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Germany’s coal exit deal pits Greens against climate activists

Germany has taken a major step toward ending coal-fired power in 2030 — while sacrificing a village the country’s climate movement regards as a red line. 

Climate Minister Robert Habeck announced in a press conference on Tuesday that a phaseout agreement had been reached with energy giant RWE in North Rhine-Westphalia, Europe’s largest lignite mining region. 

RWE, which controls all lignite extraction and power plants in the western German state, will phase out coal in 2030 rather than 2038 as previously planned. 

The earlier shutdown of 3,000 megawatts in coal-fired power will prevent 280 million tons of CO2 emissions, Habeck said. 

But to secure Germany’s power supply this winter, RWE will extend the lifetime of two 600 megawatt plants that were meant to shut down this year until March 2024 — and was granted permission to raze the village of Lützerath to extract more coal from beneath its soil. 

Lützerath has become a lightning rod for the climate movement in Germany and beyond. It’s one of several villages standing in the way of an open pit mine expansion. 

The abandoned village — its residents have already been resettled — has become a protest hotspot, with activists declaring Lützerath the “frontier” of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Even Greta Thunberg visited last year. 

Two Green ministers — Habeck and his North Rhine-Westphalian counterpart Mona Neubaur — have now delivered the death sentence for Lützerath, pitting the party against the country’s climate movement. 

“It’s a good day for climate protection,” Habeck said, stressing that several other villages would be saved as part of the RWE deal. The 280 million tons of CO2 kept in the ground correspond to about a third of Germany’s annual emissions.

Several assessments showed that “if we want to guarantee security of supply, keep running the two 600MW blocs and save those [other] villages, this is the result,” he added. “I hope the climate movement will see it this way and accept it to a large extent.” 

The climate movement does not see it that way. 

“It is not a ‘good day for climate protection.’ You just gave in to the profit interests of RWE and are sacrificing an entire village for coal we don’t need,” said Germany’s Fridays for Future chapter. 

“The Greens have just proved that we cannot count on them for climate protection,” one of the main activist groups fighting for Lützerath’s survival tweeted

The agreement will see Germany’s government invite tenders for more gas-fired power plants that can be converted to hydrogen, with RWE’s participation, Habeck said. RWE also pledged to invest in 1 gigawatt of renewable power in North Rhine-Westphalia, and said it would not seek additional financial compensation for the faster phaseout. 

After Neubaur’s Greens secured their best-ever result in regional elections this spring, the party and the Christian Democrats struck a coalition deal that set a 2030 coal phaseout date on the local level. 

The left-leaning federal coalition government last year also pledged to end coal-fired power in 2030, “ideally.” Habeck said that he was in talks with energy companies in Germany’s eastern coal regions as well.

“It’s a good signal: The 2030 coal exit is coming,” Neubaur told reporters on Tuesday, but acknowledged that the compromise was a difficult one for her party. 

“There are certainly no more difficult times to be in government as a Green,” she said. “But there also isn’t a more important time.” 

This article is part of POLITICO Pro

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