THE BLIND SPOTS OF THE GERMAN ENERGY TRANSITION — 2ND ROUND FOR ENDE GELÄNDE

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by Dorothee Häussermann

Last August, more than 1000 people rushed into one of Germany’s biggest open-cast lignite mines and stopped mining operations for a day. This action of civil disobedience went under the slogan ‘Ende Gelände — stop the diggers — protect the climate’; ‘Ende Gelände’ translates as ‘here and no further’. The campaign called for an immediate coal phase-out, emphasizing the urgency for DIY solutions to the climate crisis in the face of governmental inaction.

What is the problem? Isn’t Germany the paragon of energy transition? Aren’t ecologists and economists alike inspired by progressive policies such as the feed-in tariff that supported the rapid expansion of renewable energy sources? Even Naomi Klein’s film This Changes Everything depicts the German ‘Energiewende’ as a way to go forward. So what are these activists complaining about?

At a closer look, the ‘Energiewende’ reveals some… inconsistencies, if we put it nicely.  In December, while Germany’s environmental minister acted as the saviour of the Paris climate negotiations, back home old-growth forests were being clear cut and historical villages demolished to make way for lignite mines. The Rhineland coalfields are scheduled to continue until 2045, and the new investors for Lusatia’s mining operations demand planning security for the next decades. Germany remains the biggest exploiter of lignite in the world, even though lignite is the fossil fuel most harmful to the climate. No other fossil fuel produces more CO2 when it is burned. Of the five most polluting coal power plants in the EU, four are situated in Germany.

Germany remains the biggest exploiter of lignite in the world, even though lignite is the fossil fuel most harmful to the climate.

However, if we want to prevent the worst consequences of global warming, we need to leave ca. 90% of the known coal reserves in the ground. There are estimates stating that, if we take the 1.5 degree target seriously, the industrial countries need to phase out of coal in 2025 at the latest. And if we bear in mind that even today, at one degree warming, we experience severe droughts and the devastating decline of coral reefs and other ecosystems, then every ton of coal we take out the ground is a ton too much.

(The Bagger 228 diggers are 220 metres long and the world’s biggest land vehicles. One team of activists climbed onto one of the diggers in 2015, other activists were surrounded by police. Operations were halted for the day © Paul Wagner)

The Ende Gelände activists do not trust the government to initiate the necessary emergency stop. Therefore they are calling for another action of civil disobedience in the Lusatia coal-fields this May (13 – 16th). Lusatia, in the East of Germany, is the second biggest coal-mining region in Germany. The present owner of the local operations, utility Vattenfall, is trying to sell the assets. That’s why this year’s campaign is called ‘We are the investment risk’ — the new owner must know that they will buy not only coal mines but into a wildly determined resistance movement, too.

Yet the movement’s criticism goes beyond the call for divestment. Radical climate justice groups point out that the mainstream concept of ‘energy transition’ focuses solely on technological innovation, such as the expansion of renewable energies and enhanced efficiency measures, and that there is little debate about how our society and economy can be structured in a way using less resources. New technologies can indeed help reduce emissions; however, they are not the only solution.

the new owner must know that they will buy not only coal mines but into a wildly determined resistance movement, too.

The infrastructure of a ‘green economy’ — solar panels, wind mills, batteries — relies on finite mineral resources from mining projects that have often devastating social and ecological impacts. Companies powered by renewable energies are still part of the vicious circle that drives them to produce more and more to survive on the market; while most gains of increased efficiency will be eaten up by rising energy demands as long as production and consumption keep growing.

(The Welzow-Sued open-pit coal mine, 70 miles south of Berlin, is one of several in the Lusatia region. It is expected to expand in the coming years and consume the village of Proschim, just over a mile away © Onkel Holz)

Also, a real energy transition must not only exchange one source of the energy for the other, it also implies that people challenge corporate power, take control over the production and make sure that everybody has equal access to energy. This kind of take-over needs to happen not only in the area of electricity production, but also, in agriculture, mobility, and trade policy for example. Yes, a people-powered energy transition is also about fighting free trade agreements which will lead to a massive rise of greenhouse gas emissions from global traffic, allow extractivist investors to obstruct environmental regulations and increase global injustice.

So climate justice is not only about CO2.  It is about tackling the root causes for global warming, which are again the root causes for multiple other forms of social exclusion and natural destruction. It is about creating a society that is orientated towards the Good Life for everybody rather than towards the profit for the few. To realise this, we need a ‘system change’ that dismantles corporate power in each area of society. Quite a daunting task.

we need a ‘system change’ that dismantles corporate power in each area of society. Quite a daunting task.

Unflinchingly, climate activists have started working towards this.  They reach out to other movements and social struggles to break out of the ‘eco’ silo. Ende Gelände works hand in hand with the degrowth movement, knowing that you can only shut down dirty industries if you build up alternatives at the same time. And as a climate movement, they are part of the coalition ‘welcome2stay’ that aims to develop outlines for an open and fair society which is able to integrate people — no matter if they have just arrived in Europe or if they have always lived here.

Internationally, the climate movement has built close networks. The mobilization for the Ende Gelände action enjoys wide international support — up to 2000 people from all over Europe are expected to follow the call. There are action trainings and info events in Amsterdam, Stockholm, Vienna. People organize bike tours from Sweden and England all the way to the camp.

Ende Gelände is part of the global two weeks of action ‘Break Free from Fossil Fuels’ — from May 4th-16th — where people will rise against fossil fuels in eleven countries. In the Nigeria, actions will be held in three iconic locations that epitomise the decades old despoiling of the region by oil drilling. In Turkey, people in the Izmir region will confront the illegal tactics behind the coal industry’s plan to build four more dirty coal plants near their homes, in addition to the one already operating illegally. In Wales, Reclaim the Power calls for shutting down Ffos-y-fran, the largest open-cast lignite mine in UK.

Let’s hope there will be more global weeks of actions in the months and years to come… Let’s hope that people will unite in the fight for a future beyond profit-driven economies, beyond the exploitation of people — and for climate justice.

Featured image © ende-gelaende.org

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