Political realities of War are casting a dark shadow over German clean energy

Lee Heidhues 10.16.2022

Putin’s War of Aggression against Ukraine has upended Germany’s goal to rid itself of nuclear energy and coal.

The German demand for energy has now trumped, at least temporarily, the nation’s long sought goal of having a clean energy society.

The Green Party may be part of Germany’s ruling coalition but the political realities are casting a dark shadow over their plans to radically change how the population gets its energy.

Excerpted from The New York Times 10.16.2022

LÜTZERATH, Germany — For months, die-hard environmental activists have camped in the fields and occupied the trees in this tiny farming village in western Germany, hoping that like-minded people from across the country would arrive and help stop the expansion of a nearby open-pit coal mine that threatened to swallow the village and its farms.

The protesters in Lützerath — balaclava-clad environmental activists, middle-class residents from nearby towns and a religious community that recently carried a cross around the village — say they are exhausted by their efforts but plan to keep fighting.

One activist, who refused to take off his white face covering or give his real name out of fear of legal retribution, has lived in a tree house in Lützerath since the spring, and said he was prepared for a showdown with the police when the bulldozers finally come.

They had reason to be optimistic.  Until…….

Greens protesting Coal XV 10.16.2022.jpg
Credit…Ingmar Nolting for The New York Times

“Putin’s war of aggression is forcing us to temporarily make greater use of lignite so that we save gas in electricity generation,” said Robert Habeck, the German economy minister and a former leader of the Green party, referring to the low-grade coal under the village. “This is painful but necessary in view of the gas shortage.”


In June, Mr. Habeck announced the reopening of some coal plants — a bitter pill after the Greens’ success, just months earlier, at getting the new government to speed up its exit from coal by eight years. When a drought this summer compounded energy jitters by slowing coal transport on rivers, the government gave cargo trains carrying coal and other fuels priority over passenger ones.

Protesters outside RWE offices on Friederichstrasse  Berlin  2018 – Photo Lee Heidhues 

Mass protests led the German government to step in and save an old-growth forest from coal expansion just two years ago. And the Green party notched its best showing ever in elections last year, a sign of how fighting climate change had become a winning political issue in Europe’s largest economy.


“If there were 50,000 on the street, politicians would have to do something,” said Eckardt Heukamp, 58, the last farmer remaining in Lützerath, who put up some of the protesters in apartments on his property. Others built tree houses, pitched tents or moved into abandoned houses in the village.

Greens protesting Coal XVI 10.16.2022
Credit…Ingmar Nolting for The New York Times

But the hoped-for surge in protesters never materialized. And last week, the government effectively sealed Lützerath’s fate by announcing that RWE, Germany’s largest energy company, needed the coal under the village — to make up for gas that had stopped flowing in from Russia.

The war in Ukraine, and the looming prospect of a winter without cheap Russian fuel, has cooled enthusiasm in Germany for greener policies, at least for now. In a nation that has pledged to wean itself off coal entirely by 2030, it has been an abrupt retreat — and for some, a difficult one.

And yet so far, there has been little public backlash.

A poll taken this summer found that 56 percent of Germans were in favor of turning coal plants back on, with just 36 percent against. That compares to the 73 percent of the population who supported ending coal use “as soon as possible” in a 2019 poll.


RWE has long been among the top targets of climate activists, in part as a result of a long-running, high-profile battle to preserve a forest in western Germany that is threatened by the planned expansion of one of the group’s coal mines. RWE also operates some of the largest coal-fired power stations in Europe.[33]

In 2018, RWE was the largest producer of carbon dioxide emissions in Europe.[33]

Since 2012, environmentalists have protested against RWE because of the Hambach surface mine situated in the area of Hambach Forest.[44] In November 2017, in the lawsuit filed by Bund für Umwelt und Naturschutz Deutschland (BUND), the German arm of Friends of the Earth, the Higher Administrative Court in Münster ruled to end the tree cutting. According to BUND, Hambach Forest is a habitat type 9160 of annex I of the European Habitats Directive (Council Directive 92/43/EEC of 21 May 1992).[45]

Opponents also argue that an environmental impact assessment study for the mine was never conducted. The Administrative Court in Cologne denied the necessity of such a study in November 2017, because the permission for the mining operations was given in the 1970s, long before environmental impact assessment studies became mandatory.[46] In October 2018, an estimated 50,000 protesters turned out against the company’s planned continued forest clear-cutting for its open-pit coal mine expansion while a court order delayed the process until at least late 2020, to explore if it violated EU environmental regulations.[47][8]

In September 2021, it was revealed that RWE are among a number of fossil fuel companies suing governments for enacting green policies against climate change. RWE are suing the Dutch government for $1.6bn following their move to phase out and shut down coal power plants.[48]

Top photo – LÜTZERATH, Germany