Lützerath: German coal mine stand off amid Ukraine war energy crunch
From her tiny wooden treehouse, which sways precariously in the winter wind, a young woman watches an enormous mechanical digger tear into the earth below, its jaws edging ever closer to the village which she’s determined to save.
Lützerath, in western Germany, is on the verge – literally – of being swallowed up by the massive coal mine on its doorstep.
Around 200 climate change activists, who are now all that stand in the way of the diggers expanding the Garzweiler opencast mine, have been warned that if they don’t leave by Tuesday they’ll be forcibly evicted.
It’s why they’ve taken to the trees, Bente Opitz explains.
“It’s a lot harder for the police to evict us,” she says. “We have ropes between the treehouses so we can move from one to another.”
But the protesters are busy at ground level too. Young men and women, many with scarves masking their faces, reinforce makeshift barricades and load wheelbarrows with bricks.
Scorch marks on the road at the entrance to the village are evidence of a skirmish with police officers last week.
The land around and under Lützerath is rich in lignite – the dirtiest form of coal. The mine, a bleak and dull brown man-made canyon which stretches over 35 square kilometres, yields 25 million tonnes of the stuff every year.
The energy company RWE, which operates the mine, now owns the village. The residents are all gone, their houses abandoned. Only the protesters remain, squatting in the old brick buildings, watching the mine expand towards them.
The battle for Lützerath has been raging for a long time. But Russia’s war on Ukraine has given it a greater significance, transforming it into a national symbol of the struggle within German politics and society; how does a country which relied so heavily on Russian gas, now balance its need for energy with its ambitions on climate change?
Its government, a three-way coalition which includes Germany’s Green Party, has already had to, as the Germans would say, swallow some toads. Ministers who came to power promising to end reliance on coal have found themselves ordering a number of old coal fired power stations back online or delaying plans to decommission others (including two lignite units run by RWE) to keep the country in electricity while other sources are found.
But Lützerath is likely to be the last German village lost to a coal mine.
The government has pledged to bring forward its planned phase-out of coal to 2030 in North Rhine-Westphalia, the state in which Garzweiler lies (the national target is 2038).
And RWE and the regional government have agreed to limit the extension of the mine; plans to demolish and excavate five other villages have been scrapped.
But RWE, which states it’s investing heavily in energy transition technologies both in the region and around the world, claims that, under the current circumstances, Germany needs the lignite under Lützerath.
The activists are determined to stop them getting to it.
“If they dig for this coal, they’re taking down climate goals, they’re throwing the Paris agreement in the bin,” says protester Dina Hamid. RWE insists that’s not the case.
“People are dying now from the climate crisis,” she adds.
“If we want to save lives, if we don’t want this to keep happening, we need to save every bit of coal, every bit of fossil fuel in the ground.”
Dina emphasises that hers will be a peaceful protest although she admits that there are differing views in the camp as to how far their resistance should go.
As we speak, more supporters arrive, bearing backpacks, to join the activists, some of whom have lived on the site for more than a year. Police officers, some in riot gear, stand close by, wary, as some of the protesters link arms and form a line just a few metres away from the giant digger bearing down on the village.
It’s a striking sight; the officers and the activists preparing for a last stand, all dwarfed by the great mechanical teeth working away at the earth in front of them.