A landscape scarred with craters as big as Berlin, Manchester, Paris and Washington. Vast troughs and grey black ridges higher than tower blocks, stretching as far as the eye can see. The continuous mechanical grind as huge metal teeth chew through the earth with devastating effectiveness. At first sight the scene has a startling resemblance to Canada's tar sand moonscape. This is not Canada however. This is the Lausitz,
in Germany, an area bordering with Poland, less than one hour south east of Berlin.
From the air the devastation of Germany's renewed and growing enthusiasm in coal is disturbingly impressive. On the ground, however, the reality and impact of such a landscape becomes clear. In the Lausitz coal goes back a long way. Not quite as long as the Atterwasch church, built in 1294, one of the historic buildings that stands to be flattened, but long enough to have a particular significance to the community. Over the last 100 years, 135 villages have been razed to the ground and 27,000 people, against there will, displaced. Why? To feed the corporate hunger for the regions abundant brown coal (lignite) that lies just beneath the grass and trees.
If plans for three new open cast mines by Swedish owned utility company Vattenfall go through, a further 3500 people will be displaced, while locking Brandenburg (federal state) into a future of dirty, climate changing energy. In addition to displacement issues those that are left in the neighbouring communities, will be increasingly subject to poor air quality and the growing prospect of developing cardiovascular and respiratory diseases. The power plants next to the German-Czech-Polish boarders are listed among the top 20 industrial air polluters in Europe, with the quality of the air in the region now so bad that the state of Brandenburg has appealed to the European Commission to request exemption from air quality standards.
Despite these challenges, resistance is growing. Local communities, MP's and environmentalist are coming together, ready to defend their land and the climate. For the 6th year running residents of Kerkwitz, Atterwasch and Grabko, the three villages next in line for destruction, marched together to voice their opposition to the plans. Joined by MPs, councillors, green groups, and locals from across the border in Poland (where the coal situation is worse still) 800 people gathered to talk about the issues, share plans of resistance and show Vattenfall and Brandenburg that new mines and future reliance on coal in the region does not have their support.
The locals are backed up by both science and economics. A recent study by the German Institute for Economic research (DIW) states that coal power plants are economically unprofitable. In addition the report also finds that the open cast mines already approved contain more than enough coal to supply existing power plants for the duration of their lifetimes. These figures are in line with Greenpeace's work 'The Plan', which also shows that to meet Germany's emissions targets coal can't have any future in the energy mix beyond 2030. The only way that coal would be economically profitable, would be if the stations would remain operational way in to the 2050's.
Many people however are starting to see things in a very different way. The Berlin Energy Table (Berliner Energietisch), a coalition of over 50 organisations, is bidding to buy back the energy grid and create a municipal utility with renewable energy at it's heart. With a just transition to renewables and community owned energy, employees in the coal industry also have reason to be optimistic. Initial estimates suggest that the switch to renewable energy in Brandenburg could create up to 19,200 green jobs, compared to the 6,000 jobs currently supported by coal.
While the PR machine of Vattenfall will be hard at work in the city trying to undermine this process, greenwashing it's image through sponsorship deals with the cities museums and galleries, and sporting events such as the Berlin Half marathon, the referendum by the Berlin Energy Table is preparing to start collecting signatures. With a target of 200 000 supporters needed between February and June, and with over 1000 people committed to help collect the signatures, plans for the new mines and continued burning of coal past 2030 are edging closer to the scrap heap. Will Berlin and Brandenburg become, once again, an international leader in the energy revolution. If the people I have so far met have any to do with it. Yes.