Lützerath: Post Mortem
If you have followed the news in January and are somewhat interested in climate justice, you will definitely have come across reports about a large demonstration in Lützerath, Germany. Maybe you have already watched the Maastricht Diplomat’s first-ever video reportage about precisely this topic. But even if you are totally new to the topic, here are some numbers that summarise what happened on Saturday, 14th January 2023.
A town 56 kilometres northeast of Maastricht.
A demonstration with up to 35 thousand participants of all ages.
A common goal: prevent the extraction of 280 million tons of coal.
For years, Lützerath and its surrounding hamlets have been a place of conflict between climate activists, the German energy company RWE and the (in)actions of German politicians. The region is famous for the Garzweiler open-cast brown coal mine. Coal has historically played an important role in Germany’s energy mix and since 1965, it has consistently been the second-largest energy source of the country after oil. Currently, a quarter of Germany’s energy stems from coal. RWE has already acquired more and more land over the last years in the region around the Garzweiler mine and after a judicial decision in early 2022, the energy company is now legally allowed to extract more coal in these areas. In a deal concluded in 2022 between RWE and members of the Green party, the initial end date of coal mining in Germany had been pushed forward from 2038 to 2030 and five more villages were said to be saved from demolition. However, the deal did not save Lützerath from destruction. Efforts to reduce reliance on Russian oil were often cited as one of the arguments regarding continuing coal mining.
Picture by Johanna Firley
RWE and Climate Activists
With Germany’s energy transition strategy, its commitment to the 1.5 degrees of the Paris Agreement and the Green party being part of the current coalition government, a stop to coal mining in Germany is among the most significant demands of the German climate movement. The German branch of Fridays for Future demands a binding coal phase-out by 2030 and that no more land should be excavated for coal. It's working together with an organisation representing locals’ interests called “Alle Dörfer Bleiben” (All Villages Remain). For years, climate activists have been occupying villages and forests in Germany whose existence was threatened by mining projects. The occupation of the Hambach forest since 2012 can be named as the most prominent example. Just as for Lützerath, the Hambach forest’s demolition was caused by RWE’s desire to expand its coal projects. Yet, the deforestation planned for 2018 was stopped through a court order after much resistance from climate activists.
Turning our focus back to the Garzweiler mine close to Lützerath, climate activists started establishing a protest camp next to the mine in 2020 to resist the mine’s expansion. They created structures such as tree houses to better defend the town, a similar strategy as was adopted in Hambach. In January, thousands followed the call of activists to occupy the village in a large protest action to resist the imminent demolition works in Lützerath (whose inhabitants have long left the village). Based on a report published by German universities and research initiatives in 2022, climate activists argued that the coal underneath Lützerath and the neighbouring villages are not needed for Germany’s energy security.
Perspectives of two UM Students: Then…
To find out more about the protest on 14th January, I talked at the end of January with two German UM students, Johanna Firley and Noa Sara Lehmann, who were among the 35’000 participants. In case you are wondering why I am only publishing this now, I also interviewed them last month to see how they think of the protest now that the media attention died down, but more on that later.
Among their reasons for joining the demonstration, Johanna stated in January: “it is not only Lützerath and the village that is at stake, but a far broader signal for the climate movement. And in order to reach the 1.5-degree goal and to comply with the Paris Agreement, Germany would technically not be able to expand this open pit mine, otherwise, we will break the climate agreement.” This has been confirmed by a recent study by the University of Flensburg, according to which the extraction and combustion of lignite need to stop in two to three years to stay within the 1.5-degree limit.
The protests in Lützerath not only made the news in Germany, but also drew the attention of the international community. According to Noa, activists from the Global South held speeches during the demonstration and many international media outlets, including The Guardian and Al Jazeera, covered the action. With Germany’s economic power in the global arena and its role in climate management, it is no wonder that the eyes of many international stakeholders and activists were directed towards the small German village of Lützerath in January. Discussions often revolved around a few key questions. How does the German government react? What are RWE’s next steps of action? Will activists win this seemingly endless fight against fossil fuels? “Especially when you think about Germany portraying themselves as a role model in climate change adaptation and climate protection”, Johanna argued, “it is pretty hypocritical, expanding this big coal mine in our own country.”.
Picture by Johanna Firley
In the end, climate activists lost this fight in Lützerath: the last two activists who barricaded themselves in a fortified, self-built tunnel left their defence position on the 16th, activists including Greta Thunberg were detained by the police, the village became ready to be demolished.
What happened in Lützerath sparked intense conversation in Germany during the weeks following the protest. Many understood the government’s decision to make a deal with RWE, arguing that Germany’s energy security would be protected this way. Others criticised the Greens’ actions, as the party had pledged to protect the internationally agreed 1.5 degree goal. In January, Johanna “very much fe[lt] the frustration and disappointment of many Green voters that thought ‘wow this is a real chance that climate action will happen in Germany’ [...] Many fe[lt] like a promise ha[d] been broken, basically.” Noa pointed out the lack of a good “left-ish” alternative party to the Greens. The two German girls agreed that the Greens will probably not face severe consequences in the next elections for this reason. However, they thought that the protest had brought climate justice onto the political agenda again and into people’s minds. According to Noa, even the conservative parties would now finally want to bring climate action onto their programmes. Johanna hoped that “for future political decisions that might be similar, [the government] take[s] Lützerath and the activists’ ideas into account and [doesn’t] make shady deals through the back door but rather also consider[s] the public opinion that many many people want stronger climate action”.
Cut to mid-April 2023. Lützerath seems to have vanished from the minds of the general public. A quick Google Trends search on how often Lützerath was entered into the search engine in Germany during the past months solidifies this assumption. What has happened since the big Lützerath protest on 14th January 2023? What do Johanna and Noa think about it now?
According to Johanna and Noa, the focus of climate discussions in Germany since the Lützerath protests was rather on potential regulatory measures surrounding transport. For instance, Germany’s new “49€ ticket” for regional transport means which entered into force this past month could be named as a government effort to facilitate the transition from private vehicles to public transport. Concerning the climate movement, the two UM students highlight that it is still strong in Germany, naming the 250 German cities participating in the Global Climate Strike on 3rd March as an example. “There is nothing to lose for the climate movement, because every degree counts”, said Johanna and Noa. As I am writing this section of the article on May 18th, it leaves a bitter taste in my mouth; earlier this week, researchers announced that we will likely already hit the infamous 1.5 degrees in 2027.
While they expected that Lützerath would not cause any revolutionary changes in German politics, Johanna and Noa believe that many nations across the world still “look at Germany as a ‘pioneer’”: Germany’s (in)actions regarding the climate crisis thus play a role beyond a small village called Lützerath and even Germany itself. What do Johanna and Noa propose as a solution? Everyone should start to “tackle the main polluters - CO2 emitting giants like RWE who owns Lützerath - instead of demonizing individuals”.
Yet, RWE does not seem to have learned much from the Lützerath resistance. On May 14th, the inhabitants of Garzweiler went back to protesting as RWE plans to destroy a significant local street, along with seven windmills to further expand the Garzweiler coal mine.
Who will end up winning this seemingly endless fight between fossil fuel companies, politics, activists and civil society? That’s one question. But there is this other, more crucial question: Who will pay?
Picture by Noa Sara Lehmann