Hambach Forest: Battleground for climate action

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Hambach forest standoff

Police are clashing with activists in Germany's Hambach Forest as energy firm RWE prepares to get at the coal beneath it. Environmentalists say more than just the future of this ancient woodland is at stake.

On Thursday morning, police moved into Germany's ancient Hambach Forest to remove activists and the treehouses they have lived in for the last six years. The forest is one of the oldest left in Europe. But underneath it lies a wealth of lignite, or brown coal — an extremely carbon-heavy fossil fuel. 

Nature and Environment | 30.11.2017

Police told DW they were acting on the request of local authorities to remove the tree-dwelling activists because of fire-safety concerns. But tensions have been building in the west German forest for months, as energy company RWE prepares to fell the trees in order to expand an open-cast lignite mine. 

Read moreThe battle for villages and forests in Germany's coal country

Over the last week, police have clashed with activists over the removal of the camp's ground-based structures. Now, the conflict has stepped up a notch, as officers dismantle the treehouses. Paul Kemen, a spokesman for police in the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia, told DW on Thursday afternoon that they had begun taking down the first of the 51 treehouses. He could not say how long the clearance would take. 

Nature and Environment | 13.09.2018

Kemen added that one of his colleagues had been injured that morning by protesters hurling stones. But activists insisted their protest was peaceful.

Police bring armored vehicles and water cannons to the protest site in Hambach Forest

A mother of five, whose name was among a group of "pilgrims" that recently arrived at the forest to support the activists, said it broke her heart to see what was happening.

"These are peaceful people," she told DW with tears in her eyes. "I don't understand why the forest must be felled and why we continue to commit to coal."

Read moreHow far is Germany from a complete coal exit?

Profits over climate

Activists are calling for nationwide demonstrations on Friday and saying they expect thousands of people to join sit-ins in the forest itself. What's at stake, they say, is much more than a scrap of ancient woodland.

Ronan, an activist protesting the clearance on Thursday, said RWE was just out to maximize its profits. "They don't want to lose investors, so they want to see lignite used long into the future," he told DW. 

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Karolina Drzewo of anti-coal group Ende Gelände said in a statement it was "a scandal that the state government is protecting company profits and not the environment," while Greenpeace said the state government had made itself an accessory to the energy company's strategy of escalating the conflict in the forest. 

Read moreGermany's mining communities brace themselves for post-coal era

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DW News | 06.09.2018

German police clear Hambach Forest

Symbolic struggle

For many, the conflict over Hambach Forest is symbolic of the wider struggle for the future of the planet. 

"The Hambach Forest — for us a symbol of a future-orientated society — now threatens to become a memorial for the destruction of our future," said Andreas Büttgen of Buirer für Buir, a citizens' initiative by residents of the small town of Buir, which is located close to the Hambach mine. 

According to Friends of the Earth Germany (BUND), around 10 percent of the ancient forest is all that's left from logging over recent years. Neighboring villages have also been evicted to make way for the mine. 

"We feel abandoned by those responsible in federal and state government — forgotten," Büttgen said.

Read more: Tears and treehouses — the occupation in Germany's Hambach Forest

Police accuse activists of throwing stones but supporters insist it has been a peaceful protest

Germany wrestles over future of coal

Germany has made developing its renewable energy capacity a national priority. But the question of when the country will finally say goodbye to coal is the subject of fierce national debate, and has now been handed over to a panel of experts and politicians known as the coal commission. 

It is the commission's job to weigh up climate protection against the economic impacts of shutting down the coal sector — and to devise what's being called a "socially acceptable coal exit." Environmental groups and some members of the commission have called for the forest clearance to be put on hold until it decides on a deadline for Germany to give up coal and a plan for the economic future of mining regions. 

Police have started tearing down the dozens of makeshift treehouses in the forest

Kai Niebert, head of environmental group Deutscher Naturschutzring, is a member of the commission. He says expanding the mine will make it almost impossible for Germany to reach its domestic climate targets, or live up to its commitments under the 2015 Paris Agreement. 

"There's around 1.5 billion tons of carbon under us here in the Hambach area," Niebert said. "If it was burned, we would use up virtually all Germany's carbon budget, and that would be anything but a socially acceptable way to exit coal. It would mean all the other mines in Germany would have to close tomorrow."

Read moreGermany's coal exit: jobs first, then the climate

Climate savior or sinner - how green is Germany's energy production?

Addicted to coal

The future looks bright for Germany’s biggest surface coal mine. Even as the country introduces climate protection measures and switches to renewable energy sources, its dependence on coal-fueled power plants is unabated. Continued reliance on coal means Germany is unlikely to meet its 2020 emission goals. That's not good for the environment, but the view from the Hambach mine remains impressive.

Climate savior or sinner - how green is Germany's energy production?

Stripping the earth

The Hambach surface mine stretches seemingly endless into the horizon. Located west of Cologne, it is Germany’s largest surface mine at 4,300 hectares - and expanding. Despite efforts to use more renewable energy sources, Germany’s industry still relies on the cheap brown coal to supply 40% of its energy needs.

Climate savior or sinner - how green is Germany's energy production?

Disappearing villages

It won’t be long before the village of Manheim disappears. The nearby Hambach mine is expanding and will soon engulf the houses. Already many of the residents in the 1,000 year-old village have abandoned their homes. Since 1989 four similar villages have been razed to make room for the brown surface mine.

Climate savior or sinner - how green is Germany's energy production?

No alternative

By 2020 the diggers will have reached the village. Until then, workers will tear down the remaining houses and the residents will relocate. Kurt Rüttgers, one about 500 remaining residents and owner of the local pub, has watched the town fade and disappear: “Since my childhood I have known Manheim would disappear one day. It’s sad, but there seems to be no alternative to coal mining right now.”

Climate savior or sinner - how green is Germany's energy production?

Investing in renewable energy

Elsewhere in Germany, companies have made the switch to renewable energy sources. Soaring 109 meters above the surrounding fields, these wind turbines located about an hour from Berlin’s city center, provide emissions-free energy for the capital.

Climate savior or sinner - how green is Germany's energy production?

Harvesting the wind

Some 27,000 wind turbines have sprouted up across the country in the last decade. Although animal rights activists argue the giant propellers cause harm to birds and some people complain the towers are an eyesore in the landscape, the turbines are Germany’s biggest source of renewable energy. Until recently, the government heavily subsidized wind parks.

Climate savior or sinner - how green is Germany's energy production?

Could housing save the climate?

For some Germans saving the climate starts at home. Years ago artist Priska Wollein decided to build her atelier near Berlin as a passive energy house to reduce her carbon footprint. Built mostly out of wood, it’s heated by geothermal energy and the ventilation is specifically modified to keep warmth inside.

Climate savior or sinner - how green is Germany's energy production?

The home of the future

What if a house didn’t just reduce its energy consumption, but rather generates more of it? That’s one of the proposals the German housing industry has come up with in response to new building regulations on energy efficiency. Referred to as the energy plus house, the new model of home is designed to produce its own energy primarily through solar power.

Fruitless discussion

But RWE, which has extraction rights for the Hambach mine until 2040, says it has already waited too long to access the coal beneath the ancient forest. Earlier this week, the utility met with activists and offered a possible suspension of the forest clearance until December, but insisted the trees would be felled before the winter season was through.

The utility said that as activists rejected its offer, it planned to proceed in mid-October, arguing that the deforestation was "necessary to maintain open-cast mining operations and coal extraction over the next two years." It added that the coal commission's work didn't justify a suspension of the clearance because its findings "will deal with the medium- and long-term prospects for coal-fired power generation."

On Wednesday, Environment Minister Svenja Schulze told the German parliament: "One side should take its hands off the chainsaw and the other should come down from the trees and open up to a political discussion. We need joint discussion here."

The federal government has not yet intervened.  

Big enough already? The Hambach open-cast lignite mine

Global politics vs. people power

Clive Spash, an ecological economist and chair of public policy at the Vienna University of Economics and Business, believes the Paris Agreement hasn't changed how governments act when it comes to fossil fuel extraction, which is still heavily supported with public money. Rather, Spash told DW, the German government looks to be making the most of its lignite resources while it still can. 

"They've hyped up the fact that they're switching to renewables, but they've actually been increasing brown coal extraction because they know that under the Paris Agreement, they will not be able to do this in the future," Spash said. "So they're trying to extract it as fast as possible and burn it as fast as possible."

Ende Gelände, whose name is a wordplay that translates into "end of story," said Thursday that civil disobedience would continue to block the felling of the forest, and that it planned to blockade coal infrastructure at the Hambach mine itself next month. 

Spash said such activism was "essential" in the fight against climate change. 

"Governments do not act in the right way without pressure," he told DW. "They are acting on behalf of the corporations 99 percent of the time. You can see this very clearly in the actions they're taking supporting the coal corporation and the fossil fuel-extracting industries."

6 years of coal protest coming to an end at Germany's Hambach forest?

Primal forest

At the heart of Europe, in western Germany, near the border to France and Belgium, a scrap of ancient forest holds thousand-year-old trees along with abundant wildlife. But there's another species living there in the forest as well — our own.

6 years of coal protest coming to an end at Germany's Hambach forest?

Life among the treetops

About 150 people currently live in what's left of Hambach forest, many in makeshift tree houses. Although living in a tree house may appear idyllic, many of the environmental activists have uprooted their lives for the better part of six years — living without electricity and running water — to protect the forest, and take a stance against the power of the fossil fuel industry.

6 years of coal protest coming to an end at Germany's Hambach forest?

Evictions begin

Several hundred police officers accompanied RWE workers for protection as they visited the forest on Wednesday, September 5, to expel the protesters in preparation for clearing. Although the operation was mostly peaceful, one activist was arrested after resisting police.

6 years of coal protest coming to an end at Germany's Hambach forest?

Nonviolent resistance

Activists joke about their "dangerous weapons," such as an empty fire extinguisher. Just days before the police action on September 5, Herbert Reul, the interior minister for the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, warned that police and RWE staff in the Hambach forest were dealing with "extremely violent left-wing extremists." Members of the protest group have denied Reul's description.

6 years of coal protest coming to an end at Germany's Hambach forest?

Not the first forest confrontation

Over the years, police have clashed with protesters in the Hambach forest. In 2017, police employed pepper spray to disperse protesters in advance of planned logging. The looming eviction is likely to result in the largest confrontation there yet.

6 years of coal protest coming to an end at Germany's Hambach forest?

Trees for coal

Here is the result of a recent RWE clearing campaign, which ran from October 2016 to March 2017. In the background, the smokestacks of the Niederaussem power station can be seen. With a CO2 output of more than 29 million tons yearly, this is Europe's third-dirtiest power plant. Due to massive toxic emissions such as mercury and sulfur, it is also considered Germany's second-most-toxic power plant.

6 years of coal protest coming to an end at Germany's Hambach forest?

'Critical turning point' for climate policy

"Clumsy" has lived among the treetops in the Hambach forest since the resistance against the RWE coalmine project began in 2012. He believes the battle over the forest is a critical turning point for German climate policy, and the government's decision is one between "giving in to the lignite hardliners, [or] protecting our life support basis on this planet."

6 years of coal protest coming to an end at Germany's Hambach forest?

Small forest with big stakes

Only about 10 percent of the once sprawling Hambach forest has survived the mine's onslaught. What's left appears miniscule in comparison to the vast expanse of the mine, which already covers about 85 square kilometers (33 square miles). But environmentalists say the forest holds enormous ecological value, and is home to abundant and biodiverse ecology, including endangered animal species.

6 years of coal protest coming to an end at Germany's Hambach forest?

Ever-hungry coal industry

The Hambach mine, located between Aachen and Cologne, is Germany's largest open-cast mine. Here, RWE uses enormous excavators to extract brown coal, also known as lignite, from the earth. Lignite is among the fossil fuels that emit the most carbon dioxide when burned. What remains of Hambach forest is the last bastion in a long battle against the expansion of the mine.

6 years of coal protest coming to an end at Germany's Hambach forest?

Save the forest, save the world

Environmental activists have undertaken nonviolent resistance against the RWE coal mine expansion for more than six years. Through their actions, they claim to not only want to save the Hambach forest from destruction, but also send a message to the world about the dangerous consequences of prioritizing fossil fuel extraction over important ecological sites.

6 years of coal protest coming to an end at Germany's Hambach forest?

Global support

Activists from all over the world have supported the action by staying for days or weeks at a time. Over the past six years, activists have literally built up an alternative community within the forest. Although it is still unclear what exactly will happen in the struggle between the protesters and the fossil fuel giant, potential eviction is an ever-present possibility for the forest dwellers.