Thousands of people hit German streets last week to protest coal mine expansion as Germany looks to replace Russian gas.

Climate activists pledged on January 8 to defend a tiny village in western Germany from being bulldozed for the expansion of a nearby coal mine that has become a battleground between the government and environmental campaigners.

Plans to expand the Garzweiler coal mine over Lutzerath village began after the German government struck a deal with German multinational energy company RWE in October 2022 that allowed the village to be demolished in return for an agreement from RWE to bring forward its coal phase-out from 2038 to 2030.

The energy company plans to extract 280 million tonnes of lignite by 2030.

Thousands of people from across Germany gathered last week to protest training and a subsequent demonstration in Luetzerath, which lies west of Cologne.

German authorities started to clear the protest camp in Lutzerath on Wednesday following clashes between hundreds of police deployed to the area and climate activists.

Protests continued in persistent rain on Saturday as police again tried to hold back the crowd from reaching the edge of the Garzweiler mine and Lutzerath village itself.

Organizers said about 35,000 people took part in the demonstration, while police put the figure at up to 15,000. 

Swedish climate campaigner Greta Thunberg joined the demonstrators on Saturday as they walked through the nearby village of Keyenberg, protesting the clearance of Lutzerath. Protesters chanted “Every village stays” and “You are not alone.”

Extinction Rebellion, Fridays for Future, Last Generation and Scientist Rebellion are among the groups supporting the protest.

Lutzerath has become a symbol for environmentalist groups demanding an end to the use of coal and fossil fuels in Germany.

READ MORE: Thousands hit German streets to protest coal mine expansion

Why is Germany turning to the world's dirtiest fossil fuel?

Germany is racing to replace Russian natural gas after Moscow cut off a key pipeline to the continent over the summer. 

At odds with the government's climate protection promises, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz's governing coalition is increasing investment in fossil fuels.

In July last year, Germany’s two houses of parliament passed emergency legislation to reactivate mothballed coal-fired power plants in order to support electricity generation amid gas shortages.

By the end of September, NPR media organisation reported that at least 20 coal-fired power plants nationwide were being resurrected or extended past their closing dates to ensure Germany has enough energy to get through the winter.

More than a third (36.3 percent) of the electricity fed into the German power grids between July and September 2022 came from coal-fired power plants, compared with 31.9 percent in the third quarter of 2021, according to German statistics office Destatis.

Long demonised by Germany's Green party, which leads some of the government's top ministries, coal was set to be phased out by 2030, but Russia's war with Ukraine, along with gas export curbs, has brought coal back into favour.

Coal plants that had closed or been left in reserve have re-entered the market in Europe this year, but the amount is limited in most countries.

The Paris-based International Energy Agency (IEA) says that the reversal back to coal is only at a significant scale in Germany. 

"This has increased coal power generation in the European Union, which is expected to remain at these higher levels for some time," the IEA's annual coal market report said.

READ MORE: German police launch operation to evict activist from disputed village

Germany's shift back to coal is highlighted for the years 2021 and 2022.
Germany's shift back to coal is highlighted for the years 2021 and 2022. (German statistics office Destatis)

Global coal consumption reached high

The IEA's annual coal market report forecasts that global coal use will rise 1.2 percent this year, exceeding 8 billion tonnes in a single year for the first time and surpassing a previous record set in 2013.

According to the report, it will remain at that level until 2025 - which means coal will remain the largest single source of CO2 emissions.

Germany is one of the highest users, with a 19 percent rise, or 26 million tonnes, compared to 2021, the IEA said.

Instead of shutting down 1.6 Gigawatts (GW) of coal-fired power plants by the end of 2022 as planned, the German government has issued a waiver to allow production until March 2024.

Germany has created a "gas replacement reserve" with a total capacity of 11.6 GW. This includes 1.9 GW of lignite (brown coal) and 4.3 GW of hard coal power plants which are allowed to return to the market until 2024, according to the IEA report.

The Garzweiler coal mine near the village of Lutzerath provides a large share of the lignite burned at nearby power plants.

Energy company RWE argues that coal is needed to ensure Germany’s energy security.

However, environmental groups say that the deal struck with the company to expand the coal mine will still result in hundreds of millions of tonnes of coal being extracted and burned, releasing vast amounts of greenhouse gas and making it impossible for Germany to meet its commitments under the 2015 Paris climate accord.

READ MORE: Global coal consumption hits 'record high' in 2022

Source: TRTWorld and agencies