Bye bye lignite: Understanding Germany's coal phaseout

Germany's coal commission could make an announcement this week as to when Germany should give up coal for good. Here are the most important facts you need to know about Germany's exit from brown coal.

1. Why are we even discussing a coal phaseout?

Since the beginning of industrialization, the Earth's temperature has increased by 1 degree Celsius. One of the main causes is carbon dioxide (CO2) which is produced by burning coal, oil and gas. It accumulates in the Earth's atmosphere, causing the greenhouse effect, leading to global warming.

Nature and Environment | 21.01.2019

If we continue to burn these fossil fuels, the Earth's temperature is projected to rise by around 4 degrees Celsius by the end of this century and by more than 7 degrees by the year 2200. Our civilization as we know it would probably not survive such a dramatic increase in temperature.

The famous Paris Agreement aims to prevent this, stating that temperatures should not rise above 2 degrees — or better still, 1.5 degrees.

Read more: Coal dilemma: Will Germany blow its CO2 budget?

Nature and Environment | 26.06.2018

But if we are to achieve this goal, reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and other UN agencies warn we can't afford to waste time. By 2030, global greenhouse gas emissions need to be halved and we should be aiming for zero emissions by 2050.

Developing technology which allows for a quick fix of the problem is wishful thinking say climatologists, who warn that removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere will require controversial and expensive techniques. It's much cheaper and safer to stop producing CO2 all together.

Infografik Treibhausgase Entwicklung EN

2. Why focus on coal and not other fossil fuels?

Coal is far more damaging to the climate than oil and gas and our electricity demands can now easily be covered with solar and wind power.

According to the German Advisory Council on the Environment (SRU), the last coal-fired power plant could be shut down in 2033 if we were to rapidly make the switch to renewables. We would probably still reach the 2-degree target. And shutting down coal power plants wouldn't endanger the power supply, they say.

But if we want to meet the 1.5 degree target, we would need to make the switch much sooner.

Read more: Germany: Renewables overtake coal as main power source

Related Subjects

3. What exactly does Germany's coal commission do? 

In 2010 the German government adopted targets towards reducing greenhouse gases. In 2015, the global community came together in Paris to lay down a more ambitious goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 — 2 degrees.

Germany ratified the UN agreement, but it has not yet increased its climate protection targets to match what was agreed on in Paris.

In June 2018 the government created the Commission on Growth, Structural Change and Employment. Its job is to prepare proposals addressing carbon emissions and climate protection and also provide future perspectives for regions most affected by the coal phaseout.

Infogafik Jobs in Deutschlands Energiesektor EN

Approximately 20,000 people are employed in Germany's lignite industry — of which 15,000 work in open pit mines and 5,000 in lignite power plants. The country's last active black coal mine closed last year, but more than 5,000 people still work in coal-fired power plants.

The importance of coal in Germany has diminished over the years. In 1960 as many as half a million people worked in black coal mines, while 150,000 worked in brown coal mining.

This structural change is also reflected in the growing number of employees in the renewable energy sector. According to the latest figures from 2016, it employs around 280,000 people.

Read more: How workers prepare ahead of Germany's brown coal phaseout

4. How expensive is Germany's coal phaseout?

German federal states with an active coal industry are demanding up to €70 billion ($79 million) in compensation from the government. This is an average subsidy of approximately €3.5 million per job lost in the sector.

The government aims to finance socially responsible solutions for workers, such as new jobs and new infrastructure projects, as well as possibly providing compensation to affected companies.

Infografik was kostet Strom EN

But the coal phaseout will not only result in monetary costs. It would also mean that entire villages would not need to be demolished and its residents resettled to make way for a coal mine.

Money could even be saved as air pollution is being significantly reduced. According to Germany's Environment Agency, the emission of air pollutants from Germany's coal-fired power plants last year alone amounted to over €150 billion in long-term damages.

Other consequences — such as an increase in extreme weather — are already beginning to be felt and will be mostly endured by young people and their children.

How to stop climate change? Start now!

Number 10: Upgrade lightbulbs

You just bought a fancy lamp? Make it cooler with efficient lightbulbs. This is one of the small actions that make a difference in the long-term - and let's be honest, it's not a big effort. Some LED bulbs consume up to 90 percent less than traditional ones.

How to stop climate change? Start now!

Number 9: Hang laundry to dry

In cold or rainy countries, the task might be challenging - but these challenges are nothing compared to the worst consequences of climate change.

How to stop climate change? Start now!

Number 8: Recycling

Recycling has become normal behavior for thousands of people around the world. It definitely contributes to making a better world - but unfortunately, it is not enough.

How to stop climate change? Start now!

Number 7: Wash clothes on cold

Worried about your clothes shrinking in hot water? Here another reason to keep washing with cold water: Since it avoids turning on the water heater, cold-water washing also produces less greenhouse gas emissions.

How to stop climate change? Start now!

Number 6: Drive a hybrid

Until you are ready to get rid of your car completely, you could move to a hybrid electric car. But beware: The electricity that powers it is probably still coming from dirty fossil fuels.

How to stop climate change? Start now!

Number 5: Switch to a vegetarian diet

Beef production is the largest driver of tropical deforestation worldwide, with soy production closely following - mainly to feed animals. The carbon footprint of a meat-based diet is almost double that of a vegetarian one. Even reducing the amount of meat you eat makes a difference.

How to stop climate change? Start now!

Number 4: Buy green energy

Renewable energies are the new trend - but we are still largely dependent on fossil fuels such as coal. In countries like Germany, you can choose your energy provider - among some that draw from renewable sources.

How to stop climate change? Start now!

Number 3: Cancel one trans-Atlantic flight

Air travel is a major challenge when it comes to tackling climate change. Policy-makers are exploring ways to reduce the climate impact of flights - but in the meantime, you can start thinking twice before taking a plane. Particularly to cross the pond.

How to stop climate change? Start now!

Number 2: Don't use a car

Getting rid of your car is the second-most effective action you can take to tackle climate change. And riding your bike also helps keep you fit!

How to stop climate change? Start now!

Number 1: Have one less child

Giving birth to a new person consuming and polluting at the current rate of people in industrialized countries is the worst thing you can do for the planet, according to the study. But if you start now with the other nine actions, your kids might be able to live in a better world.