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Coal mining versus climate activism


WORLD Radio - Coal mining versus climate activism

Germany wants to expand its coal mine operations, but environmentalists are hindering efforts

Police officers carry Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg away from the edge of the Garzweiler II opencast lignite mine during a protest action by climate activists after the clearance of Luetzerath, Germany, Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2023 Federico Gambarini/dpa via Associated Press

MYRNA BROWN, HOST: It’s Thursday, the 26th of January, 2023.

You’re listening to WORLD Radio and we’re so glad to have you along today. Good morning, I’m Myrna Brown.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. First up on The World and Everything in It: protesters and coal mines.

Last weekend in Germany, police ousted the remaining protesters from a coal site set for expansion. Some of the protesters had been occupying the town for years—hiding out in tunnels and tree houses.

BROWN: Right now, Germany is facing a choice regarding energy, human lives, and environmental activism. WORLD’s Mary Muncy has the story.

AUDIO: [Mud wizard]

REPORTER MARY MUNCY: In Luetzerath, police laden with heavy tactical gear sink knee-deep in mud. They are trying to reach a crowd of protesters in an open field.

One protester in a cloak and boots flits over the mud, taunting trapped officers and pushing some of them over. People on the internet dubbed the protester the “mud wizard.”

All of Luetzerath’s 100 residents were officially relocated in 2017 to make way for coal mining and some protesters have been occupying Luetzerath for as long as two years. It used to be a small farming community with a city center in the middle.

The German company RWE bought the right to mine for coal under Luetzerath in 1995. They’re going to bulldoze the town, mine the coal, then use the rock, sand, and topsoil to turn the mine back into a habitable place.

AUDIO: [German] People will always take money.

This protester is saying here that there are always some people who are willing to take money and leave, while others think saving their home is more important.

But that’s not the only reason people are protesting.

THUNBERG: The science is very clear. The carbon needs to stay in the ground.

That’s climate activist Greta Thunberg speaking to hundreds of protesters outside Luetzerath.

THUNBERG: What happens in Luetzerath doesn't stay in Luetzerath. Germany, as one of the biggest polluters in the world, has an enormous responsibility. They need to be held accountable. And that is why we are here.

The protesters say Germany is not living up to climate promises it made in 2021. The plan was to cut more than half of Germany’s emissions by 2030 and be carbon neutral by 2045.

THUNBERG: That the German governments are making deals and compromises with fossil fuel companies such as RWE is shameful. It shows us exactly where we are. It shows us their priorities. It is not people, it is profits once again.

But Germany is right in the middle of its first winter without Russian gas and things are getting tight.

Germany got more than 50 percent of its gas from Russia before the Ukraine war. Now, amid sanctions, and Russia turning off the tap, Germany says it’s not using any Russian gas.

Electricity prices have surged as much as 15-fold across Europe since last year.

This is Diana Furchtgott-Roth. She’s the director for the center for Energy, Climate, and Environment at the Heritage Foundation.

She says Europe has been making all kinds of energy cuts to try to keep the lights on.

FURCHTGOTT-ROTH: People are being asked to be more flexible about their electricity use and in the national grid, so they're being told not to charge cars at certain times, not to use their washing machines at certain times.

And Germany does a lot of manufacturing that requires a lot of energy. But that’s costing more as energy prices rise. Furchtgott-Roth says some manufacturing companies are moving to the United States where energy is cheaper, taking jobs away from Germans.

So Germany is forced to make a choice: save the climate, or keep the heat on.

FURCHTGOTT-ROTH: Basically in order to get by, you absolutely have to have the coal right now. So there are some times you have to put human beings ahead of the environment, and this is one of them.

She says Europe was already headed for an energy crisis before the war in Ukraine started. The war just made it come faster than anyone expected.

FURCHTGOTT-ROTH: Wind and solar are not as reliable as reliable as coal and oil and gas and they’re more expensive.

These more sustainable options cost more and are less reliable. The original plan was to ease into the higher costs, allowing the economy to catch up. But the hard cut-off spiked prices.

RWE, the company planning to mine the coal under Luetzerath, has been phasing out dirtier forms of energy. They were originally planning to raze six towns, but brought it down to one.

A spokesperson RWE says its plan isn’t to get back into coal, but just to keep the lights on for now.

AUDIO: [Protesters being removed]

Now, police have now cleared Luetzerath of protesters—Thunberg was arrested and carried off the property.

Barring further protests, RWE is clear to mine the coal.

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Mary Muncy.

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