The landscape makes you think of the surface of the moon. As far as the eye can see, deep gashes scar the earth. At the spot where the giant machines stand, ancient layers of bared coal are visible all the way to the base of the pit.
Georg Ortmann walks along a bridge 40 metres above the mine to check that sand and gravel taken from the earth’s top layers are not sticking to the conveyor belt removing them from the precious lignite beneath.
“My job is to make sure the dirt is moved from one side of the pit to the other,” he jokes.
This is Reichwalde, one of two open-cast lignite mines that supply Boxberg coal-fired power plant. Boxberg was East Germany’s biggest power station and climate campaigners now rank it high among the “dirty 30” of Europe’s most polluting.
Reichwalde operates 365 days of the year, in all weathers. It is a physically demanding job and Ortmann has spent his entire working life in these craters.
The 62-year-old is one of about 6,000 coal miners left in eastern Germany’s Lusatia region, once the German Democratic Republic’s mining and industrial heartland. “In East Germany, people who went through the school system had a chance at the nicer indoor jobs. I quit school early,” he says.
Before the collapse of East Germany and reunification, the brown coal industry in this region directly employed 100,000 people.
Coal was not just the main employer in Lusatia. Miners enjoyed a special status as proud contributors to energy independence in the socialist state. Ich bin Bergmann, wer ist mehr? (I’m a miner, who is more?) was a phrase commonly heard during the cold war.
Germany pledged last year to end all coal mining by 2038 in line with its EU and global climate obligations. This has deepened existing political tensions in its coal-dependent regions.
In Lusatia, it has placed climate activists on a collision course with local politicians, the coal companies and the communities whose incomes depend on coal.
“Coal is a very emotive topic here,” says Adrian Rinnert from the local NGO Strukturwandel Jetzt, which has opposed the expansion of these mines for nearly a decade.
The big problem, he thinks, is the lack of alternative economic opportunities. Although tens of thousands of mining jobs have been cut since the 1990s, most available employment in the region is still tied to coal.
Mainstream German parties still champion the industry, and as in other parts of Europe, the impact of green policies on traditional or left-behind communities has become a convenient agenda for populists and far-right politicians to latch on to.
“When people here discuss whether environmental protection or jobs are more important, it’s always the jobs that win,” Rinnert says.
Coronavirus brought the coal plant sit-ins and the conflicts to a temporary halt in March, but the battle is resuming as Germany gets back to business.
Brown coal, or lignite, of the kind mined in Lusatia is the most polluting fuel in the world, and it still powers 14 % of Germany’s energy, which is a higher reliance than any other EU country. The global climate movement has repeatedly demanded that Germany decarbonise faster.
For Wiebke Witt, a brown coal expert for the NGO Klima Allianz Deutschland, Germany’s 2038 closure timeline fails to honour the 2015 Paris climate agreement on ending coal energy production.
“When the end date for coal was negotiated, talks revolved around the amount of energy produced from coal and not for instance the impact it continues to have on the climate,” Witt says.
Belgium, Austria and Sweden are already coal-free. The UK, Ireland, France, Portugal, Italy and Slovakia will all exit coal before 2025. Spain produced 70% less coal-powered energy in 2019 and is predicted to achieve full closure by 2027. But Germany wants to keep production going well into the 2030s and some mines are expanding. Witt cites the new Datteln IV coal plant that Germany will add to the grid this summer, a move protesters call “climate policy madness”.
The coal lobby, and many politicians, argue that Germany still needs lignite because it is already committed to shuttering nuclear power plants by 2022. And renewables are being built at a pace too slow to meet the country’s current energy needs.
The energy to sustain the minimum level in the power grid needs to come from somewhere, and that is coal for the time being Georg Ortmann
“The energy to sustain the minimum level in the power grid needs to come from somewhere, and that is coal for the time being,” says Ortmann, the miner.
He points to the dark layer at the bottom of the pit. Here, plants and trees that grew on this spot 17m years ago are exposed by the machines, now mostly in the form of black coal. Some of the wood is still visible, but once laid bare it will decompose quickly in the fresh air.
The coal companies’ logic is that since the damage to the environment has already been done, existing mines should be exploited to the maximum. But that can mean expanding brown coalfields by digging them out from underneath existing villages.
Bulldozing a village
One of those villages is Muhlrose. LEAG, the Czech-owned coal firm that runs Boxberg, wants to add the lignite-rich land beneath the village to its current mine. So Muhlrose will be razed and locals rehoused in the nearby town of Schleife. Even the graves in the cemetery will be moved.
Of the village’s original 600 inhabitants, only 200 remain. But people’s lives should not be uprooted for a dying industry, Rinnert says.
Yet some in Muhlrose say they are tired of living next door to a coalmine and are ready to move. “We’ve suffered here for years,” says Reinhild Martin. The 69-year-old owns a restaurant in the village, an establishment opened by her grandfather.
Most villagers have mixed feelings about their proximity to the mine. Nearly everyone was employed by the coal company. Men in the mines, women in the cafeterias. At the same time, the noise and pollution were almost unbearable.
Thick layers of brown or grey coal dust would be carried by the wind, lodging on window panes and clinging to the laundry on the line, Martin remembers. Over the years, she claims, Muhlrose people died of lung cancer, but the matter was never officially investigated.
Although it pains her to leave, Martin looks forward to a fresh start with the compensation.
“Once they start ripping down the houses, I don’t want to return to the village. Those that left before and that came back to see the devastation never really recovered from the sight,” she says.
In communist East Germany, forced displacement was part of everyday life in mining regions. An estimated 30,000 people in the Lusatia region were relocated and more than 130 villages destroyed.
Next to the human cost the environmental impact is a lasting one, too. Germany’s lignite mines have destroyed 175,000 hectares of the country’s landscape. Soil here is considered dead since nothing grows in it afterwards. And once the mine shuts and the pumps regulating the water levels are turned off, the ground becomes waterlogged.
Rinnert says recultivating disused pits for tourism and other uses has had mixed success and is not sustainably planned. “The coal companies are making an effort now, but who will pay once their operations stop and their money runs out?”
Some old mines have been flooded to create artificial lakes, but managing the water quality is a long-term project. “Right now no guarantees exist that the companies will continue to care for the lakes. I don’t think that the plans to turn them into a holiday destination and new job sector will work out,” Rinnert says.
Populists hijack local emotions
Away from the eastern German coalfields, the climate crisis has mobilised public consciousness across Europe, uniting anti-coal campaigners with Greta Thunberg’s Fridays for Future school movement.
In Brussels, the European commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, a former German defence minister and ally of Angela Merkel, is pushing the so-called EU green deal under which the 27-nation bloc would become carbon neutral by 2050.
Poland is the only EU country that has refused to sign up to that goal, and its rejection is driven by coal. Lusatia runs along the German/Polish border. It is hard to find anyone on either side who does not reject the need for a fast exit from fossil fuels.
Miners feel unjustly scapegoated. “For climate protesters we are like filth and to be blamed for climate change. It feels unfair,” says Ortmann. “If we could, we would earn our money in another way. But moral lectures don’t really help when people’s livelihoods are at stake.”
The far-right Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD) party disputes climate science, but in Lusatia has matched its campaigning to the sentiments of people such as Ortmann, focusing (with strong echoes of the “gilets jaunes” demands in France) on the individual’s right to drive their own car and the unfairness of fuel taxes.
Toni Schneider, an AfD politician in the Lusatian town of Hoyerswerda, claims the coal protest movement is not organised by local activists, but by people from “big cities”. “I have seen how they arrive here by train. From how they act it seems like these protesters come on a fun weekend trip and not a serious demonstration.”
This culture war framing – rust-belt people being lectured to by outsiders and metropolitans – helps the AfD to manipulate local emotion and discredit local protesters, according to Rinnert. “The populists know how to address people’s feelings, which is why the AfD has such a large supporter base here in the Lusatia region.”
This coal region spans the German states of Brandenburg and Saxony. Last year the AfD surged in popularity to win 27% of the votes in Saxony’s state elections and 23.5% in Brandenburg, becoming the second biggest political party in both states.
The party campaigned on a platform of delaying the deadline for closing the Lusatia mines.
“We need more infrastructure for new industries, and for instance fast internet access for all households before quitting coal can be even considered,” Schneider says.
A parallel surge in support for the Greens nationally means the party could plausibly be in government after the next election.
After explosives were placed in our letterbox, I filed a police complaint. Nothing came of it
Activists in Lusatia feel the personal consequences of this political polarisation. Rinnert, like the miner Ortmann, lives in the town of Weisswasser, where he has been on the receiving end of hate and physical attacks. He even considered leaving when threats started to include his family.
“After explosives were placed in our letterbox, I filed a complaint with the local police.” Rinnert says. “Nothing has ever come out of it.”
What comes after coronavirus?
The law underpinning Germany’s exit from coal was planned for May or June, but the Covid-19 pandemic has delayed its introduction to parliament.
The law’s likely winners are the coal companies, which have been promised generous compensation. Der Spiegel reported in January that LEAG would be in line for EUR1.75bn (GBP1.55bn) from the state.
Germany has pledged EUR40bn to help coal regions to restructure. But the losers will be the people who live next to the pits and who will go on suffering the polluting consequences for almost a decade longer than foreseen by the Paris agreement.
“When you compare the draft law with other European measures, Germany remains the only country that is compensating companies for the coal exit,” Witt says.
With big gatherings impossible for now, campaigners in Germany have been forced to scale down the anti-coal protests.
However, both sides of this political struggle will use the pandemic to advance their opposing visions for energy in the post-shutdown future.
Some experts believe the lockdown has accelerated a long-term global shift away from coal. Britain has gone more than a month without burning coal to generate electricity, the longest recorded stretch since the Industrial Revolution. A public backlash against air pollution could also strengthen the resolve of European governments to speed up the switch from fossil fuels.
But a back-to-business decarbonisation backlash is also a risk depending on the depth of the recession.
“We have now been told that we are part of an essential service to the state,” Ortmann laughs.
Throughout the lockdown, production has carried on uninterrupted, Ortmann and his colleagues working their busy shifts at Reichwalde tending to the gigantic machines.
Ortmann can retire in two years. “I’m counting down the months,” he says. Exhaustion and other side-effects are taking their toll. “Working in shifts has given me insomnia. The strong vibrations from the bridge give me aches in my bones and muscles that I can still feel when I get home.”
A coal miner’s pension is still one of the best available, topping the average eastern German retirement benefit of EUR1,252 a month. Ortmann knows he is one of the lucky few. With stable jobs in short supply and the political fight over coal’s closure still raging, his younger colleagues lack any such certainty.