Small German town becomes latest front in battle for Paris Agreement

A rural town in Germany is scheduled to be bulldozed so an energy company can mine for coal. Climate activists are up in arms, while officials claim legal precedent to enforce evacuation. Opposition lawmakers want the government to reverse its decision.

Michael Probst/AP
Protesters clash with police officers next to the Garzweiler lignite opencast mine at the Luetzerath village near Erkelenz, Germany, Jan. 10, 2023. Environmental activists were locked in a standoff with police over the construction and validity of the coal mine.

The fate of a tiny village has sparked heated debate in Germany over the country’s continued use of coal and whether tackling climate change justifies breaking the law.

Environmental activists have been locked in a standoff with police who started eviction operations on Wednesday in the hamlet of Luetzerath, west of Cologne, that’s due to be bulldozed for the expansion of a nearby lignite mine. Some stones and fireworks were thrown at officers in riot gear, who could be seen dismantling stalls set up by protesters.

Protesters refused Tuesday to heed a court ruling effectively banning them from the area. Some dug trenches, built barricades, and perched atop giant tripods in an effort to stop heavy machines from reaching the village, before police pushed them back by force.

“People are putting all of their effort, all of their lives into this struggle to keep the coal in the ground,” said Dina Hamid, a spokesperson for the activist group Luetzerath Lives.

“If this coal is burned, we’re actually going to take down our climate goals,” she said. “So we’re trying to, with our bodies, protect the climate goals.”

The debate flared up hours later at a town hall meeting in nearby Erkelenz, when one regional official accused activists of being willing to “spill human blood” to defend the now-abandoned village.

Stephan Pusch, who heads the district administration, said that while he sympathized with the protesters’ aims, the time had come to give up Luetzerath. The village’s last resident left in 2022 after being forced to sell to utility company RWE.

“You’ve achieved your goal. Now clear the pitch,” he said to jeers from the room.

Many disagreed, arguing that the village is more than just a potent symbol for the need to stop global warming.

Studies indicate that about 110 million metric tons of coal could be extracted from beneath Luetzerath. The government and RWE say this coal is needed to ensure Germany’s energy security – squeezed by the cut in supply of Russian gas due to the war in Ukraine. Critics counter that burning so much coal would make it much harder for Germany, and the world, to cap global warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 Fahrenheit) as agreed in the 2015 Paris climate accord.

“Nobody wants to be out there in the cold right now, defending a forest or a village,” said Maya Rollberg, a student who had traveled from southern Germany. “But I think that people have realized that they have to do that in order to [protect] future generations.”

Dietmar Jung, a retired priest attending the meeting, said he was tired of hearing officials say the law was on the side of RWE.

“They keep going back to the legal situation,” he said. “But the right to live doesn’t play a role here [for them].”

Mr. Pusch, the regional administration chief, warned protesters that intentionally breaking the law wouldn’t help their cause in a country where the violent seizure of power and the horrors of dictatorship are still within living memory.

“I’ll tell you honestly that I’m scared my children will grow up in a world that isn’t worth living in anymore,” he said. “But I’m at least as scared of my children growing up in a country where everyone takes the law into their own hands.”

“You won’t save the world’s climate on your own,” said Mr. Pusch. “[We’ll] only do so if we manage to take the majority of the population with us.”

Similar debates over how far civil disobedience can go have taken place in Germany and elsewhere in recent months amid a wave of road blockades and other dramatic actions by protesters demanding tougher measures to combat climate change.

Some climate activists say the law is ultimately on their side, citing a 2021 ruling by the country’s supreme court that forced the government to step up its effort to cut emissions. They also note the legally binding nature of Germany’s commitments under the Paris accord.

Speaking after the town hall meeting, student Jannis Niethammer acknowledged that the dispute over Luetzerath touches on fundamental issues. “It’s a question of democracy and how do we actually get a democracy to move toward climate protection, toward climate justice,” he said.

Janine Wissler, a federal lawmaker and co-leader of the opposition Left party, suggested the way out would be for the government to reverse its decision allowing the village to be razed.

“If we want to achieve our climate targets and take the Paris climate agreement seriously, then the coal beneath Luetzerath needs to stay in the ground,” she told The Associated Press on the sidelines of the protest.

Ms. Wissler criticized an agreement struck last year between the government and utility company RWE to permit mining beneath the village in return for an earlier end to coal use in Germany. Some experts say that, in sum, the deal will lead to higher emissions.

“We’re already experiencing droughts, famines and floods. Climate change is happening already,” she said. “And therefore wrong decisions need to be corrected.”

This story was reported by the Associated Press.

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