Maastricht Journal of Politics & Economics
The Comeback of Coal in Germany: The Struggle between Climate and Energy Security
By Winona Kamphausen
Germany’s Energiewende began in 2011, aiming at producing the country’s energy needs through renewable or low-carbon sources. While some initiatives and investments in renewables have been made, concrete progress is lacking. Mid-January, anti-coal protests in the German town of Lützerath erupted due to serious plans over the exploitation of a new coal mine. The German government is currently lacking behind the targets of the Paris Climate Agreement, initiating the comeback of coal instead.
The Energiewende describes the German transition to a sustainable energy system. Its goal is to move away from fossil fuels and nuclear power towards renewable energy sources such as solar, wind, and hydroelectric power. The German government has set ambitious targets for this transition, including a significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions of 65 per cent by 2030 and an increase in the share of renewable energy in the overall energy mix of 80 per cent in 2030.
The Energiewende gained momentum after the nuclear power plant accident in Fukushima, Japan. With the phase-out of nuclear power due to fears over nuclear safety, the country has heavily relied on coal-fired power plants to meet energy demand. Setbacks include an increase to a German total of 772 Million tonnes of greenhouse gasses in 2021 and a decrease in renewable energy consumption.
Another issue includes the currently non-existent “Südlink” network, connecting the northern wind energy with the south of Germany. It would integrate renewable energy into the existing energy grid, leading to cheaper and more stable current flows. Additionally, despite the ambitious targets set by the current government, Germany has failed to reach the goal for 2022 and is lacking behind for the 2030 goals.
The Comeback of Coal
By mid-2022, Germany, alongside other EU member states, announced its emergency restart of coal-powered stations which led to Germany’s coal consumption increasing to one-third of Germany’s energy mix. Since the 1990s, coal consumption has continuously been dropping, while renewable energy (16 per cent) and gas usage (27 per cent) increased by 2021. The lack of coal is likely due to the back-then low prices of Russian gas, accounting for roughly half of Germany’s gas supply.
Since 2010, a steady decrease in coal consumption continued to take place. However, this rapidly changed in 2018 and 2019 when it decreased considerably faster, with an annual drop of 37 per cent. This trend continued in 2020 with a 21.5 per cent decrease, adding up to a 24.8 per cent share of the total energy mix. In early 2021, coal became Germany’s dominant energy source, increasing to 27.1 per cent of the total energy mix. This trend continued while the usage of gas decreased due to high prices.
Since the Ukraine War, the German energy mix has witnessed another revolution: halfway through 2022, gas accounted for 17.2 per cent, declining to a mere 13.3 per cent at the end of 2022. On the contrary, coal was responsible for the generation of 36.3 per cent of German electricity by late 2022, a one-third annual increase.
The use of coal for energy production has clearly experienced a resurgence in recent years. This is, firstly, due to Germany having to stop importing Russian gas due to the Ukraine War. Secondly, the German Government decided to phase out nuclear power by 2022 as part of the Energiewende.
Additionally, since renewable energy is not a reliable source to ensure energy security yet, the German Government had no option but to go back to coal despite its aims to phase out the use of coal by 2038. Having nuclear energy, which emits fewer greenhouse gases the German government acted not decisive enough to use it to ensure energy security.
Thirdly, the relatively low cost of coal despite its high prices in the Emissions Trading System makes it very attractive to use coal. The attractiveness and competitiveness of coal have prompted some energy companies, like RWE, to switch back to the resource. RWE, one of Germany’s biggest energy companies, was granted a permit to expand the “Garzweiler” mine in North Rhine-Westphalia, near Lützenrath. This is one of the biggest coal mines in Europe.
Graph of Germany's coal production in the recent years © Reem Akkad | The Washington Post
Recent Climate Protests in Lützerath
To ensure energy consumption and pave the way for coal’s comeback, Lützerath was destroyed to ensure the growth of the Garzweiler coal mine. For this, Lützerath has become a symbol for the fight against fossil fuels and to defend the 1.5 degrees celsius goal. Under the motto “Lützerath lebt” (Lützerath is alive) and “Alle Dörfer bleiben” (all villages stay) several protests were initiated to fight against the use of coal and to tackle climate change.
For years, climate activists have occupied the town in order to stop the expansion of the coal mine. These protests cumulated at the beginning of 2023. Activists erected barricades, making it more challenging for the police to remove anyone.
The protest peaked on the weekend of 14 and 15 January, when between 15.000 and 35.000 people demonstrated in Lützerath, demanding real action and a future without fossil fuels. Part of the protest was the “Fridays for Future” movement initiated by Greta Thunberg and Luisa Neubauer.
However, peaceful protests escalated between the activists and the police. Many were injured, and protesters and police mutually alleged the other of violence. There has been violence and inquiries from both sides, which led to an official police investigation. On 16 January, the last protesters left their tunnel and the area was cleared.
The protests in Lützerath are an example of how the German Energiewende is not working. To ensure energy security in the current energy crisis, the German government had little option but to bring coal back; however, other options exist, such as prolonging the departure of nuclear energy as a short-term solution or subsidising more renewable energy as a long-term solution. Both would also ease the strain of high energy prices for the consumer.
Anti-coal protests continue with activists glueing themselves to streets and blocking the entrance to the Ministry of Internal Affairs in Düsseldorf. Nevertheless, 2023 will be a make-it-or-break-it year for the German Energiewende.
The government will have to meet the country’s climate goals, including reaching 80 per cent renewable energy by 2030. This immediate crisis proposes Germany with a significant chance to be ahead in its climate ambitions and regain the status of a green technology pioneer.
Sources: Agora-Energiewende, Bundesregierung, Der Spiegel, Deutsche Welle, Die Zeit, Euractiv, Euronews, Umweltbundesamt, ZDF
Written by Winona Kamphausen