By the time you read this, the village of Lützerath may already be gone – part of the price paid for getting RWE, Germany’s largest energy producer, to stop mining and burning brown coal by 2030. Yet short term, RWE is ramping generation at their lignite-burning plants, among the most polluting in Europe, to make up for sanctioned Russian gas and help Germany get through the next two winters. But climate scientists warn, burning all the coal underneath the activist-occupied town could risk breaking the emissions limits set under the 2015 Paris Agreement. Worse, as lead blogger and podcaster Michael Buchsbaum relates, the steep terms of the deal are splintering the Greens, potentially setting party leadership against its most ardent climate activists.
2030 coal exit condemns Lützerath
To harvest the vast amounts of brown coal lying under the fertile plains west of Cologne, some of the world’s largest excavators for decades have chewed through some of Germany’s most fertile farmland, in the process demolishing nearly 50 villages and displacing over 40,000 residents.
But perhaps no more.
As part of an October 2022 deal between the German federal government, the state of North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) and RWE to bring the energy firm’s coal phase-out forward by eight years to 2030, only one more village must be destroyed for coal: Lützerath.
In exchange for saving five other similarly-threatened towns, the deal authorizes RWE to increase mining through March 2024 to help Germany weather the current energy crisis.
And while RWE will supposedly decrease their coal burns starting in April 2024, some estimates find that the emissions generated from burning all this additional coal, some 560 million tons of it, will exceed the limits Germany agreed to under the 2015 Paris Agreement, potentially putting the 1.5 degree limit out of reach.
Nevertheless, at the press conference announcing the agreement, both federal Economic Affairs and Climate Action Minister Robert Habeck and his colleague Mona Neubaur, NRW’s Green minister for Economy and Climate Protection, were clear that the town’s fate is sealed.
“If Lützerath were to be preserved,” explained Neubaur in a statement echoing RWE’s, “then the production volume required to maintain security of supply over the next eight years could not be achieved, the stability of the opencast mine could not be guaranteed and the necessary recultivation could not be carried out.”
As the coal excavators churn closer by the minute, the tiny farming village of Lützerath is the front line of climate defense.
For several years, thousands of activists, including Greta Thunberg, have flocked to it from every corner of the globe, attending “resistance” workshops, conferences, concerts, vegan group dinners and thumping, nightlong raves.
Their ranks stiffened by veterans of the campaign to save the nearby Hambach Forest, occupiers have planted gardens, moved into abandoned homes, lived in tents, built huts and erected sophisticated treehouses.
Barns throughout the town have been transformed into community centers. Slogans of shared environmental justice, from Antifa and Rojava, the embattled autonomous Kurdish region in northeastern Syria, adorn their walls — reminders that the climate justice movement didn’t emerge with Fridays for Future, but has deeper roots within the long struggles of activists in the Global South as well as generations of black, indigenous and people of color (BIPoC) still fighting for freedom and equality.
But above all else, occupiers have organized and prepared for the village’s eventual defense against RWE-backed police forces.
Though many have visited and overnighted at the village, to date massive demonstrations like those at the Hambach forest haven’t materialized.
“If there were 50,000 on the street, politicians would have to do something,” said Eckardt Heukamp, the last farmer in Lützerath, to reporters from the New York Times.
Perhaps the frustrating reality is that two years ago it was politically easier for leaders of the then-opposition Greens to support rallies for the Hambach forest, or last year, from occupied Lützerath. Back then, even Mona Neubaur, seeking votes, once marched to preserve it.
Since then, often with support from the climate movement, the Greens have notched their best-ever showings in state and national elections.
Ascendant both nationally and in NRW, once the Greens entered into a coalition with the conservative CDU in June 2022 and together agreed to phase out coal by 2030, there seemed reason to hope Lützerath might survive after all.
Stubbornly refusing to sell out to RWE, in an act of resistance, Heukamp planted crops.
But in October 2022, after the harvest was in, he finally gave up — abandoning the family farm to the activists.
Blaming state politicians, he said: “If they had wanted to save this village, they could have done it.”
For scientist-activist Saskia Meyer, who has lived in the village for months, Lützerath is symbolic of much of what is wrong in our society.
“What’s happening today to the planet is a symptom of our western consumption behavior and habits,” she said.
NRW’s state government, including its Minister of the Interior, Herbert Reul, who oversaw brutal police measures to clear the occupied Hambach Forest that lead to the death of a journalist as well as injuries to thousands many others, is preparing for a difficult and potentially violent eviction.
Throughout the weeks of November and December and leading up to mid-January, defense preparations were in full swing throughout the town with intricate barricades and steel beams already erected and more going up.
Some politicians have also come out in support.
One, German MEP Kathrin Henneberger, who I ran into at the occupied village, vowed that when RWE and the police come, she’s prepared to put her body on the line to stop them.
As of mid-January, thousands of police officers had begun evicting occupiers days after 7,000 or more came to the embattled town for a concert and demonstration.
Some climate scientists are calling for a cooling off period to re-assess the necessity of mining the coal underneath the town.
Given the fluidity of the situation, by the time you are reading this story, the town will either have been cleared of activists, many of whom could be in jail or being held, or a political compromise will have been found.