The recent development of events in the German village of Lützerath has shaken the environmental activism scene. Located in the North-Rhine-Westphalia, the place dates back to the 11th century, when it was first mentioned in historical annals. The village had mainly recreational, tourist, and agricultural importance. However, Lützerath is now abandoned and plays a crucial role in determining whether the pioneer country in environmental issues sticks to its goals and values.
Before having a closer look at the case of Lützerath, it is important to have an overview of German politics. In 2021 the German elections took place, which followed the proportional representation electoral system and led to forming of a "traffic light coalition" consisting of three popular parties SPD, FDP, and The Greens. The traditional colours of these parties correspond to the traffic light colour pattern – red, yellow, and green. These are the parties that currently shape the German federal government.
The government of the biggest carbon polluter in Europe tends to present itself as environmentally friendly and set forward-thinking goals as becoming carbon-neutral by 2045. Following the Climate Action Act, the German government is committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and phasing out the use of coal, the most polluting energy source known. However, the case of Lützerath brings up a discussion over Germany’s commitment to end the fossil fuel era. The background story behind the current flashpoint of the climate activism scene goes back to 2013 when the German court allowed the energy giant RWE to expand the Garzweiler coal mine and destroy the surrounding villages for the expansion. The area is rich in brown coal or lignite, the lowest quality coal, which also happens to be the most polluting one as one needs to burn large quantities of it to generate energy. The village of Lützerath alone will give access to 280 million tons of coal to the energy company. Obviously, the combustion of such an amount is associated with a high degree of pollution.
Following the court’s decision, hundreds of residents of Lüzerath and nearby villages received compensation and thereafter were displaced. However, the “deserted villages” got new inhabitants, around 100 anti-coal protesters who permanently inhibited the villages, and hundreds of more protesters who temporarily stayed there during the demonstrations. Members of one of the famous movements called “Lützi Bleibt” (“Lützerath Stays”) built tents, wooden houses, and constructions needed to resist the clashes with the police. Until now, the community of activists has succeeded and saved five villages around Lützerath from demolishing. Moreover, due to their protests and demands, the German government has negotiated to move the deadline for phasing out the coal forward from 2038 to 2030. However, the government still found the demolition of Lützerath necessary.
The entry of Grüne into the German federal government gave a spark of hope to climate activists. They hoped the government would reconsider the decision regarding expanding coal mining in the NRW region. The Green party has been a major player in the EU climate politics scene. The party is concerned with the cross-cutting issues of renewable energy, carbon neutrality, and energy conservation since sustainable development and environmental protection are the central ideologies of green politics. However, the efforts of the Greens regarding Lützerath were deemed less than enough by the climate activists.
The German government sees coal as a way out from the current energy crisis emerging after the start of the war in Ukraine. Coal might be an opportunity to alleviate quite heavy inflationary pressure on energy prices. Government studies show that brown coal is necessary for the country due to the gas shortage. On the other hand, climate activists are equipped with fairly different study results. According to the platform Coal Transitions, Germany’s coal capacity is enough until the end of this decade; in fact, there is no need for extra coal. One of the most famous climate activists Greta Thunberg, who was later detained by the German police at the climate demonstration, called the German mining expansion a “betrayal of present and future generations”. The activists feel betrayed by the government and consider excreting such an amount of brown coal as a huge threat to keeping global warming below the pre-industrial level of 1.5C.
On the third weekend of January, thousands of protesters gathered at the site and resisted the eviction of the village by the special police. The activists used barricades, ropes, and trampolines to make eviction difficult for the police. Both police and activists used some types of violent techniques whether it was pyrotechnics, pepper sprays, stones, or water cannons. The fight between the opposing sides was marked with mud fights, fireworks, and disoriented beatings. It is remarkable that the group of activists, including the 20-year-old activist Greta Thunberg, were detained after they broke through the barriers and rushed toward the mines. They were held by the Aachen police mostly for a day or few. As a result of these events, there are 154 criminal investigations open.
The case of Lützerath is one of the many typical cases when the government capitulates to rich corporations and sticks to fossil fuels instead of developing alternative energy sources. Regardless of how hard the German government and the Green party tires to see the case of Lützerath positively and present it as “the very last village demolished for the coal”, the reality is that Germany will burn hundreds of tons of coal in the next decade and fail to meet its ambitious climate goals. Quoting one of the campaigners from Europe Beyond Coal: “You can’t solve the crisis with the energy source that basically created this crisis.”