Lessons to be learned from Germany’s plan to leave coal behind

https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2022/02/07/can-germany-show-us-how-to-leave-coal-behind?

A Reporter at Large February 7, 2022 Issue

Can Germany Show Us How to Leave Coal Behind?

The country embarked on an ambitious plan to transition to clean energy, aiming to lead the fight against climate change. It has not been easy.

By Alec MacGillis January 31, 2022

This article is a collaboration between The New Yorker and ProPublica.

In late September, just before the German parliamentary elections, the Alternative für Deutschland held a large campaign rally in Görlitz, a picturesque city of about fifty-six thousand people across the Neisse River from Poland. I was making my way down a narrow street toward the rally when I entered a square that had been dressed up as Berlin circa 1930, complete with wooden carts, street urchins, and a large poster of Hitler.

Görlitz, which was barely damaged in the Second World War, often stands in for prewar Europe in movies and TV shows. (“Babylon Berlin,” “Inglourious Basterds,” and other productions have filmed scenes there.) It was a startling sight nonetheless, especially since, a few hundred yards away, a crowd was gathering for the AfD, the far-right party whose incendiary rhetoric about foreign migrants invading Germany has raised alarms in a country vigilant about the resurgence of the radical right.

In fact, at the rally, the rhetoric about foreigners from the AfD’s top national candidate, Tino Chrupalla, was relatively mild. Germany’s general success with handling the wave of more than a million refugees and migrants who arrived in the country starting in 2015 has helped undermine the Party’s central platform. Chrupalla moved on from migrants to other topics: the threat of coronavirus-vaccination mandates for schoolchildren, the plight of small businesses, and the country’s desire to stop burning coal, which provides more than a quarter of its electricity, a greater share even than in the United States.

Coal has particular resonance in the area around Görlitz, one of the country’s two large remaining mining regions. Germany’s coal-exit plan, which was passed in 2020, includes billions of euros in compensation for the coal regions, to help transform their economies, but there are reports that some of the money has been allocated to frivolous-sounding projects far from the towns most dependent on mining. Chrupalla, who is from the area, listed some of these in a mocking tone and told the crowd that the region was being betrayed by the government, just as it had been after German reunification, when millions in the former East Germany lost their jobs, leading many to abandon home for the West. “We are being deceived again, like after 1990,” he said.

A cottage in a village near a power plant fired by brown coal.
Villages continue to be destroyed to expand the brown-coal mines.

Such language was eerily familiar. For years, I had been reporting on American coal country, where the industry’s decades-long decline has spurred economic hardship and political resentment. In West Virginia, fewer than fifteen thousand people now work in coal mining, down from more than a hundred thousand in the nineteen-fifties. The state is the only one that has fewer residents than it did seventy years ago, when the U.S. had a population less than half its current size—a statistic that is unlikely to surprise anyone who has visited half-abandoned towns such as Logan, Oceana, and Pineville. Accompanying the decline has been a dramatic political shift: a longtime Democratic stronghold, West Virginia was one of only ten states to vote for Michael Dukakis, in 1988; in 2020, it provided Donald Trump with his second-largest margin of victory, after Wyoming, which also happens to be the country’s largest coal producer, ahead of West Virginia.

The statistics are strikingly similar in Lusatia, the coal-mining region that stretches north of Görlitz along the Polish border, straddling the states of Brandenburg and Saxony, about ninety miles southeast of Berlin. Since 1990, employment at coal mines and power plants has plunged from eighty thousand to less than eight thousand, and the region’s population has fallen sharply, too. Hoyerswerda, in the heart of the area, has lost more than half of its seventy thousand inhabitants, leaving a constellation of vacant Eastern Bloc high-rises; Cottbus, the region’s largest city, has dropped from roughly a hundred and thirty thousand people, just before the Berlin Wall fell, to less than a hundred thousand. And the rightward shift visible in West Virginia has happened here, too: along with the rest of eastern Saxony, Lusatia is the AfD’s stronghold, with the Party capturing more than a third of the vote in some towns.

But there’s one crucial difference between the two places. As part of its Energiewende, or energy pivot, Germany has embarked on a formal effort to exit coal, with a national commission and subsequent legislation setting specific closure deadlines for mines and plants, and distributing billions of euros in compensation to coal companies, workers, and the regions themselves. In the U.S., the coal exit has been haphazard. Federal attempts to move beyond coal went dormant under President Donald Trump, and under President Joe Biden they are now running up against the opposition of Senator Joe Manchin, the West Virginia Democrat who holds both the crucial fiftieth vote in the Senate and a stake in a family coal business that earned him nearly five hundred thousand dollars in 2020. To the extent that the country has reduced its coal usage, it has been driven mostly by the profusion of cheap natural gas. The effort to provide solutions to the social and economic fallout for coal regions has been limited to fledgling projects, such as a working group that Biden convened last year to identify communities in need and funding opportunities for them to pursue.

This contrast was what brought me to Lusatia. The German coal exit has assumed outsized symbolic importance in a world that desperately needs to reduce carbon emissions: the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says that we need to stop adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere by 2050 in order to have any hope of keeping warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Burning coal for electricity represented nearly a third of all energy-related carbon emissions—the world’s single largest source—in 2018, and the International Energy Agency believes that global consumption of coal power reached record levels last year. In the absence of leadership from the U.S., Germany is seeking to show how a major manufacturing power can reduce its reliance on coal without causing too much economic damage or political backlash. A lot is riding on whether the country can pull it off.

“God created Lusatia, and the Devil buried brown coal underneath it.” This saying is credited to the Sorbs, the ethnic Slavic people who have lived in the region—die Lausitz—since the sixth century. The land was swampy, and the area remained relatively impoverished, with the exception of the cities at its southern end, Görlitz and Bautzen, which flourished as market hubs on one of Central Europe’s primary east-west trade routes.

Because lignite sits closer to the surface than bituminous coal, workers don’t need to dig deep shafts and tunnels. Instead, they use the open-cast method, excavating the clay and sand that lie above the lignite seam. This is safer than sending workers deep underground. But it requires removing everything that stands in the way, and in densely settled Central Europe that means demolishing villages—Braunkohle mining has led to the destruction of hundreds of communities in Germany. Once the mines are exhausted, they are either flooded to become lakes or levelled off with fill, which often leaves the land unusable for farming and in some cases even too unstable to walk on. “No entry” signs dot the local woods.

Open-cast mining started in Lusatia around 1900, and, in the decades that followed, the villages targeted for destruction tended to be Sorbian. The new industry brought a wave of workers to the area, mostly ethnic Germans, and a prosperity that it hadn’t known before. Lusatia produced coal briquettes that warmed homes, and the fuel that lit the streets of Berlin and powered factories in Chemnitz and Dresden. The German word for miner has a noble connotation: Bergmann—literally, “mountain man.”

Wind turbines in a field.
Wind turbines provide clean energy near a coal-fired power plant.

Brown coal is found in western Germany, too, near Cologne. But there it was long overshadowed by the much larger sprawl of bituminous mines in the Ruhr region, just to the north. These mines transformed the area into Germany’s great industrial powerhouse, a vast urban agglomeration home to Essen, Dortmund, and other manufacturing cities. Germany’s coal riches were integral to the new nation’s rise in the late nineteenth century, to the war machine that sustained it through two horrific conflicts, and to West Germany’s rebound in the nineteen-fifties, after which the region’s bituminous mining became less competitive with imported coal. In 2018, mining of bituminous coal in Germany was shut down for good.

In the coal regions of the former East Germany—Lusatia and a second region, near Leipzig, which has seen employment decline even more precipitously—the cultural and economic hold of coal persists. Braunkohle was the German Democratic Republic’s only major energy resource—it had almost no oil or bituminous coal—so the country opened several dozen open-cast mines in the postwar decades, destroying many more villages in the process. It built high-rise apartment towers in the larger towns to relocate people from the destroyed villages and to house mine workers. It gave these workers preferential pension payments and exalted them as paragons of the “workers’ and farmers’ state,” as the country’s leaders called the G.D.R. “Being a miner meant something,” a retired excavator operator, Monika Miertsch, told me. A former electrical engineer in Cottbus recalled that, when he was a child in the G.D.R., his teachers endlessly told students that their small nation produced more brown coal than any other country in the world. Christian Hoffmann, a naturalist who grew up in Weisswasser, in Lusatia, said that people would snap to attention whenever a band started playing the coal-miner anthem, “Steigerlied.”

The industry permeated local life. The soccer team in Cottbus is named Energie. Regional artists put Braunkohle mines on canvas—a museum in Cottbus recently held a retrospective of the work. One of East Germany’s best-known singer-songwriters, its Bob Dylan, was an excavator operator from Hoyerswerda named Gerhard Gundermann, who kept working in the giant pits even as his musical career blossomed.

After my first visits to Lusatia, which is now home to slightly more than a million people, the dominance of Braunkohle started to seem overwhelming. It was as if everyone was working for the industry or had lost his or her family’s village to it, or both—which helped explain why some residents weren’t too upset about the latter. It made for an especially stark manifestation of the trade-off between the coal-based development of the modern world and the environmental costs that came with it. “They knew that it gave work. They accepted it,” Hannelore Wodtke, a member of the town council in Welzow, said when we met. We were in Proschim, a village that she helped save from a planned expansion of the Welzow-Süd mine, two years ago. “Through coal, people did earn well. And that’s why it looks pretty good around here.”

One Saturday, I accompanied a group into the Welzow-Süd mine, on a tour offered by the owner of all the Lusatian mines, a Czech-controlled company called leag. We started at an outlook above the mine, a vast barren moonscape stretching to the horizon, four miles across, and then a bus took us down a long winding dirt road, pausing to let us admire giant excavators—more than six hundred feet long, among the largest machines in the world—that would resume work on Monday morning.

At last, we arrived at a seam of brown coal, about three hundred feet underground. A guide handed out plastic bags and encouraged us to pick up chunks as souvenirs. Some pieces were so soft or ragged that they resembled old wood or caked mud. It was hard to believe that this rudimentary stuff was still powering one of the wealthiest countries in the world.

I recalled a similar moment, years earlier, when I was far belowground, in a mine in southern Illinois, watching workers shear bituminous coal off a seam at the end of a three-and-a-half-mile tunnel. It had seemed unbelievably archaic at the time—men tossed hunks of black rock onto a conveyor belt so that we could power our laptops and cell phones. The giant hole in Lusatia seemed even more unfathomable: machines had destroyed villages, and then larger machines had dug into the fossilized past for three-hundred-million-year-old carbon with which to fuel yet other machines, our daily life.

“Watching coal-miners at work, you realize momentarily what different universes different people inhabit,” George Orwell wrote in “The Road to Wigan Pier,” his 1937 account from the North of England. “Down there where coal is dug it is a sort of world apart which one can quite easily go through life without ever hearing about. Probably a majority of people would even prefer not to hear about it. Yet it is the absolutely necessary counterpart of our world above. . . . Their lamp-lit world down there is as necessary to the daylight world above as the root is to the flower.”

That quality of not wanting to hear about the mining of coal, the reluctance of those in far-removed cities to make the connection between their world and that other one, provoked much of the resentment in the producing regions of the U.S. “This country benefitted from having the cheapest electricity in the world,” Cecil Roberts, the president of the United Mine Workers of America, told me in New York in July, after a rally of current and retired miners on behalf of striking Warrior Met Coal workers, in Alabama. “So what are we going to do with these communities?”

I heard a similar sentiment from miners in Germany. “If we really shut down now, then Berlin will have no more electricity,” Toralf Smith, a leading representative for power-plant workers in Lusatia, told me. “And I’d like to see how it goes at the universities in Berlin when the toilets don’t function and the cell phones don’t function and the Internet doesn’t function. When their lives don’t function. It’s a lack of respect. If we have to switch things over for the sake of climate politics, we won’t stand against that, but it can’t be done on our backs. It has to be done with us.”

In 2019, the sociologist Klaus Dörre, of the University of Jena, and a team of researchers interviewed dozens of coal workers in Lusatia about the region’s transition away from the industry. They found that workers keenly felt the loss of Anerkennung—recognition or esteem—that they and their forebears had enjoyed in East Germany. The workers cited opprobrium like that from a Green Party state legislator in western Germany who tweeted a protest poster that read “Whether Nazis or coal, brown is always shit.” One worker told the researchers, “In [East German] times, we were the heroes of the nation—that’s what they always said. And now we’re the fools or evildoers of the nation, because we have to let ourselves be scolded as Nazis or murderers or polluters and I don’t know what else. And that hurts.”

When I visited Dörre in his office in Jena, he said that the overriding theme from the interviews was the lingering trauma of the economic dislocation after the collapse of the Wall, a period known as die Wende. “The story that was told to us was ‘We’re the survivors, from eighty thousand down to eight thousand. Now you’re all coming and want to give us a second Wende.’ ”

But his team also found that the workers were not necessarily all gravitating to the AfD as a result of their anger and anxiety. Organized labor still has a strong hold on the German coal industry, unlike in the U.S.; the national coal workers’ union is allied with the center-left Social Democratic Party, and has managed to keep many members from straying right. Union leaders, as Dörre wrote in a report summarizing his research, hope that the region as a whole can also be kept from straying too much further right: “If you can manage to show that positive development is possible for the region, despite the coal exit, that would cut the ground out from under the AfD.”

In 2020, China built more than three times more new capacity for generating power from coal than the rest of the world combined. Last year, despite recurring pledges to start corralling carbon emissions, the country produced a record four billion tons of coal, up nearly five per cent from the year before. Defenders of coal in Germany like to point to figures like this, along with the fact that Germany’s greenhouse-gas emissions constitute a mere two per cent of the global total. Why should Germany be putting its economy at risk for such relatively slight gains?

Such arguments have stood little chance against Germany’s vigorous climate-activism movement. Activists and energy analysts told me that the country bears a special responsibility to reduce emissions. As a major industrial power, it produced a significant share of historical emissions; as manufacturing has shifted to Asia, the nation’s consumers are relying on goods produced elsewhere, making them partly responsible for emissions there, too; and, as a wealthy nation, Germany has the resources to demonstrate a better path. “It makes a huge difference if well-off, industrialized Germany manages to transition away to a different system that sustains its prosperity without causing massive emissions,” Benjamin Wehrmann, a Berlin-based correspondent for Clean Energy Wire, said. “Most people in the industry agree that its signalling effect is much larger than the actual effect.”

Cars caked in dirt from the power plant behind them.
Outside a power plant fired by brown coal.

This exceptionalism has, however, complicated the effort to leave coal. Germany has long been home to a strong anti-nuclear movement, partly as a result of its fears of being caught in the middle of a Soviet-U.S. nuclear war. In 2000, the governing coalition of the Social Democrats and the Green Party, whose roots lay in anti-nuclear activism, agreed to phase out nuclear power. Chancellor Angela Merkel reversed this stance in 2009, after her center-right Christian Democratic Union regained power, but in 2011, in the wake of the Fukushima disaster, she announced that the country would close all seventeen of its nuclear power plants within eleven years. To replace the lost energy—nearly a quarter of the country’s load at the time—Germany would ramp up renewable energy. Thus the Energiewende accelerated.

Since then, the country has greatly expanded its wind and solar capacity. The dramatic shift toward renewables in a country of eighty-three million people helped drive down prices worldwide for wind and solar equipment, fulfilling the country’s self-conception as a market leader. (This plunge in prices came at a cost, though, as cheap Chinese solar panels put many German panel-makers out of business.)

But the expansion has slowed in recent years, owing to a combination of state-level restrictions on siting wind turbines, resistance to turbines and transmission lines among conservationists and local residents, and a reduction in subsidies for wind-power developers. In the first half of 2021, coal was back to providing more of the country’s electricity than wind. Most experts estimate that, to meet its renewable-energy goals, Germany needs to quadruple its wind production, to the point where turbines cover two per cent of the country’s landscape. And Germany is already contending with some of the highest electricity prices in the world, a source of consternation for domestic manufacturers seeking to remain globally competitive.

This was the daunting context in which the government convened its commission for the coal exit—Kohleausstieg—in June, 2018. Germany’s per-capita carbon emissions were still significantly higher than the E.U. average. Activists were demanding a fast response—hundreds of them had, since 2012, occupied Hambach Forest, a patch of woods in western Germany that was threatened by the expansion of a brown-coal mine. But the country needed to time the exit so that it could be assured of having enough power not only to replace both coal and nuclear energy but to add capacity, in order to handle the coming transition to electric-powered vehicles. (Tesla recently built a manufacturing plant outside Berlin.)

The thirty-one-member Commission on Growth, Structural Change, and Employment consisted of environmentalists and scientists, industry representatives and trade unionists, and residents and elected officials from the coal regions. It met regularly in Berlin and visited some coal towns. In January, 2019, after its final meeting, which ran until almost 5 a.m., it voted nearly unanimously in favor of a plan to exit coal by 2038. In July, 2020, the Bundestag passed a law with closure dates for various mines and power plants, and specific sums for compensation: 4.4 billion euros for the power companies, five billion euros for older workers to retire a few years early (separate funds would cover younger workers while they looked for new jobs), and, most important, forty billion euros for the mining regions, to help them with their economic transformation, a process known as the Strukturwandel.

It was a remarkable achievement, an example of postwar Germany’s consensus politics. “At a fundamental level, that all these different branches of society were able to come together around a coal exit is very significant,” Ingrid Nestle, a Green member of the Bundestag, told me. Climate-change experts in the U.S. looked on with admiration. “They got the environmental community, labor community, and business community together to hash it out,” Jeremy Richardson, an energy analyst and a West Virginia native formerly with the Union of Concerned Scientists, told me. “You have to get people together, and you have to invest.”

But it did not take long for the good feelings to fade. Environmental groups and Green Party leaders began arguing that the country needed to move up the exit date if it wanted to meet the European Union’s new, more ambitious goal of cutting emissions by fifty-five per cent from 1990 levels by 2030. In April, 2021, Germany’s Federal Constitutional Court ruled that the country’s existing climate efforts did not go far enough to stave off disaster. And, in July, heavy rains caused devastating flooding in western Germany, near Belgium. The floods killed at least a hundred and eighty people and destroyed entire towns, drawing greater attention to the possible effects of climate change.

As the election to replace Merkel got under way during the summer, climate change was central. Having sat through countless American Presidential TV debates where the subject was barely mentioned—and where politicians couldn’t even agree on whether climate change is real—I was astonished to see it take up twenty minutes in each of the three German debates that I watched, and to see the candidates toss around Klimaneutralität and Kohleausstieg as if they were household terms. The Social Democrats’ candidate for Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, agreed with his Green rival, Annalena Baerbock, on the urgent need to reduce carbon emissions. On Election Day, September 26th, the Social Democrats won more votes than Merkel’s center-right Christian Democrats, putting them in a position to form a government with the Greens and the pro-business Free Democrats.

The AfD saw its nationwide numbers sag, but, in the coal towns of Lusatia and the nearby regions of eastern Saxony, the Party did even better than it had four years earlier.

Everything changed after the discovery of the brown coal, in the late eighteenth century. Brown coal, or lignite, is sedimentary rock that is less compressed than typical bituminous coal. Lignite is softer, closer to peat in carbon’s geological arc. It’s also even dirtier to burn than bituminous coal, and emits even more carbon.

I

encountered an AfD voter at a wind-turbine factory in Lauchhammer, on the western edge of Lusatia. The Danish company Vestas had opened the plant in 2002, and it seemed to embody the ideals of the Energiewende: a century earlier, Lauchhammer had been home to one of the first brown-coal mines in the region, and now it was making the machinery of renewable power. But, a week before the election, Vestas announced that it was shutting down the factory, a decision widely attributed to the slowing growth of wind power in Germany. It will lay off the plant’s four hundred and sixty employees early this year.

I arrived at the factory one weekday evening at dusk, and waited in a light rain in a parking lot. After a while, a young man emerged, headed for his car. Cornell Köllner, a genial thirty-one-year-old, had worked at the plant for five years as a mechanic, advancing to a supervisory role. He enjoyed the work, and did not know what he would do next. The only other major employer in this part of Lusatia was B.A.S.F., the chemical company, which had a plant in nearby Schwarzheide that would soon be expanding into battery production. He could look for work outside the region, but he had recently bought a house, and he did not want to leave his family. “I’ve got to look for work here in the area,” he said.

The confounding nature of it all—shuttering a wind-turbine factory at a time when the country was supposedly ramping up renewable energy, and doing so in the region that was supposed to be targeted for extra assistance in managing the transition—had only confirmed for Köllner his preference for the AfD. “Not because of ‘Nazi,’ God forbid,” he said. “But because AfD is proposing something completely different.” I pressed him on what, exactly, that was, what the Party would do to help Lusatia or people like him, but he stuck to generalities. “They would change things,” he said. “They would really change things.”

Reluctance to leave in search of work elsewhere was widespread in Germany. “We work where we live,” Klaus Emmerich, the chief worker representative at the Garzweiler mine, in the western region, told me. “Where we live, that is our Heimat”—the German word that expresses something stronger than just “home” or “home town.”

Again, the echo was strong from U.S. coal regions, where residents, especially younger ones, constantly wrestle with the question of whether to stay or go. “It’s just home,” John Arnett, a marine veteran who worked for a closing coal-fired plant in southern Ohio, told me, in 2018. “I’ve been a bunch of different places, different countries. I’ve been across the equator. And now this is where I want to be, or I’d have stayed somewhere else. It’s the most beautiful place in the world, these hills.”

The people who remained often took offense at the economist’s or the pundit’s counsel that the only thing to do for regions that had lost their former economic rationale was to give people a bus or plane ticket out. In the U.S., the rate of people moving across state lines has in fact dropped by half since the early nineties, a trend attributed to, among other things, the cost of living in higher-opportunity cities and the breakdown of the traditional nuclear family, which leaves people dependent on extended family for child care or elder care.

The stay-or-go question is particularly sensitive in eastern Germany, because of the flight of younger people that occurred in the years after reunification. Die Zeit estimates that 3.7 million people, a quarter of the population of the former G.D.R., eventually left. One night, at a tavern in Hoyerswerda, I talked with Jörg Müller, a fifty-six-year-old man who worked at the B.A.S.F. plant, making paint for German car companies, and who had in his youth done cleaning jobs at the mine where his father worked as an engineer. Müller, who had brought up his children alone after his wife died young, of cancer, was worried about the impact that higher energy prices could have on B.A.S.F.’s prospects. But his main preoccupation was his grown children, who had left the area—one to study in Dresden, one to work in Kassel, in the former West Germany. I asked him how often he saw them. “Once or twice a year,” he said.

To coal’s opponents in Germany, such laments about home-town decline are undermined by the fact that the industry has been demolishing home towns for decades. The extent of the destruction is all the more striking in a culture that generally idealizes the village. Even amid all the devastation wrought by the coal industry in Appalachia—the mountaintop-removal mining, the coal-slurry spills—coal companies have not had to wipe entire towns off the map, as happens in Germany.

The week after the election, I travelled to the western brown-coal region, known as the Rhenish district, which has become the primary front for climate activists seeking to halt mining via direct action. They had succeeded in sparing Hambach Forest, and many had now moved to a new encampment, in a tiny hamlet called Lützerath that was on the verge of being claimed by the Garzweiler mine. Part of the hamlet had already been demolished by R.W.E., the German energy company that owns all the western region’s mines and power plants, which employ about nine thousand people. The only villager still living in Lützerath was a fifty-six-year-old farmer who was fighting the company in court and had welcomed more than a hundred activists to set up camp on his property. An R.W.E. spokesperson told me that the company “will continue to try to find an amicable solution with the landowner.” The spokesperson added that R.W.E. works closely with those affected by its plans and stands by its promises.

On October 1st, the day that the company was allowed to resume removing trees there, I cycled from the town of Erkelenz through fields of harvested sugar beets to reach Lützerath, where several dozen advocates had joined the occupiers to launch the defense. It made for a jarring juxtaposition: there were the remaining trees around the hamlet, festooned with tree houses and anti-coal banners; a narrow strip where the advocates were arrayed to speak; and, behind them, a vast pit, with excavators churning away at the edge of it. “If Lützerath falls, then the 1.5-degree limit falls,” Pauline Brünger, an activist with the youth movement Fridays for Future, said. “It lies in our hands—1.5 degrees is nonnegotiable. Lützerath must stand.”

I wandered into the encampment, where activists were breaking down pallets to build huts and more tree houses while others held an orientation session for new arrivals. Many wore balaclavas to try to hide their identities; others wore covid masks that served the same function. When I took pictures, a young woman came over to stop me.

Suddenly, a cry went up from the entrance to the encampment: two large excavators were approaching the hamlet. A couple of dozen activists marched down the road to block them. One of the drivers climbed out, saying that he and his colleague were only doing land-reclamation work on the older portion of the mine, and were coming to park their equipment for the weekend. The activists refused to let him through. “Hey, have a lot of fun sitting!” he called out angrily as he reversed back down the road.

Soon afterward, two large pickups approached from the other direction, loaded with concrete blocks and metal fencing, and rolled into the main assemblage of protesters; they were bringing the materials for an added security perimeter, and had taken a wrong turn, right into the enemy camp. The activists fell upon them and unloaded the blocks and fencing to build their own security perimeter, preventing access to one of the hamlet’s roads. The drivers sat helplessly in their cabs, watching the expropriation. Finally, a handful of police officers arrived and, after some cajoling, arranged for the materials to be returned and for the trucks to be allowed back out.

Nearby, five larger villages were also threatened with destruction by R.W.E. Most families had already sold their homes to the company and moved out, many of them to new developments on the outskirts of Erkelenz which had been built to house relocated families, and had even been named for the marked villages—Kuckum-Neu, Keyenberg-Neu, and so on. Tina Dresen, twenty-one, and her family were still holding out in Kuckum, and she told me how strange it had been to grow up in the shadow of Garzweiler and to see other villages falling to the bulldozers, one by one. “On the right side of my home was the hole, and life ended there,” she said. “I didn’t know anyone who lived there, and the bus stopped driving there, and the villages were destroyed there. I lived only to the left.”

She told me that some of the vacant homes in Kuckum were being used to house families who had lost their homes to the recent flooding. The irony was overpowering: people rendered homeless by a disaster likely exacerbated by climate change were now living in homes made available by the looming displacement of the coal mining that was contributing to climate change.

That evening, I rode my bike to Kuckum and found one of the displaced families. Anja Kassenpecher had been relocated to the village with her son, four cats, and two dogs, after the flooding destroyed her beloved half-timber house in the town of Ahrweiler. “What happened in the flood catastrophe, that was nature, and one couldn’t do anything against that,” she said. “But the dismantling of the coal here, one could do something about that.”

I

n 1945, the victorious Russians removed a thirty-kilometre stretch of rail between Cottbus and the town of Lübbenau, to take back to the Soviet Union, one of many such claims made throughout eastern Germany. The rails were never replaced, and the single track in that stretch has meant that trains run between Cottbus and Berlin only once an hour—less than ideal by German standards. Part of the Strukturwandel’s forty billion euros will be used to replace the missing track.

But, toward the end of 2021, reports kept appearing in the local and national media of the questionable ways other portions of the fund were being put to use by federal agencies and by the obscure provincial councils that were overseeing much of the spending: a techno festival, a zoo, new streetcars in Görlitz. Coal defenders and opponents alike told me how wrong they thought it was to spend three hundred and ten million euros on a new branch of Germany’s public-health agency in an exurb of Berlin sixty miles from Cottbus, or millions more on the renovation of a cultural center in a town thirty miles from Dresden, far from the coal towns. In November, eleven mayors met to express their frustration with the spending decisions and to demand that communities closest to the coal mines get more of a say. “If it goes on like this, the pot will be empty,” Tristan Mühl, the mayor of the village of Krauschwitz, told me afterward. “The perspective of the community is missing.”

Two people on motorcycles outside an abandoned factory.
An abandoned factory near an open-pit coal mine.

Part of the challenge for the appropriators was structural: under European Union rules, they were forbidden to use the money to subsidize new or existing businesses in the region. Instead, the discussion was of funding research institutes for renewable energy, including innovations in hydrogen power, that might eventually lead to job creation. René Schuster, a Cottbus-based representative of the environmental group Grüne Liga, told me that it was doubtful whether such ventures would ever come close to replacing the jobs that would vanish in the coal exit. “I doubt you’re going to get a boom in new jobs that will replace what you’re losing from coal,” he said. “That you’re going to get seven thousand jobs, that’s not going to happen.” But it was still wrong to think of the coal jobs as somehow sacrosanct, he added. “It’s often discussed as if coal workers have a fundamental right to their job. There’s no right to an income. You have a fundamental right to your property. Whoever gets relocated, their property rights are being encroached on. But whoever wants to live off that relocation, well, they have no fundamental right to that.”

After the election, Olaf Scholz and his counterparts in the Greens and the Free Democrats began negotiating the coal-exit terms for their coalition pact, including whether to move the 2038 date to 2030. Adding pressure was the concurrent climate summit in Glasgow, where a major focus was whether to mandate a global end to burning coal. The talk of an earlier exit prompted more consternation in Lusatia, where many viewed it as a breach of the commission’s compromise. “By 2030, little of this will have got started,” Christine Herntier, the mayor of Spremberg, said of the Strukturwandel.

Every day or two, I checked an app called Electricity Map, which shows the sources from which countries are drawing their electricity. Invariably, coal was Germany’s largest source, with wind a distant second or third. The plan was to use natural gas as a bridge to the expansion of renewables, but that would require building more gas power plants, fast, and would also mean making Germany even more dependent on Russia, one of its biggest gas suppliers. Recently, Russia built a controversial pipeline to Germany through the Baltic Sea, called Nord Stream 2. As a last resort, Germany could buy nuclear-based electricity from France, which has remained staunchly committed to nuclear power, or coal-fired electricity from Poland, but not without hypocrisy, given its own disavowal of both sources.

On November 24th, the coalition released its governing agreement, which called for “ideally” moving up the coal exit to 2030. The rhetorical wiggle room satisfied neither side, and reflected the bind in which the country has found itself. Germany had set out to be an example of how to relinquish the dirty-energy source that had enabled modernity. It had developed a clear timetable, and it had agreed on significant compensation, recognizing that there was a societal obligation to people whose livelihood was being shut down as a matter of policy. The process was undoubtedly superior to what was playing out at the same time in the U.S., where the Biden Administration’s plan to spend five hundred and fifty-five billion dollars on incentives to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, as part of the sweeping Build Back Better package, was foundering, shy of majority support in the Senate.

But Germany was also at risk of being an unintended example, one that could be cited by opponents of the imposition of emissions reductions. (A recent Wall Street Journal editorial was titled “Germany’s Energy Surrender: Rarely has a country worked so hard to make itself vulnerable.”) The exit from nuclear power was leaving the country much less space to maneuver as it tried to move away from coal. And the lack of transparency and forethought with the regional spending undermined the purpose of the compensation: to convey that, this time around, the rest of the country really did care what happened to its left-behind places.

On my final visit to Lusatia, in November, I met Lars Katzmarek, an employee at leag, the coal company, at a coffee shop in Cottbus. Katzmarek, who is twenty-nine, oversees telecommunications at the mines, a job he loves and hopes to keep until things shut down. He was not drifting to the AfD: he is a loyal Social Democrat, he believes in climate change, and he even met with some Fridays for Future activists in 2019.

But he understood the feeling of betrayal in the region. His parents both worked in Braunkohle. His mother lost her job in the nineties and never found steady work again. Cottbus has experienced the third-highest rate of departures to western Germany of any city in the former G.D.R., and nearly all of Katzmarek’s high-school friends have left town. It was hard now to watch a new wave of people leaving the company and the region because they didn’t believe the promises of the Strukturwandel. “The sorrow is gigantic,” he said.

Katzmarek composed rap music on the side, and he had recently produced a single about Lusatia’s plight which included clips of him singing atop one of the turbines at the Vestas plant—before the news came of its closure. “For politics to win back the trust of the people, it has to finally be the case that things are carried out the way they said they would,” he said. “This is the big chance to win back trust.”

What you couldn’t have was a coal exit that led to a decline in German industry because of higher electricity costs. “You can’t have deindustrialization in Germany,” he said. “Industry means prosperity. A loss of prosperity would be absurd. If other countries look to see how Germany has fared, and they see deindustrialization and a loss of prosperity and the people growing discontent and populism gaining a new foothold, who would follow our example?”

His nuanced tone made me wish that we had more time to talk. But he had to catch the hourly train to Berlin, to visit one of his many friends who had left Lusatia. ♦

ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up to get stories like this one as soon as they are published.Published in the print edition of the February 7, 2022, issue, with the headline “Brown Out.”

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