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article imageGermany's Hambach forest pits big coal against the environment

By Karen Graham     Dec 19, 2018 in World
An ancient forest near Cologne has been occupied by activists for the past six years and become a symbol of resistance against coal energy in Germany, a country that despite its green reputation remains heavily reliant on this dirtiest of fossil fuels.
RWE AG, Germany's largest electricity provider, operates an open-pit lignite coal mine on the site of the 12,000-year-old Hambach Forest which was purchased by RWE in 1978.
At 33 square miles, the coal mine is the largest in Europe and also the deepest open pit mine with respect to sea level on the Earth's surface. The bottom of the pit is 299 meters (981 feet) below sea level.
The coal mine and the future of the forest are now central to pitting Germany’s world-beating industrial titans against the country’s increasingly powerful environmental movement, and it will be coming to a head, sooner than later.
Today, after decades of logging by the RWE, only about 10 percent of the forest remains, even though it is home to 142 species regarded as important to conservation, including the nearly extinct Bechstein bat.
In the meantime, the company's giant excavators move continuously, bringing up the soft brown coal necessary to fuel the country's power plants, including the two coal plants in the distance, belching clouds of smoke into the sky, while dozens of wind turbines dot the horizon.
Almost 40 percent of German electrical production comes from coal-fired power plants, and slightly over one-fourth comes from brown coal or lignite, making German coal-fired power plants Europe's biggest polluter, spewing out more than 20 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions from the European Union, according to Eurostat.
A collision between two worlds
It turns out that this is a fight for survival on both sides of the fence. As many as 10,000 workers in the region depend on the lignite mine, and nationally, that number jumps to over 20,000 workers. Then, there is the money at stake.
According to Bloomberg, RWE Chief Executive Officer Rolf Martin Schmitz estimates halting work at Hambach may cost 5 billion euros ($5.7 billion), or as much as 200 million euros a year, and threaten thousands of jobs.
Looking at the other side of the fence, there is the environmental movement and Germany's stance on green energy - despite its reliance on coal. A country's economy is in the cross-hairs of the environmental movement today. We can see it in China’s move into Germany’s advanced manufacturing niche to the trade wars and tax cuts President Donald Trump ordered to boost Germany’s competitors in the U.S.
RWE s open-pit lignite coal mine is the largest in Europe.
RWE's open-pit lignite coal mine is the largest in Europe.
RWE Energy
According to Deutsche Welle, while RWE is allowed to extract coal from Hambach Forest until 2040, electricity production using lignite isn't really profitable anymore. And ever since the renewable energy boom began, RWE has been in crisis mode. As of November 2016, RWE was struggling with debt, owing creditors 27.4 billion euros.
In the meantime, activists have been living in the remaining stand of forest, actually, for the past six years. They are joined now by townspeople and visitors from across Europe, swelling the crowds to tens of thousands who conducted nature walks, picnics, and protests.
Their rallying cry, “Hambi bleibt” (”Hambi stays”), went viral on social media, garnering support from as far away as Australia and the United States, and inspiring a nearby counterprotest by coal workers to adopt the slogan, “Hambi muss weg” (”Hambi must go”).
More about Hamlich forest, lignite coal, Germany, carbon dioxide pollution, Energiewende
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