.

Chris­tiane Portz and her fam­ily are among the last to leave.

Her hus­band’s an­ces­tors have owned prop­erty in the vil­lage for cen­turies, and the fam­ily farms pota­toes there to this day. But the land that they cul­ti­vated so faith­fully will soon be gone, a void hun­dreds of feet deep in its place.

Their hand­some red-brick house, where bril­liant yel­lowleafed vines drape grace­fully down the walls this au­tumn, will be gone, too.

Portz, 61, is philo­soph­i­cal about it all, and she said she does not blame the coal com­pany.

“Where’s the en­ergy go­ing to come from?” she asked as she stood in the home’s cen­tral court­yard, her grand­kids’ toys scat­tered about. “We’re 7 bil­lion peo­ple in this world.”

And be­sides, she said, their new house isn’t bad. It’s spa­cious, with plenty of land for horses to graze and pota­toes to grow. It will, in some ways, be a lot like their old house, with one key dif­fer­ence.

The roof, she said, will be cov­ered in so­lar pan­els.


Ger­man Chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel, cen­ter, and Ka­trin Göring-Eckardt of the Greens party at gov­ern­ing coali­tion talks in Ber­lin.


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