Landscapes make you think about the surface of the moon. As far as the eye could see, deep wounds pierced the earth. At the place where the giant machines were standing, ancient layers of exposed coal were seen to the bottom of the pit.
Georg Ortmann walked along the bridge 40 meters above the mine to check that sand and gravel taken from the top layer of the earth did not stick to the conveyor belt, removing it from the valuable lignite below.
“My job is to make sure dirt is moved from one side of the hole to the other,” he joked.
This is Reichwalde, one of two open lignite mines that supply the Boxberg coal-fired power plant. Boxberg is the largest powerhouse in East Germany and the climate campaigner now ranks high among the others “30 dirty” one of the most polluted in Europe.
Reichwalde operates 365 days a year, in all weather. This is a physically demanding job and Ortmann has spent his entire working life in these craters.
The 62-year-old man is one of about 6,000 coal miners left in the Lusatia region of eastern Germany, which was once the industrial and mining center of the German Democratic Republic. “In East Germany, people who go through the school system have a chance at better indoor work. I quit school early, “he said.
Before the fall of East Germany and reunification, the brown coal industry in the region directly employed 100,000 people.
Coal is not only the main company in Lusatia. Miners enjoy a special status as a proud contributor to energy independence in a socialist country. Ich bin Bergmann, am I? (I am a miner, who is more?) Is a phrase that is commonly heard during the cold war.
Germany promised last year to end all coal mining in 2038 in accordance with the EU and its global climate obligations. This has deepened political tensions in coal-dependent areas.
In Lusatia, it was placed climate activist on a collision course with local politicians, coal companies and communities whose income depends on coal.
“Coal is a very emotional topic here,” said Adrian Rinnert of the local NGO Structure of Jetzt, who has opposed the expansion of the mine for almost a decade.
The big problem, he argues, is the lack of alternative economic opportunities. Although tens of thousands of mining jobs have been cut since the 1990s, most of the jobs available in this region are still tied to coal.
Mainstream German parties are still fighting for this industry, and as in other parts of Europe, the impact of green policies on traditional or disadvantaged communities has become a convenient agenda for populists and right-wing politicians to follow suit.
“When people here discuss whether protecting the environment or work is more important, it is always a winning job,” Rinnert said.
Coronavirus stopped the coal factory and the conflict was temporarily stopped in March, but fighting continued when Germany returned to business.
Brown coal, or lignite, of the type mined in Lusatia is the most polluted fuel in the world, and still drives 14% of Germany’s energy, which is a higher dependency than other EU countries. The global climate movement has repeatedly demanded that Germany be decoded faster.
For Wiebke Witt, a brown coal expert for the NGO Klima Allianz Deutschland, the closing time line of 2038 Germany failed to honor Paris climate agreement 2015 to end coal energy production.
“When the end date for coal is negotiated, the conversation revolves around the amount of energy produced from coal and not for example its impact on climate,” Witt said.
Belgium, Austria and Sweden are coal free. England, Ireland, France, Portugal, Italy and Slovakia will all come out of coal before 2025. Spain produces 70% less coal-powered energy in 2019 and predicted to reach full closure in 2027. But Germany wants to keep production going well into the 2030s and several mines are developing. Quoting quotes new Datteln IV coal plant that Germany will add to the grid this summer, calls protesters “Climate policy madness”.
The coal lobby, and many politicians, argue that Germany still needs lignite because it has committed to shutting down nuclear power plants by 2022. And renewable energy is being built in a step that is too slow to meet the country’s current energy needs.
The energy to maintain a minimum level in the electricity network needs to come from somewhere, and that is coal for now Georg Ortmann
“The energy to maintain a minimum level in the electricity network needs to come from somewhere, and that is coal for now,” said Ortmann, a miner.
He pointed to the dark layer at the bottom of the hole. Here, plants and trees that grew here 17m years ago were exposed to machinery, now mostly in the form of black coal. Some of the wood is still visible, but once stretched, the wood will decompose quickly in the fresh air.
The logic of a coal company is that due to environmental damage, existing mines must be fully exploited. But that could mean expanding the brown coal field by digging out from underneath it existing village.
Bulldoze the village
One such village is Mühlrose. LEAG, the Czech-owned coal company that manages Boxberg, wants to add lignite-rich land under the village to its current mine. So Mühlrose will be destroyed and locals will move to the nearby town of Schleife. Even graves in graves will be moved.
Of the 600 native inhabitants of the village, only 200 remain. But people’s lives don’t have to be rooted out for a dying industry, Rinnert said.
But some in Mühlrose say they are tired of living next to a coal mine and are ready to move. “We have suffered here for years,” said Reinhild Martin. The 69-year-old man owns a restaurant in the village, a building that was opened by his grandfather.
Most villagers have mixed feelings about their closeness to the mine. Almost everyone is employed by a coal company. Men in mines, women in cafeterias. At the same time, noise and pollution are almost unbearable.
A thick layer of brown or gray coal dust will be carried by the wind, stay in the window and stick to the laundry on the phone, Martin remembers. For years, he said, the Mühlrose people died of lung cancer, but this problem was never officially investigated.
Although it hurts for him to leave, Martin looks forward to a fresh start with compensation.
“Once they started to demolish houses, I did not want to go back to the village. Those who left before and who returned to see the destruction never really recovered from sight,” he said.
In communist East Germany, forced displacement is a part of daily life in the mining area. It is estimated that 30,000 people in the Lusatia region were moved and more than 130 villages were destroyed.
In addition to human costs, environmental impacts are also enduring. German lignite mines have destroyed 175,000 hectares country landscape. The soil here is considered dead because nothing grew in it after that. And once the mine is closed and the pump that regulates the water level is turned off, the ground becomes flooded.
Rinnert said, rebuilding the former holes for tourism and other uses has been successful with a variety and not planned in a sustainable manner. “Coal companies are making efforts now, but who will pay once their operations stop and their money runs out?”
Some old mine has been flooded for artificial lakes, but managing water quality is a long-term project. “At present there is no guarantee that the company will continue to treat the lake. “I don’t think that plans to turn it into a holiday destination and a new employment sector will work,” Rinnert said.
Residents hijack local emotions
Away from the coal fields of eastern Germany, the climate crisis has mobilized public awareness throughout Europe, uniting anti-coal campaigners with Friday’s for Future school movement, Greta Thunberg.
In Brussels, the president of the European commission, Ursula von der Leyen, former German defense minister and ally Angela Merkel, pushed for the so-called EU green agreement where the 27-nation block will become carbon neutral by 2050.
Poland is the only European Union country that refuses to register for that purpose, and its refusal is driven by coal. Lusatia stretches along the German / Polish border. It is difficult to find anyone on both sides who does not reject the need for a quick exit from fossil fuels.
Miners feel they are being scapegoated unfairly. “For our climate protesters it is like garbage and must be blamed for climate change. It’s not fair, “Ortmann said. “If we can, we will get our money another way. But moral lectures don’t really help when people’s livelihoods are at stake. “
Alternative Party für Deutschland (AfD) far right refute climate science, but in Lusatia has campaigned for this campaign with the sentiments of people like Ortmann, who focus (with strong echoes from the demands of “gilets jaunes” in France) on individual rights to drive their own cars and fuel tax injustice.
Toni Schneider, an AfD politician in the city of Hoyerswerda Lusatian, claimed the coal protest movement was not organized by local activists, but by people from “big cities”. “I have seen how they arrived here by train. From how they acted, it seems like the protesters came on a pleasant weekend trip and not a serious demonstration. “
This cultural warfare framework – rusty people who are being taught by outsiders and metropolitan – helps AfD to manipulate local emotions and discredit local protesters, according to Rinnert. “Populists know how to deal with people’s feelings, which is why the AfD has such a large support base here in the Lusatia region.”
This coal region includes the states of Germany, Brandenburg and Saxony. Last year AfD jumped in popularity to win 27% of the votes in Election of the state of Saxony and 23.5% in Brandenburg, becoming the second largest political party in both countries.
The party is campaigning on a delay platform deadline to close the Lusatia mine.
“We need more infrastructure for new industries, and for example fast internet access for all households before stopping using coal can even be considered,” Schneider said.
A parallel surge in support for the Greens nationally means the party can make sense government after the next election.
After the explosives were placed in our mailbox, I filed a police complaint. Nothing came from him
Activists in Lusatia feel the personal consequences of this political polarization. Rinnert, like the Ortmann miners, lived in the city of Weisswasser, where he was on the receiving end of hatred and physical attacks. He even considered leaving when the threat began to involve his family.
“After the explosives were placed in our mailbox, I filed a complaint with the local police.” Said Rinnert. “Nothing ever comes out of him.”
What appears after coronavirus?
Laws supporting German exit from coal are planned for May or June, but the Covid-19 pandemic has delaying the introduction to parliament.
The likely winner of the law is the coal company, which has been promised a large compensation. Der Spiegel reports in January LEAG will be appropriate for € 1.75 billion (£ 1.55 billion) from the country.
Germany has promised € 40 billion to help the coal region restructure. But the losers are people who live next to the hole and who will continue to suffer from pollution for almost a decade longer than predicted by the Paris agreement.
“When you compare the draft law with other European measures, Germany remains the only country that compensates companies for the release of coal,” Witt said.
With such a large meeting impossible for now, activists in Germany have been forced to bring down anti-coal protests.
However, both sides of this political struggle will use the pandemic to advance the vision of their opponents energy in the future post-shutdown.
Some expert believe that lockdown has accelerated the long-term global shift from coal. England has been gone for more than a month without burning coal to produce electricity, the longest stretch recorded since the Industrial Revolution. Public attacks on air pollution can also strengthen the determination of European governments to accelerate the transition from fossil fuels.
But the back-to-business decarbonization reaction is also a risk depending on the depth of the recession.
“We have now been told that we are part of an important service for the country,” Ortmann laughed.
Throughout the locking, production continued uninterrupted, Ortmann and his colleagues worked on their busy shifts in Reichwalde tending to giant machines.
Ortmann can retire in two years. “I’m counting down the moon,” he said. Fatigue and other side effects start to harm them. “Working in turns makes it difficult to sleep. The strong vibrations from the bridge gave me pain in the bones and muscles that I could still feel when I got home. ”
The coal miner retirement is still one of the best available East German average pension benefits € 1,252 per month. Ortmann knows he is one of the lucky few. With stable jobs in limited supply and political battles over coal closure still raging, his young colleagues did not have such certainty.
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