Mixed Mandate: Germany’s new coal commission struggles to balance environment and jobs

Germany’s coal commission has been launched, with the goal of a gradual exit from coal. Politicans have admitted that coal-fired output needs to be halved before 2030 to meet climate targets – but have so far refused to set a date for a complete phaseout. Michael Buchsbaum takes an in-depth look.

view of lignite lining fields with coal plant in the background

Coal produces around 40% of Germany’s electricity and employs 30,000 workers (Photo by Kateer, edited, CC BY-SA 2.5)

After months of wrangling, the German Federal government announced the launch of the “Special Commission on Growth, Structural Economic Change and Employment” on June 6th.

More commonly referred to as “the Coal Commission,” it is tasked with creating a plan to phase out coal mining and burning in Germany. This marks perhaps the most critical phase of the nation’s ongoing Energiewende that has seen the world’s fourth largest economy embark on a planned nuclear energy phase-out, a shutdown of hard coal mining and a massive embrace of renewable energy. Wind, solar and other forms of green energy now regularly fulfill over a third or more of Germany’s electricity demand.

However, the country remains the world’s largest lignite (brown coal) miner and burner. Overall, coal produces some 40% of the nation’s electricity while employing around 30,000 workers. Moreover, this cheap, domestically sourced lignite also produces 20% of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions. If Germany is serious about its pledge to cut its greenhouse gas emissions to half of what they were in 1990 by 2030, then lignite simply has to be phased out. That’s not politics, economics or wishful thinking: it’s simply physics.

Herculean Balancing Act

Illustrative of the German style of collective decision making, the Commission is comprised of 31 members including three lawmakers from the Federal ruling coalition parties (center-left SPD and center-right CDU) who are not able to vote with the other members. In order to create a balanced path forward, the Commission gathers around the same table policymakers, industry representatives, labor union leaders, environmentalists and scientists.

Though four Federal ministries – economy, finance, interior and labor – are involved, the Commission’s leaders are Deutsche Bahn board member and former member of Merkel’s government, Ronald Pofalla (CDU); climate economist and former deputy director of the environmental think-tank, Agora Energiewende, Barbara Praetorius; and former state premiers Stanislaw Tillich (CDU) and Matthias Platzeck (SPD). Their respective states, Brandenburg and Saxony, will be heavily affected by the coal exit because they include the (former East German) lignite mining region of Lusatia.

Environmental NGOs have three representatives in the group: Hubert Weiger of the BUND/Friends of the Earth Germany; Martin Kaiser of Greenpeace Germany; and Kai Niebert, of the German League for Environmental Protection/DNR.

Set to begin deliberations on June 26, they are expected to put forth a preliminary plan by October of this year that addresses recommendations for the social and structural re-development of the lignite mining regions and a second report including recommendations on how the energy sector should contribute to fill the “climate protection gap” by early December—in time for the COP24 global climate conference in Katowice, Poland. At the end of the year, they will submit a final report for public review.

Mixed Mandate

While 10 out of the 28 voting members can be viewed as “anti-coal”, the top priority for the commission is to create a new economic perspective for Germany’s coal mining regions. In discussing the task of the Commission, Chancellor Merkel told parliament in May that the government should first clarify what will become of the affected regions, and stop mining activities only later, rather than agreeing on an end date first. She added that the task force should follow the example of Germany’s hard coal exit, set for December of this year. “We have managed it in a way that the workers were able to cope with the changes. It was done together with them. That’s how it has to be with lignite as well,” Merkel said.

Her powerful deputy, energy minister Peter Altmaier (CDU), added that the new commission had a double mandate: “It’s about climate protection in the coming years, so we can keep our commitments, but prominently, it’s also about jobs…The people working in coal-fired power generation must not become victims of the decisions we must take with a view to the environment and the climate,” he said, promising that the coal exit “won’t be sudden and abrupt” but will take several decades.

Altmaier has also acknowledged that coal-fired output needs to be halved before 2030 in order to meet the government’s pledged 2030 climate targets. That dovetails with one of the central tasks of the Commission: developing a plan for Germany to meet its greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets for 2020, i.e., a 40% reduction compared to 1990 levels.

So far, the nation has only reduced those emissions by roughly 28% and will miss those 2020 targets. But that 12% “climate protection gap” could likely be filled if the 10 dirtiest lignite coal-fired power plans were closed. According to British climate think-tank Sandbag, seven of the nation’s lignite burning power plants are among the top ten CO2 polluters in Europe. A recent study by Friends of the Earth Germany also found that the country could shut down its dirtiest coal-fired power plants and all its nuclear power stations at once, and still have a reliable energy supply.

To help soften the blow of the coal exit, the German government has earmarked EUR 1.5 billion through 2021 for transitional assistance, job training and to help lure new industries such as battery cell research and production into the region. The European Commission will likely contribute more funds as well.

The Green Party and many others are understandably worried that the Commission’s mixed mandate will allow money to trump the environment. In an interview with Der Tagesspiegel, Green Party leader Annalena Baerbock called for an immediate ban on both new mines and all preparatory work for them, arguing that “At the moment coal miners, as well as those who fear that their houses and villages will be dug up, are completely left hanging…A serious end to coal can’t be discussed while simultaneously trees are still being cleared and villages are destroyed ahead of plans for new opencast mines.”


L. Michael Buchsbaum is an energy and mining journalist and industrial photographer based in Germany. Since the mid-1990s, he has covered the social, environmental, economic and political impacts of the transition from fossil fuels towards renewables for dozens of industry magazines, journals, institutions and corporate clients. Born in the U.S., he emigrated to Germany and Europe to better document the Energiewende. He is also the host of The Global Energy Transition Podcast.

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