25. October 2022Between “yes, but” and “no, although” – interim conclusion on the key points agreement on coal phase-out 2030
In this blog Antje Grothus draws an interim conclusion of some of the key aspects of the agreement on the 2030 coal phase-out and the rescheduling of the Garzweiler opencast mine, as well as the announced dismantling of Lützerath. Antje Grothus is a resident in the Rhenish lignite region and member of the Green Party in North Rhine-Westphalia. She was also part of the German Coal Commission.
As recently as the last week of September, I had expressed my position on the further process of lignite planning in NRW in an interview:
“I would like to see a process that is as transparent as possible, based on expert opinions and with the participation of local residents, in order to be able to make robust decisions on future and final opencast mining in the Garzweiler II opencast mine within the framework of the new lead decision (“Leitentscheidung”).”
On 4 October 2022, surprisingly even for me, the North Rhine-Westphalia and Federal Ministries of Economics, together with RWE, presented a comprehensive political agreement on the coal phase-out in 2030 at a press conference. This key points paper, as well as all the expert opinions on which it is based, can be viewed here.
I still have many unanswered questions, but in this article, I would like to draw an interim balance of some of the key aspects of the agreement. As a resident of an opencast mine myself, the people who live in the region are particularly close to my heart. They and their quality of life suffer particularly from the interventions of opencast lignite mines and many sacrifices are demanded of them, up to forced resettlement and thus expulsion from their home, their homeland.
Certainty for the people in the region
I am therefore very pleased that no more resettlements are to take place at the Garzweiler II open-cast mine against the will of those affected. As sad as it is that Eckhard Heukamp still had to leave his farm, I am very pleased that the people in the five affected villages now finally have security and that the years of trembling about their whereabouts in the villages and on their farms have come to an end.
The current lead decision from 2021 still provides for the demolition of the five Keyenberg villages. Although RWE had not applied for their use for the period until 2025, this does not mean that RWE had actually already abandoned the plans. RWE could have applied for their demolition later – this danger is now finally off the table. The fact that former residents will have the opportunity to buy back their properties fulfils a long-standing demand of residents of the now preserved villages of Keyenberg, Kuckum, Ober- and Unterwestrich and Berverath as well as Morschenich at the Hambach opencast mine. In order to keep the villages in the Garzweiler area as liveable as possible, the L12 must be preserved as a direct connection between Holzweiler and Erkelenz, which I will continue to advocate.
Coal phase-out 2030
The fact that a 2030 coal phase-out for the Rhenish lignite mining area was agreed in the key points paper may not seem like a great success to many, since so much has already been said and written about the 2030 coal phase-out. It was discussed in the election campaign, the coalition agreement of the federal government provides for it “ideally” and it is also centrally anchored in the coalition agreement of the black-green coalition in North Rhine-Westphalia. Nevertheless, it has not been made binding in any way, but has always remained a wish, a demand or a plan, even though it is indispensable in terms of climate policy.
The coal phase-out in 2030 has always been my goal, which I anchored in a special vote with the environmental associations in the recommendations of the Coal Commission. When I began my involvement in Kerpen-Buir in 2004, we in the region were still faced with the situation that there were even plans for a new open-cast mine – the Irresheim-Erp open-cast mine. At that time, the A 4 motorway was relocated due to opencast mining, and everyone was still assuming that coal would be phased out in 2045, “by the middle of the century” or even later. In January 2019, following the preservation of the Hambach Forest and the recommendations of the Commission on Growth, Structural Change and Employment (“Coal Commission”), the coal phase-out was set for 2038. It was always clear to me that by reaching the minimum compromise of the Coal Commission, the strong defensive and blocking attitude towards the coal phase-out in Germany could be broken.
Now, in 2022, we are facing the number 2030 – this is a huge achievement by all climate activists, which seemed impossible only a short time ago. Nevertheless, everyone involved in climate policy knows that a year figure alone says little about to what extent we can keep to the 1.5° target of the Paris Climate Agreement or get closer to the 1.5° path – for this we must look at real emissions. If RWE had claimed the five villages of the third resettlement phase and completely decarbonised the Garzweiler opencast mine within the limits of the 2021 lead decision, 560 million tonnes of coal could have been extracted from the opencast mine. With the now finally determined preservation of the five villages and the Holzweiler farms and the resulting reduction in the size of the Garzweiler II opencast mine, the maximum amount of coal that can be extracted from the opencast mine is halved to 280 million tonnes. Since the combustion of one tonne of coal releases about one tonne of CO2, the agreement contains a savings potential of 280 million tonnes of CO2. The concrete amount of CO2 emissions that will be saved by the early lignite phase-out in NRW depends, on the one hand, on whether the amount of lignite remaining in the ground would otherwise have been completely burned. On the other hand, the quantities of lignite needed by 2030 are also subject to uncertainty. The latter was the subject of BET’s independent analyses. For the Garzweiler II opencast mine, BET calculates a lignite demand of 187 or 238 million tonnes, depending on the scenario. This means that even more than the 280 million tonnes in the Garzweiler opencast mine will probably remain in the ground.
In addition to looking at the quantities of coal that can be extracted, one can also focus on the power plant units, whereby their capacity utilisation also plays a role. How much coal will actually be burned in the coal-fired power plants depends not only on the European CO2 price but also to a large extent on the expansion of renewable energies. The more electricity we can produce from renewable sources, the less coal will have to be burned. The energy transition is and will therefore remain central to climate protection, which is why the federal government promoted the expansion of renewables with its “Easter package” and why we in North Rhine-Westphalia will, among other things, abolish the blanket distance regulation for wind turbines. In this way we will ensure that coal-fired power plants must be used as little as possible and that as much CO2 as possible is saved.
Even if the climate policy balance by 2030 cannot yet be finalised, the pre-drawing of the phase-out date is an important climate policy milestone. Especially at a time when the die-hards were still recently talking in the plenary session of the Landtag about the impossibility of a coal phase-out in 2030 and forces are at work in the coalfield and at the federal level who generally want to reverse the coal phase-out. While they want to continue using nuclear and coal power even beyond the current geopolitical crisis, our green-led ministries have pushed through a coal phase-out in 2030 in challenging times for energy policy.
I have always been a strong advocate for the pacification of our region. I witnessed the clearing of the Hambach Forest at close quarters in 2018 and, based on this experience, I cannot reconcile the clearing of Lützerath with my conscience.
In the documents that have now been transparently disclosed, only one single opencast mining route proposed by RWE is examined, which spares Lützerath from being dredged. It is good that these calculations were made public proactively and promptly after the press conference, even if the data basis remains somewhat of a black box due to RWE’s data monopoly, which is protected as a trade secret. RWE claimed that preserving the Hambach Forest would lead to a standstill in opencast mining and cost the company four billion euros. Both were simply untrue, and the company proved at the time that it lacked credibility. Based on these experiences with RWE, no one can take away my concern that the use of Lützerath will turn out not to be absolutely necessary after all.
From the expert reports submitted and published, I can see that RWE’s proposed plan of a peninsula around Lützerath with a deep opencast mining lake and two mining fields in the north and south of Lützerath is not feasible from a mining engineering point of view for reasons of stability. After all, no one can want or be responsible for Lützerath remaining and later slipping into the lake.
Not examined, however, was e.g., an opencast mining route with only one southern subfield and thus presumably increased stability (and increased distance of the opencast mine from the preserved villages) or an adjustment of the lake planning.
The backfilling of the opencast mine holes with groundwater and Rhine water is still the basis for calculating the demand for overburden for slope stabilisation, although its feasibility is becoming increasingly uncertain due to the lack of water caused by climate change. Here, a fundamental review and, if necessary, updating of the post-mining planning must bring clarity for the Rhenish mining area. This could then also have an impact on the final slope design.
Due to the downsizing of the Garzweiler II opencast mine, less overburden material is available for tipping slopes or filling the remaining hole of the eastern Garzweiler I opencast mine. The loess needed for agricultural reclamation is also available in smaller quantities. However, if adjustments are made to the plans in the eastern residual hole, new potentials for nature conservation and species protection in the area will arise. The ahu expert opinion on the re-planning sees this as “a unique opportunity to build a “Noah’s Ark” for the conservation of wild open land species. In the eastern residual hole, instead of farmland, “a mosaic of shallow water areas, wet areas and dry sites with different exposures” could be created. This habitat could accommodate particularly threatened species and species of pioneer sites and of the open fields, such as nutrient-poor grasslands, heaths and sedge meadows and be integrated into a district-wide ecosystem network, including the Hambach Forest. Because this area is lower than the surroundings, a lot of overburden material can be saved and, by rededicating it as a species paradise, a lot of loess can be saved.
According to the BET report, 280 million tonnes of coal can still be extracted from the Garzweiler opencast mine if Lützerath is used, and 170 million tonnes if Lützerath is retained in the variant proposed by RWE. Estimating the expected coal consumption of the power plants and refineries is more uncertain. Depending on the development of the gas price, the European CO2 price, electricity consumption and the remaining electricity generation, the coal-fired power plants produce more or less electricity and accordingly consume more or less coal. BET assumes that between 187 and 238 million tonnes of coal will be needed from Garzweiler II, depending on the scenario, and that the opencast mine would therefore have to extract the coal under Lützerath.
This approach is a market-driven one, which means that RWE alone decides when the operation of its coal-fired power plants is profitable and then has the right to convert as much coal as is extractable into electricity or to process it in the refining plants. Especially in times of climate crisis, a different approach is often called for: The maximum CO2 emissions and thus also the maximum amount of coal would have to be limited in a budget that the operator can then use according to his decisions. This approach was used in the nuclear phase-out in parallel with the concrete shutdown date: Each power plant was assigned an individual amount of electricity it was still allowed to produce. Once a nuclear power plant has produced this “residual amount of electricity”, its authorisation for power operation expires. Unfortunately, such a budget approach has not been legally implemented in German climate policy; instead, the climate protection laws provide for savings in relation to consumption in 1990 and, at the federal level, also for sector-specific targets. There is no CO2 budget per opencast coal mine in the German climate protection laws. The German Institute for Economic Research (DIW) calculates a recoverable residual coal volume of 70 million tonnes in the Garzweiler opencast mine for compliance with the European CO2 budget.
The preservation of the Hambach Forest was considered a political illusion, a mining impossibility and energy hara-kiri. Now we know that it was feasible, possible and sensible. For this, however, many fundamental but outdated planning ideas had to be updated and supposed certainties adapted to the new reality. The future of Lützerath is also not only a technical question, but also a political one. For the preservation of Lützerath to become a reality, the amount of coal that can still be extracted would have to be legally determined rather than market-driven. In addition, the design of the remaining lake would have to correspond to the water management realities of the climate crisis and the post-mining landscape of the remaining Garzweiler I hole would have to be redesigned. Finally, a permanently stable opencast mine management system would have to be developed, also using innovative technologies for slope stabilisation. Then an attempt could be made to find a planning variant that preserves Lützerath, ensures the power supply even in the energy crisis and implements the post-mining planning in an ecologically valuable way. It is questionable what consequences the preservation of Lützerath will have for the further planning of opencast mining and land use in the context of the Garzweiler II opencast mine and what alternatives the residents would prefer.
All those who have campaigned for the preservation of Lützerath have increased the pressure for an earlier coal phase-out immensely. It is therefore also their success that the villages of the third resettlement phase and even the Holzweiler farms will be preserved. That they, of all people, are now to leave Lützerath is tragic and would be painful for a lot of climate activists.
Manheim / Hambach Forest
The key points paper states that RWE is prepared “to transfer the Hambach Forest to the state of North Rhine-Westphalia or to a foundation with state participation. The forest is to become an important component of an integrated biotope network. Talks between the company and the state government of North Rhine-Westphalia will begin soon in order to design this.” This is an important milestone for blue-green infrastructures in the Rhenish mining area and structural change projects such as a Hambach Museum and agrivoltaics which are close to my heart. The issue now is how the process is shaped and how the transition of the forest into public ownership takes place in concrete terms. This is also the responsibility of all those who have campaigned for its preservation and to which I will devote myself with vigour.
Unfortunately, the key points paper lacks a statement on the Manheimer Loch and Manheim at the Hambach opencast mine. People still live there who would like to keep their homes. The end of resettlements against their will, as agreed for Garzweiler, should also apply to them.
Parallel to the accelerated coal phase-out, structural change must also be accelerated. To this end, the provision of structural change funds by the federal government must be brought forward and made more flexible, for which first steps are set out in the key points paper. Especially the municipalities can now (re)vitalise the villages more quickly, as land and real estate are made available by RWE. However, these process accelerations must not lead to a loss of participation and quality of structural change.
Old and new dependencies
I am critical of the fact that RWE wants to build new gas-fired power plants. Instead of investing in fossil infrastructures, we must invest in the expansion of renewable energies! The announcement that these gas-fired power plants will later be operated with hydrogen or even ammonia is currently far from technically feasible and, in view of the losses of usable energy in the production and re-conversion of the limited available hydrogen and ammonia, does not correspond to an efficiency imperative.
I stand for more decentralised and regional renewable energy production in the hands of citizens, so that dependencies on large corporations, which are not good for a region and also mean a monopoly of power, decrease.
The blog first appeared in German on Antje Grothus’ website, read it here.
Member of the NRW State Parliament for Rhein-Erft district, Green Party