As protesters unfurl their banner along the canal beneath Germany’s newest coal plant, a barge piled high with coal glides by, the crew whooping and whistling in mockery. It could not be a more potent symbol of the struggle Germany’s environmental movement is facing.
Opposition to Datteln 4, a coal-fired power plant which opened last month in Germany’s industrial heartland, was expected to become the latest rallying cry for Germany’s environmental movement. But in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, and with recession looming, the fight against the country’s coal lobby has been overshadowed.
“It’s a climate crime, what’s happening here,” says Lisa Göldner, a Greenpeace activist involved in the protests against Datteln 4 as steam billows from the cooling tower behind her. “I see it as part of our job to send messages of hope. But I’m really frustrated when it comes to this. This feels like a lost battle.”
Despite being seen as a leader in climate policy, Germany has long been Europe’s laggard over the use of coal. In January, after years of inaction and rising emissions, Berlin finally proposed phasing out coal by 2038. Shortly after — and before parliament has even passed the coal exit law — Berlin agreed to bring Datteln 4 online.
Unlike other European countries, Germany has offered financial compensation for fossil fuel companies to wind down operations, but said it could not afford to pay the total €1.5bn costs of Datteln 4, which its operator Uniper demanded. Environmentalists say it shows how the government still bows to coal lobbying.
However, with Germany facing the possibility of its worst recession since the second world war, public attention has shifted away from the Greens and back to mainstream parties. This time last year the Greens were riding high in opinion polls with 27 per cent of Germans backing them. The latest Forsa poll showed support for the party has now slipped to 16 per cent.
Omid Nouripour, a Green parliamentarian, insists his party is regaining ground and will continue to gain support as Germany heads into a third dry summer, putting climate change back on the agenda. He says he is more frustrated by lack of government ambition when it comes to incorporating sustainability into economic recovery plans.
“You know that quote, never let a good crisis go to waste?” he said. “Well, they are missing it.”
A stimulus package agreed by the German coalition last week offers incentives for buying electric cars, but there are signs of backpedalling too, he said. He points to the €9bn no-strings bailout handed to German airline Lufthansa, comparing it to the loans offered by Paris to Air France-KLM with sustainability requirements attached.
German environmentalists had hoped Datteln 4 would become their next “Hambach Forest moment” — referring to the 50,000 strong protests they credit with triggering a court ruling against a lignite mine expansion in a patch of ancient woodland. In addition to the fight against Datteln 4, activists are fighting to protect several villages slated for destruction in order to mine the coal beneath them.
But now, large numbers are difficult to muster. Mass protests scheduled for April were scrapped as the coronavirus spread, and activists still shy away from promoting mass gatherings. Only 500 demonstrators took part in last month’s protest against Datteln 4’s launch according to police estimates.
Some industry lobbies are pushing Berlin to prioritise growth over environmental concerns. The energy-intensive industries alliance (EID), wrote an open letter last month saying it was “questionable whether the [EU]Green Deal in its current form is helpful for the economic recovery.”
Environmentalists say Berlin’s pending phase-out law extends the lifespan of the coal industry, rather than speeding up its demise. Ms Göldner, of Greenpeace, said it watered down some recommendations of the 2018 coal commission, which brought together environmentalists, coal workers and industry members and agreed “the lowest common denominator for all sides.” Several coal commission recommendations were ignored — among them that Datteln 4 should not open.
Datteln 4’s supporters acknowledge the timing of its launch was awkward. But they argue the new plant will ensure the less efficient, older plants are shut down and could cut 40 per cent from their carbon footprint.
“It is not wise to have a €1.5bn plant available just to trash it and keep older power plants on the grid instead,” said Luis Ramos, spokesman for Uniper, the utility company which runs Datteln.
A study by the German Economic Institute (DIW), however, said increased efficiency would result in more coal-burning capacity, which could increase emissions by 40 million tonnes, making it impossible for Germany to stay on track with its commitments in the Paris climate accords.
Arjuna Nebel, of the Wuppertal Institute, said the data on Datteln 4 was inconclusive, but that he was more concerned that a protracted struggle over Datteln 4 could slow the broader push toward carbon neutrality.
“What this really weakens is the majority acceptance of the coal phase-out,” he says. “If we open up the topic again and again [ . . .] then you are risking that you don’t move on to step two and three.”
However, activists pledge to keep fighting. “Germany is supposed to be one of the leaders in the fight for climate justice,” said Ska Pennekamp, a 24-year old born in the town of Datteln, just outside the plant. “We are not at the forefront any more.”