Germany protests call for leadership on climate action

From Berlin to Cologne, protesters have gathered to demand more from the government in the fight against climate change. Greenpeace said Germany must lead, and that means phasing out coal by 2030.

Thousands of protesters gathered on Saturday in Berlin and Cologne to demand bolder measures to combat climate change. Some 36,000 people joined the rallies.

Nature and Environment | 28.09.2018

Organizers said the protest aimed to pressure the government into ending Germany's reliance on coal for its energy needs and instead looking to renewable energies, such as solar energy and wind power.

"The point is that Germany must phase out coal by 2030," Jennifer Morgan, who leads Greenpeace International, told the Agence France-Presse news agency.

"What happens in high-tech Germany, how quickly the climate-damaging combustion of coal is replaced by solar energy and wind power, is very important, also for other countries."

Nature and Environment | 30.11.2018

Read more: Climate change: 2018 set to be one of hottest ever years

Demanding a coal phaseout: In the thick of Hambach

Hambi stays: Local slogan, global movement

At least 6,000 people gathered in the heart of western German coal country Saturday to demand an end to coal use. People from around the world joined forces with a local movement that started back in 2012 with a handful of activists trying to stop the expansion of a brown coal mine and save the last 200 hectares of the millennia-old Hambach Forest. The message was clear: Coal is a global problem.

Demanding a coal phaseout: In the thick of Hambach

Old and young stand together

The protestors spanned many ages and walks of life. There were young activists dressed in wigs or hazmat suits, but also families and the elderly. People with reduced mobility followed the march at their own pace. A nine-year-old boy was keen to voice his view on the dirty fossil fuel, telling DW he was worried about his future but expected the authorities to do the right thing and give up coal.

Demanding a coal phaseout: In the thick of Hambach

Time for action

Demonstrators split up, some continuing the authorized protest while others took direct action to block coal infrastructure. A hundred people tried to stop the diggers at two nearby coal mines; close to 40 people were arrested. Trying to reach the train line, another 1,000 protestors ended up on the nearby A4 highway, resulting in around 250 arrests. Both the diggers and traffic were stopped.

Demanding a coal phaseout: In the thick of Hambach

Next stop: Coal transport lines

A third group was determined to block the railway transporting coal from the Hambach mine to the three power plants where it is destined to be burned. They had their work cut out, with police attempting to block the activists from approaching the railway. In the end they had to change their route several times, running through fields and navigating dense forest to reach their target.

Demanding a coal phaseout: In the thick of Hambach

A tense ride

On route to the rail lines, there were no major clashes with police but the atmosphere was extremely tense. Police officers on horseback followed protesters up to the edge of the forest, preventing them from changing course. Outbreaks of nerves rippled through activists and horses — without it being clear who triggered what.

Demanding a coal phaseout: In the thick of Hambach

The path narrows

Once the protesters entered the forest, the situation became more fraught. They had to walk carefully to avoid tripping over branches while dodging the police — who physically shoved them as they approached — or each other as, from time to time, the crowd suddenly surged without warning.

Demanding a coal phaseout: In the thick of Hambach

Sticking close together

In the midst of the chaos, activists called for calm, shouting to one another to stick together and remain peaceful. They held on to each other so no one would fall, get lost, or get caught by the police. Others conferred over the best route to proceed toward the rail line.

Demanding a coal phaseout: In the thick of Hambach

On target

Eventually, thousands of protesters arrived at the rail lines. Police officers initially tried to prevent them from climbing down on the tracks, but they were outnumbered. Activists had hung guide ropes down the slopes beforehand, but most people simply slid, ran or tumbled down the bank. Within just a few minutes, the railway was engulfed in a crowd of protestors.

Demanding a coal phaseout: In the thick of Hambach

Sit-in for a break

After an exhausting two-hour scramble, protesters sat down for a rest. The weather was bitingly cold, but there was an air of cheer as the crowd made itself comfortable on the tracks. For now at least, the energy companies couldn't transport coal from mines to their power plants — a victory celebrated under the watchful eyes of police on the hills above.

Demanding a coal phaseout: In the thick of Hambach

A 24-hour victory

The police warned that the direct action was illegal, and offered protesters the chance to abandon their blockade without penalties. But most stayed put overnight. Organizers said their protest blocked coal infrastructure for around 24 hours — which they judged a success. The last 50 to leave the protest had chained themselves to the tracks and had to be forcibly evicted one by one.

Local to global

In Berlin, protesters focused on changing government policy, while the demonstrations in Cologne highlighted the plight of Hambach Forest. The ancient forest has been a site of contention between anti-coal protesters and German energy giant RWE, which wants to clear the area to expand an open coal mine.

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Environmental activists argue that Germany should be winding down coal consumption, not expanding it. Germany was set to release a report on phasing out coal but later postponed the release until 2019.

The Cologne demonstration took place close to Germany's largest brown coal site

The protests come days ahead of the UN climate change conference in Katowice, Poland.

Read more: Can Poland end its toxic relationship with coal?

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ls/jlw (epd, dpa, AFP)