German climate activists dig in to stop new coal mine

Protest camp springs up in hamlet of Luetzerath as it faces demolition

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Thousands of climate protesters faced off with police on Monday in a tiny German hamlet due for demolition to make way for a coal mine.

The struggle for Luetzerath has become a rallying cry for activists who say the mine’s enlargement betrays Germany’s climate goals.

Chancellor Olaf Scholz's government, including the Green party which once opposed the mine, says the coal is needed to plug gaps amid an energy crisis in Europe.

Police are bracing for a long stand-off as activists camp out in Luetzerath, in Germany’s western coal country, to stop it being cleared.

Campaigners have set up barricades, vigils and makeshift camps and occupied empty farm buildings in the village, after shuttling people to Luetzerath by bus.

Luisa Neubauer, the face of the Fridays for Future movement in Germany, said protesters would “use every means to protect the village, and thereby our climate goals”.

“The world is watching what we’re doing here, because we’re fighting for them too,” she told a crowd of supporters.

“If governments won’t do it, we will. They don’t have the courage, we do.”

Climate activist Luisa Neubauer among the demonstrators in Luetzerath. Reuters

Police said protests that had been mostly peaceful had turned violent after a march on Sunday.

Dirk Weinspach, the local police chief, said stones were thrown at officers and cars damaged amid the unrest.

Authorities fear that activists will glue themselves to the ground or set up booby traps in farm buildings.

“Police are facing a difficult, challenging operation with considerable risks,” Mr Weinspach told a press conference on Monday.

The demolition, expected to start on Wednesday or Thursday, is the final stage in a years-long struggle for the village, about 30km from the Dutch border.

Activists have campaigned under the slogan “every village stays” to block a new coal mine at a time when Germany is trying to phase out fossil fuels.

Energy company RWE counters that nobody really lives in Luetzerath, except people occupying the site.

It says Germany will only have enough coal to replace Russian gas if the open-cast mine is expanded.

Activists try to knock down a fence near the open-cast mine in western Germany. AP

Russia cut off imports to Germany and much of Europe in the fallout from the war in Ukraine, causing a surge in energy prices.

Mr Scholz's government ordered coal plants brought back on the grid, extended the lifetime of three nuclear reactors and had a new gas terminal built in the North Sea.

German ministers struck a deal with RWE last autumn to allow mining in Luetzerath to go ahead, in exchange for five other villages being spared.

The government insists that the target of ending coal power generation by 2030 is still on track.

But campaigners say the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5°C is in jeopardy.

Stefan Rahmstorf, a climatologist at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, said politicians should consider whose side they are on.

“Politicians should think carefully about how a massive police operation in favour of coal and against climate activists will be judged in four or five years, when damage to the climate has become greater and more obvious,” he said.

Updated: January 09, 2023, 1:32 PM