Carrying colorful banners with slogans that read: “Revolution, not pollution,” “Frack off our land” and “Climate or coal chancellor?,” participants in Saturday’s anti-coal march in Bonn criticized the German government’s reliance on coal-powered plants for the country’s energy.
The former West German capital of Bonn is set to host the two-week climate conference, known as COP23, starting on Monday.
Demonstrators also highlighted the irony that this year’s conference is being held 50 kilometers (31 miles) from Europe’s biggest source of CO2 emissions – the large open-cast mines near Cologne and eastern Germany’s Lausitz region.
Organizers estimated the number of demonstrators to be around 25,000, while police put the number of protesters at 11,000.
Protesters sent a “clear signal” to the German government to boost the pace of climate protection, Sabine Minniger from the nonprofit organization Brot für die Welt (Bread for the World), one of the NGOs which organized the demonstration, said.
Germany’s addiction to coal
Experts warn Germany is on course to spectacularly miss its 2020 climate target if it does not phase out coal soon, this, they add will further risk the country’s reputation as a leader in the global fight against climate change.
Demonstrators face-paint in central Bonn
“Coal has no future, the world is moving away from it. Germany has to follow suit, otherwise we will neither be a role model nor adhere to our international commitments,” Eberhard Brandes from WWF Germany told DW.
Almost a fifth of the European Union’s CO2 emissions come from coal power plants. Germany and Poland alone are responsible for half.
Despite Germany’s attempt to transition away from coal, 77 coal power plants remain on the grid – more than in any other country in Europe.
From Berlin, a special ‘climate’ train brought guests to Bonn
While Italy, France, Finland and the Netherlands have recently announced their willingness to phase out the use of coal, the German government is still debating the way forward.
Environmentalists hope that political parties thrust by September’s federal election into negotiating the next coalition government in Berlin will drop coal and instead commit to sustainable sources such as wind and solar power.
The chairman of Germany’s version of Friends of the Earth, the Bund für Umwelt- und Naturschutz Deutschland (BUND), Hubert Weiger, told those gathered in Bonn that Germany must renounce its 150-year industrial extraction of the fossil fuel to meet its share of the UNs climate rescue targets set in Paris in 2015.
“The federal government must start to consequently implement the agreed climate targets,” said Weiger. “Climate protection means coal exit.”
Bike protesters come from Cologne
Additionally, some 1,000 cyclists rode from Cologne, some 30 kilometers (18 miles) away, to Bonn to underscore the need to renounce fossil-fuel motoring.
“We want to show that it’s also possible with a bicycle,” one of the activists on wheels told DW.
Cycling to Bonn to push climate goals
“We probably won’t be able to go entirely without cars and even with electric vehicles we need to change our behavior and take our bikes for short distances instead of a car.”
Saturday’s demonstration was the first of several expected in Bonn over the next two weeks.
Some 23,000 government and non-governmental delegates from 197 countries, chaired by the Pacific nation of Fiji, will focus on ways to implement the Paris target of restraining climate warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit).
Brown coal lies in seams between sand and clay underground. To get to this, the surface of the earth is stripped away. The coal is transported via conveyor belts to nearby power plants, and burned to produce energy. Coal extracted at the Hambach mine (pictured above) alone produces 5 percent of Germany’s electricity supply – about a quarter of all electricity in Germany comes from brown coal.
Jobs and smoke
German power company RWE says it provides 2,000 jobs in the Rhineland mining region. The brown coal industry employs around 21,000 people in all of Germany. Yet brown coal or lignite is among the most-polluting fossil fuels available – it emits about twice as many carbon dioxide emissions as natural gas.
Entire villages displaced
When the village Lohn in Eschweiler became part of the mining zone, nearly 700 people were resettled into Neu-Lohn, some kilometers away. As RWE seeks to extract more coal from the region over the years to come, thousands of people will be forced from their homes. The villages are literally wiped off the face of the Earth – although graves are reburied.
The highly polluting brown coal operations have been the target of protest for years. RWE has permission to extract brown coal in the Rhineland mining area until 2045. Yet Germany still hasn’t clarified how it intends to reach its emission reduction pledges while continuing its massive brown coal mining.
Environmental activists from around the world have occupied the forest around Hambach off and on since 2012, protesting plans to expand the mine into the ancient forest there. Police clear the camp with some frequency. The 5,500 hectares of forest, including old-growth, represents an ecologically valuable area.
New plantings take root in soils that have been laid bare by mining. Over seven years, RWE has seeded plants such as Lucerne, which loosens compacted soil and helps to enrich it with nitrogen. The goal is to make this land arable – however, it will take some years until the fields can be used by farmers.
Wildlife also relocated
Also animals have been forced from their habitats. Here, RWE biologists use old paint buckets to trap newts. The amphibians enter the bucket through the large hole on the side, and are later released into suitable spots.
Rooted in the soil
Those who don’t suffer from vertigo can visit a restaurant atop the “Goltsteinkuppe” slag heap for a view over the vast landscape. On the horizon, the 300-meter-high “Sophienhöhe” can be seen – with its 100-kilometer network of hiking trails. RWE must restore spent mining land, including mitigation of CO2 emissions – new forests, playgrounds and sports facilities are the result.
Leisure attraction plans
The largest lake in Germany is planned for the hole that is the Hambach mine. Filling of lake is expected to take 60 years, ending by 2100. The area is planned to become a leisure attraction, boosting tourism and creating new jobs when those in mining industry have dried out.
The alternative and the uncertainty
Highly polluting brown coal has been described as a fuel of the past – the future points to renewable energy sources, such as wind power. But even using former mining land for wind turbines might not work out, as some point out how it’s susceptible to landslides. There’s even the possibility that planned leisure projects won’t be carried out – if RWE can’t make enough money with brown coal.