By Joop Hazenberg On

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Atterwasch is one of the oldest villages in the east German region of Lusatia, with first mention of the sleepy town going back over 700 years. The town’s elegant red-brick Protestant church dates to the aftermath of the Thirty Years War in the seventeenth century. But this ancient village now risks destruction due to planned expansion of open-pit coal mining by Swedish-owned Vattenfall, which would eliminate it and two other towns, displacing some 900 people. This would mean an incalculable loss of historical heritage, as well as continued health and environmental risks for the area, including damages to the local wetlands with its rare plant life.

The expansion in coal mining is needed in particular to feed the Vattenfall-owned Jänschwalde power station, situated in the region of Lusatia, near the Polish border. Having begun operations in the 1980s, Jänschwalde is the fourth-most carbon-polluting coal power plant in the European Union, with over 25 million tonnes of CO2 shot into the atmosphere every year. Jänschwalde uses lignite, also called “brown coal” for its production, one of the most energy-poor kinds of coal, thus emitting huge amounts of carbon for each watt of electricity.

Demonstration againt Jänschwalde in 2008

Local citizens and activists have pulled all the stops in opposing the coal mine expansion and demanding the plant’s phasing out, with protests, appeals to the government, and legal action. In August 2014, 7,500 people from all over Europe formed a human chain between Kerkwitz in Germany and Grabice in Poland, two of the villages which may be evacuated and destroyed, to protest against the expansion of the coal pits.

“It was possible to combine the local resistance with the European resistance,” says Christiane Hildebrandt of Climate Alliance Germany. “The people of Lusatia felt they were alone with this situation. People in Berlin have their electricity but they don’t know where it comes from. There was no public awareness of this coal issue.”

Environmental groups were able to connect the global challenge of climate change with specific local health, historical, and environmental concerns. Hildebrandt says this has been critical to getting local support: “Locals can easily end up thinking climate activists are too radical. But we have found a good way to protest together.” Other protests against the coal pits have been regularly held since 2008 and up to 500 people are expected to attend a “climate camp” with training where opposition to Jänschwalde is to be organized this summer.

The local risks are indeed no laughing matter. Air pollution in particular is known to have numerous health risks for humans, including lung cancer, bronchitis and heart problems. In 2011, the European Environment Agency estimated that the Jänschwalde plant, with its toxic emissions of mercury into the air, causes health and environmental costs of between 1.2 and 2 billion euros every year.

Lausitz 2014
Lausitz in 2014

The open-cast mining also leaves a scarred landscape in its wake which may not be repaired for decades and disturbs the local environment. “The mining causes of a lot of issues when it leaks into the groundwater, such as chemical changes. The most important river of this region, the Spree, is turning brown because of the iron. You have to see this with your own eyers ,” says René Schuster of the local Green League (Grüne Liga) environmental group.

Merkel promises on climate, rarely delivers

Jänschwalde’s continued operation and the expansion of the coal mines are taking place despite Berlin’s commitments to fight climate change. Germany has touted itself as a world champion in the rapidly-expanding renewable energies sector. In 2011, following the Fukushima nuclear disaster, Chancellor Angela Merkel undertook the Energiewende (Energy Transition), phasing out nuclear power and dramatically increasing the role of renewables.

But in one respect the country is still firmly wedded to traditional technologies: coal. Parts of Germany are actually increasing exploitation of coal. Germany continues to be the biggest coal user in Europe and provides over two-thirds of all coal subsidies in the EU.

The continued use of lignite at plants like Jänschwalde and the expansion of mining would make it difficult for Germany to reach its 2020 commitment to reduce carbon emissions by 40% compared to 1990. What’s more, as investments in energy infrastructure generally take decades to pay off, continued investment in brown coal facilities will the country’s long-term climate goals more difficult as well.

The German government has struggled to square the circle of its climate commitments with its continued heavy reliance on coal. Economy and Energy Minister Sigmar Gabriel recently made a major proposal for a so-called climate levy (Klimabeitrag) which would limit emissions for power stations, which in practice could lead to a reduced use or phase-out of some of the brown coal plant capacity. This proposal may also impact the operations of Jänschwalde and thwart Vattenfall’s mining expansion plans.

Human chain_Lausitz_2014 (1)
Human chain in Lausitz, 2014

Last month, numerous local officials in Lusatia co-signed a letter urging Chancellor Merkel to support Gabriel’s plan: “(Brown coal mine expansion) shatters communities and threatens the self-employed, businesses and farmers, who lose out with the pit-mining and the relocation of their customers, loss arable land or even of their means of living.”

Gabriel has however come up against strong opposition from trade unions, utilities and regional governments, who fear the climate levy would raise the cost of energy and undermine industry. Many state and local politicians, often with close ties to industry, have been strongly supportive of coal. Indeed, unemployment is fairly high in the eastern part of Lusatia, although it dropped sharply in recent years. An estimated 21,000 jobs are linked to brown coal nationwide, but this is shrinking constantly as mining becomes more efficient.

The water cooling towers of Jänschwalde

But climate activists say big business’s concerns have more to do with failure to seize opportunities in the booming renewables sector than anything else. “The big utility companies really missed the boat on renewables. Instead they are clinging to coal, an industry that is on its last leg,” says Kathrin Gutmann of Climate Action Network Europe. Indeed, the share of renewables, such as solar and wind, in Germany’s electricity production has exponentially grown since 2000 from just 6% to over 30%.

It remains unclear how and when coal will be wound down in Lusatia, whether through local or federal politics, or indeed legal action. But Gutmann is optimistic given the progress that has been made so far. “The conversation has really changed in recent years. It used to be a struggle to raise awareness. Now we all accept that renewables are needed, and coal and nuclear are out,” she says. It remains to be seen when this will mean cleaning up Jänschwalde. “The responsible thing to do for the regional government and Vattenfall is to invest in alternatives to coal in the Lusatia region to create jobs to offer the affected workers a future.”