A Good Plan Needed
It wasn’t until Tadzio Müller came to Lausatia to protest against coal mining that he realised how important it was to have a good plan of what should happen next. This was because many in Germany’s eastern region, heavily dominated by lignite mining in the past, had no tangible alternative for making a living.
Müller was one of nearly 4,000 mainly young people from all over Europe who came together on 13–15 May, 2016, to protest against the mining and processing of lignite. The action was organised by the anti-coal network Ende Gelände! More than a year later, during the Summit for Global Solidarity on 5-6 July, 2017, Müller shared his memories of the blockade of the coal plant “Schwarze Pumpe”.
Speaking at a workshop, entitled “The working class and climate justice: Do they belong together?”, held prior to the G20 meeting in Hamburg, Tadzio recalled how his fellow activists were hanging on ropes under a bridge over the coal-train railway for more than thirty hours, their banners proclaiming “That’s it! Coal phase-out now!”. At this time angry locals, workers, even suspected Neo-Nazis, carrying flags of the Union of Mine Workers, entered the site and started to throw firecrackers at the activists and shout at them, claiming that the protesters’ aim was to destabilise the livelihoods of the workers and locals.
This was a turning point for Müller, as it revealed a major obstacle to overcome before a coal phase-out could be feasible, Müller confessed a year later. The issue was not knowing what kind of alternative there would be for the locals in order to secure their livelihoods once a transition from coal took place in Lausatia.
The issue was not knowing what kind of alternative there would be for the locals in order to secure their livelihoods once a transition from coal took place.
The Lausatia protest was part of the global campaign “Break Free from Fossil Fuels” and was Ende Gelände!’s second action of this kind after the climate camp and blockade in Rhineland in 2015. The group had managed to attract high media attention, adding fuel to the ongoing debate about the national coal phase-out, which is necessary in order for Germany to reach its climate goals by 2050. But Müller said that he and his fellow activists had no idea: “We do not have realistic proposals”, he admitted honestly.
The debate concerning what should come after coal is not a new one in Germany. Already, in 2012, Peter Altmaier, then Minister for the Environment, stated that the government cannot act against the will of the people. Many scientists, politicians, and intellectuals argue that the energy transition – or Energiewende, as it is called in Germany – has to be a sociopolitical project in order to succeed.
Craig Morris, a scientist at the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (IASS), co-wrote with Arne Jungjohann a book entitled Energy Democracy. In it he claims that energy transition itself has led to increased democratic participation by citizens since German reunification and has also meant that citizens have seen an increase in choice about their preferred energy sources. Only by this process has it been possible for the renewable energy sector to see growth beyond all expectations, eventually reaching 34% of Germany’s entire electricity production in 2016.
Energy transition has to be a sociopolitical project in order to succeed.
Lausatia is one of Germany’s largest lignite mining areas, with a long history in the lignite industry that can be traced back to the 18th century. The current 8,000 workers in the sector strongly identify with the mining environment since this is all they’ve ever known and also because the industry has offered financial security for generations – their parents and grandparents and their parents and grandparents as well.
As the 8,000 LEAG workers still enjoy some of the best protected and best paid jobs in Germany, with fierce support from the trade union IG Bergbau, Chemie, Energie (IG BCE), it is climate justice activists like Müller who they perceive as their enemy. The head of the union, Michael Vassiliadis, claims that a realistic phase-out of coal cannot be achieved before 2045 and that the current debate about an earlier phase-out is simply “absurd”. Environmental organisations such as the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), on the other hand, demand a phase-out by 2035 at the latest in order to avoid the worst-case climate scenario. The German government is to set up a commission on this issue when its subsidies for hard coal mining end in 2018.
Politicians at both the national and local levels are involved in the conflict. During the blockade in Lausatia in 2016, a group of around one hundred people held a counter-demonstration against the Ende Gelände! campaign. Their spokesperson, former Social Democrat Ulrich Freese, announced that he stood “on the side of the people who live and work in the area”. His party comrade and the Minister for the Economy of the Federal State of Brandenburg was cited by the German news agency “DPA”, calling the activists “lawbreakers coming from all over Europe” and claiming that “every reasonable thinking person knows that we need lignite during the energy transition still for a long time”.
There were, however, a few politicians on the activists’ side. Among them, the Green MP of the Landtag of Brandenburg, Benjamin Raschke, who was impressed by the “very serious discussions between the activists and Vattenfall employees at a dizzying height on the coal excavator”, where arguments were exchanged about the fears of an economic crash in the region, renewable energy alternatives, energy storage technologies, and tourism.
Realism, warnings about a global climate catastrophe, and calls for change aren’t attractive issues for locals at the present time. As currently observed, even protecting the interests of Germany’s car industry seem to be a lot more important than a commitment to large-scale reduction in national carbon emissions. But there’s no point in blaming local people who are unwilling to adapt to a new system. After all, it’s not the local people setting national or international climate goals. It’s the government. Germany set its climate goals for 2050 to meet a reduction of CO2 emissions of 80–95%. And already the country is failing to meet the goals that should be achieved by 2020.
After all, it’s not the local people setting national or international climate goals. It’s the government.
Müller says that he will continue searching for a solution to solve this conflict in energy democracy. He works as a Senior Analyst for Climate Justice and Energy Democracy at the Rosa-Luxemburg Foundation. The foundation is close politically to the German left party (Die Linke), based in Berlin, and he and his colleagues agree that workers’ unions will have to play a pivotal role in maintaining a just transition. Right now, within the renewable energy sector, the conditions of work are rather insecure, and workers are barely organised. Therefore, it will require the state, the industry, and civil society to push the unions to become drivers of a realistic and just energy transition.
This article was produced as an outcome from the second environmental watchdog journalism workshop held in Germany on 3-7 July, 2017, by the Heinrich Boell – Bandenburg Foundation, as part of the BlueLink Virtual Newsroom project of BlueLink.
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