‘We are unstoppable’: Climate activists and pupils rally against German coal mine

Thousands of school pupils demonstrated against climate change in western Germany Friday, as thousands of activists marched towards a nearby coal mine.

'We are unstoppable': Climate activists and pupils rally against German coal mine
Pupils in the German city of Aachen were out in force on Friday. Photo: DPA

Some 20,000 students from 16 countries were due to gather in the city of Aachen in North-Rhine Westphalia for what was billed as the first big international “Fridays for Future” demonstration in the school-strike movement started by Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg.

Several hundred pupils started congregating ahead of the 11am rally, unfurling banners with messages that said “Why study if we don't have a future?” and “If Earth was a bank, you would have rescued it long ago.”

It came as activists from the “Ende Gelände” (EG) movement aimed to slip through police lines and launch non-violent acts of civil disobedience to halt operations at the massive Garzweiler lignite mining operation of energy giant RWE near Cologne.

“We are unstoppable, another world is possible,” they chanted as they walked toward the 48 square kilometre open-pit mine where building-sized excavators churn through what resembles a moonscape.

The German phrase “Ende Gelände” means something is irrevocably finished, similar to “end of story”, which is how the protesters feel about the fossil fuel age.

“Today we set out with thousands of people towards a future without fossil fuels, without exploitation and without this destructive quest for infinite economic growth,” said EG spokeswoman Sina Reisch ahead of a planned weekend of sit-ins and protest rallies.

READ ALSO: 'Generation climate' to occupy huge German coal mine

'Government failing'

The rallies were being closely watched in Germany, where surveys suggest global warming is now the public's top concern, and where the Greens party is for the first time polling neck-and-neck with Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives.

Especially since last year's scorching summer – when drought damaged German agriculture, forest fires raged and shipping was halted on dried-out rivers – many voters agree with the protesters' demand on carbon fuels, to “keep it in the ground”.

Germany, Europe's most populous country and biggest economy, has long promoted clean renewables such as solar and wind while phasing out nuclear power.

A demonstrator at a 'stop coal' demo in Leipzig in February that Ende Gelände attended. Photo: DPA

However it is missing its climate goals because of a reliance on cheap coal from mines like Garzweiler, one of three huge open-cast mines with nearby power plants that RWE operates in the Rhineland regio.

Merkel's government has pledged to phase out coal by 2038 – a deadline which the protest movement rejects as far too distant given global warming is melting ice caps and glaciers, raising ocean levels and exacerbating extreme weather events.

“Today we are taking the coal phase-out into our own hands because the government is failing to protect the climate,” said EG spokeswoman Nike Malhaus.

READ ALSO: Will Germany soon have its first Green chancellor?

'Going further'

The activists have set up base in a colourful “climate camp” tent city, which boasts a vegan food canteen, medical centre, child care and an open-air cinema, near the town of Viersen.

Among the more seasoned protesters, some of them veterans of the anti-nuclear movement since the 1980s, were school-aged activists from the “Fridays” movement.

One of them, Dörthe, 19, said she had “always been a good citizen” but was now ready to demonstrate and “go further” in non-violent demonstrations.

“It's exciting and it's great to see that so many people feel the same way. It comforts me because I know I'm not alone.”

Another activist, Günter Wimmer, 76, said environmental threats mean “we are close to a tipping point. No-one can say exactly where we are, but we're close.”

“Mrs Merkel, a scientist, has been patting young protesters on the head, saying 'it's great what you're doing', while continuing with policies that are depriving them of their future,” he said.

Wimmer said he was heartened by the passion for change of the youngsters around him.

“This is about our children and our children's children, and it gives me hope.”

By Daphne Rousseau and Yann Schreiber

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.


UPDATE: Greta Thunberg joins German climate strikes before vote ‘of a century’

Tens of thousands of climate activists including Greta Thunberg descended on German cities Friday ahead of the weekend general election to crank up the pressure on the candidates to succeed Angela Merkel.

UPDATE: Greta Thunberg joins German climate strikes before vote 'of a century'
Greta Thunberg and other climate activists in Berlin on Friday. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Jörg Carstensen

Speaking at a rally in front of the Reichstag parliament building in the run-up to Sunday’s poll, Thunberg told cheering Fridays for Future youth supporters that they needed to hold Germany’s political leaders to account past election day.

“It is clearer than ever that no political party is doing close to enough… not even their proposed commitments are close to being in line with what would be needed to fulfil the Paris Agreement,” on curbing climate change, she said.

“Yes, we must vote, you must vote, but remember that voting only will not be enough. We must keep going into the streets.”

As Germany’s top parties hold final rallies ahead of Sunday’s vote, the Fridays for Future youth marches claim the political class has let down the younger generation.

“The political parties haven’t taken the climate catastrophe seriously enough,” Luisa Neubauer, who runs the group’s German chapter, said.

She said Germany, as one of the world’s top emitters of greenhouse gases, had an outsize responsibility to set an example, with time running out to reverse destructive trends.

“That is why we are calling this the election of a century,” she said.

The race has boiled down to a two-way contest between Social Democrat Olaf Scholz, the moderate finance minister, and Armin Laschet from Merkel’s conservative Christian Democrats.

Polls give Scholz a small lead of about 26 percent over Laschet at around 22 percent, with the candidate from the ecologist Greens, Annalena Baerbock, trailing in the mid-teens.

Despite the urgency of the climate issue for a majority of Germans, particularly in the aftermath of deadly floods in the west of the country in July, this has failed to translate into strong support for the relatively inexperienced Baerbock.

She told Die Welt newspaper that she hoped Friday’s rally would give her party “tailwinds” heading into the vote. “The next government has to be a climate government – that will only work with a strong Green party.”   

More than 400 “climate strikes” are planned across Germany, with the Swedish Thunberg, who inspired the movement, expected to speak outside the Reichstag parliament building.

Thousands gathered on the lawn there from late morning bearing signs reading “Climate now, homework later”, “It’s our future” and simply “Vote”.

“Climate is an important issue and if this continues things are going to get worse and worse,” 14-year-old pupil Louise Herr told AFP.

Gathering under the banners “We are young and need the world!” and “Everything for the climate”, the activists are arguing that “climate crisis is this century’s biggest problem”.

READ ALSO: Climate change made German floods ‘more likely and more intense’

 ‘Unfair burden’

The activists will be part of a global climate strike in more than 1,000 communities around the world, Fridays for Future said.

Their central demand is to limit the warming of the Earth to maximum 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 Fahrenheit) as laid out in the 2015 Paris climate accord.

The Paris agreement set a goal of reducing global warming by two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels with an aspiration to go further and cap the rise to 1.5 Celsius.

Despite Merkel’s vocal support of climate protection measures, Germany has repeatedly failed in recent years to meet its emission reduction targets under the pact.

In a landmark ruling in April, Germany’s constitutional court found the government’s plans to curb CO2 emissions “insufficient” to meet the targets of the Paris agreement and placed an “unfair burden” on future generations.

The Fridays for Future movement launched global school strikes more than two years ago arguing that time was running out to stop irreversible damage from the warming of the planet.

Demonstrators take to the streets in Berlin to call for urgent climate action. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/AP | Luca Bruno

In September 2019, it drew huge crowds in cities and towns around the world including 1.4 million protesters in Germany, according to organisers.

The outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic put the brakes on its weekly rallies but the election campaign in Europe’s top economy has revitalised the

“The climate crisis cannot be solved through party politics alone,” Thunberg told reporters ahead of her appearance in Berlin.

“We can’t just vote for change, we also have to be active democratic citizens and go out on the streets and demand action.”


Greens as junior partner?

Around 60.4 million Germans are called to the polls on Sunday and most voters cite climate protection among their top priorities.

All three leading parties have said they aim to implement a climate protection agenda if elected, with the Greens presenting the most ambitious package of measures.

However the Fridays for Future activists have said even the Greens’ official programme falls short of what is needed to stick to the 1.5 degree Celsius temperature rise.

The Greens want to end coal energy use by 2030 instead of the current 2038. They also want the production of combustion engine cars to end from the same year.

While the party is expected to fall far short of its ambition to win the election Sunday and place Baerbock in the chancellery, polls indicate it has a good chance of joining a ruling coalition as a junior partner under Scholz or Laschet.

By Deborah Cole