Activists stage protests in Germany as cabinet passes coal exit law

German ministers on Wednesday signed off a law to end coal electricity generation that demonstratorsand environmentalists say does too little, too late.

Activists stage protests in Germany as cabinet passes coal exit law
A 'stop coal' poster at the protest against the new law. Photo: DPA

The 202-page draft, under the clunky German title of “Kohleverstromungsbeendigungsgesetz” (KVBG) lines up an inching exit from coal by 2038 at the latest.

By that date, all coal-fired power plants and coal mines in Germany should be inactive.

Outside Chancellor Angela Merkel's office, marchers brandished signs reading “Shut off the coal plants NOW” and “Smash (power company) RWE”.

READ ALSO: Germany should phase out coal mining by 2038, says commission

In a slight concession to pressure from the streets, notably the “Fridays for Future” youth movement, the exit timetable could be stepped up to 2035 based on reviews planned for 2026 and 2029.

“What the government is doing is setting in motion a huge and fundamental transformation in our energy supply,” Merkel's spokesman Steffen Seibert told reporters in Berlin.

That was true “even if some elements of this law are of course debated in the public sphere and criticised,” he added.

Activists and campaign groups such as Greenpeace say the planned law falls far short of what is needed for Germany to fulfil its climate promises.

“We're in the middle of a climate crisis, and it's unjustifiable for the coal plants to keep warming the Earth for another 18 years,” Greenpeace energy sector expert Lisa Göldner said.

“This draft law disdains the hundreds of thousands of voices of young people” who have demonstrated for swift climate action, added Quang Paasch of the Fridays for Future movement.

Protesters on Wednesday. Photo: DPA
Brown coal blues
Among the first coal plants where the lights will go out is one operated by energy giant RWE, near the massive Garzweiler open-cast mine in western Germany.
Set to close on December 31, the power station burns brown coal, also known as lignite, an especially polluting form of the fossil fuel.
More are set to follow later, notably in de-industrialised areas of the country's former communist east.
The government has promised around 40 billion euros ($44 billion) of aid to the affected regions to help reshape their economies.
And ministers will pay power companies almost €4.4 billion in compensation for closing the plants before the planned ends of their operating lives, spread over “the 15 years following the closures”.
Meanwhile the decision to allow Germany's newest coal power plant, known as Datteln 4, to begin producing power has been widely criticised.
Politicians argue it makes sense to take brown coal stations offline first.
But protesters have already taken aim at the plant as a symbol of government policy they say values compromise with interest groups over environmental urgency.
Ambitious targets
Germany has committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 55 percent compared with 1990 levels by 2030.
But Berlin has already acknowledged it will fall short of its goal for this year.
“Further building up of renewable energy to 65 percent of consumption by 2030 will be implemented” in a draft law soon to be presented, Economy Minister Peter Altmaier wrote to cabinet colleagues Wednesday.
The powerful BDI industry federation warned that businesses “are threatened with grave disadvantages in their international competitiveness” if reliable, affordable supply is not secured.
In recent weeks, ministers and lawmakers have been battling over plans to forbid construction of wind turbines within one kilometre of inhabited settlements.
The move to allay a supposed anti-wind-power backlash among rural populations has been blasted as a step in the wrong direction by climate campaigners.
 By Coralie Febvre with Yann Schreiber in Frankfurt

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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