In January 2023, the German village of Lützerath became a flashpoint for climate activism when police forcibly removed activists resisting the expansion of the Garzweiler II lignite coal mine bordering the village, owned by the world’s most polluting company, utility RWE

The German government adopted regulations in October 2022 that allowed retired lignite power plants to be reactivated until 2024 as an emergency response to the spike in gas prices caused by the war in Ukraine

In the months following the invasion, the question on everybody’s lips was: would coal rebound and threaten the global energy transition, and in particular, Germany’s Energiewende? 

There is evidence that the impact of reactivating German coal plants on Europe’s longer-term climate strategy is limited. 

Data published last month by think tank Agora Energiewende shows that while Germany’s 2022 annual energy emissions were up 3% on the previous year – at 255 million tonnes (mt) of CO2 – they remained slightly below its target of 257mt of CO2. 

The research claims that this increase is due to the country’s increased consumption of coal and oil, which offset emissions reductions from Germany’s record 46% share of renewables, as well as its year-on-year reduction in overall energy consumption of 4.7%. Indeed, despite the country’s efforts to make up for reduced Russian gas imports, including opening its first liquefied natural gas terminal in December 2022 and introducing energy efficiency measures like requiring that illuminated advertising be switched off by 10:00pm, the annual figures show marginal progress in overall energy consumption. 

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Data published in January 2023 by Germany’s federal statistics office reveals that the country’s coal consumption was 13% higher in the third quarter of 2022 compared with the same period in the previous year. 

Agora Energiewende’s report makes clear that Germany’s record share of renewables is “not a success in terms of climate policy”, but is instead due to “sunny and windy weather”, noting that the “expansion crisis for onshore wind energy is continuing”. While Chancellor Olaf Scholz assured the public the government is approaching onshore wind expansion with “military precision” in an interview this month with Bild, Agora’s data shows that his work is cut out for him, considering the growth in additional onshore wind generation capacity in 2022 was negligible. 

Activists claim that a heightened focus on renewables, as opposed to investing in more fossil fuels, is the best way to preserve both energy security and climate goals. Recent data from think tank Ember suggests that Europe’s increase in coal production is a ‘bump’ in Europe’s coal phase-out, as opposed to a signal that we are about to experience a full-blown resurgence. 

In August 2022, two months prior to the government’s decision to expand the Garzweiler II coal mine, German analytics company Aurora Energy Research published a paper concluding that, when only taking into account coal production for power generation (and ignoring the fact that some lignite is used for refining), it would still be possible for Germany to temporarily reactivate its coal plants while remaining within its power sector carbon budget for 2030. 

In this study, Aurora calculated that the difference in emissions from the German electricity sector caused by the adjusted exit scenario with the revival of new coal plants – excluding Lützerath – would be 61mt of CO2. 

However, when Germany’s federal government, which includes the Green Party under its “traffic light” governing coalition, reached a deal that would allow RWE to mine the 280mt of coal under Lützerath in exchange for agreeing to complete the phase-out of its coal-fired power production in the region of North Rhine-Westphalia by 2030 rather than 2038, any remaining optimism that the government intended to phase out coal in line with a 1.5°C scenario quickly dissipated. 

A "huge loss of trust"

Part of the reason Lützerath has become such a strong symbol for the collapse of Germany’s energy transition plan is that it signals the government is not willing to listen to the science, which dictates that no new coal, oil or gas extraction is needed in the IEA’s net zero by 2050 scenario

Additionally, opponents of the mine have argued that bringing forward RWE’s net-zero target makes no difference if it means it will only emit more CO2 in the meantime, while pointing out that by the time the coal under Lützerath is ready to be burned, energy prices will likely have stabilised. 

Lützerath's reserves are not needed

Crucially, research shows that the reserves under Lützerath are not needed in Germany’s adjusted coal strategy

A paper published in August 2022 by Europe Beyond Coal, co-authored by the German Institute for Economic Research, found that, contrary to reports published by RWE, “even with conservative assumptions” the coal resources in the Hambach and Garzweiler II opencast mine complex are “more than sufficient” to cover the maximum expected demand scenario, where coal must be temporarily revived to meet energy demand in light of surging gas prices. The paper finds that even with maximum demand, approximately 30mt of lignite will remain in the complex by 2030. 

The report is also clear that “the open pit edge should not have been further developed since 2021 in order to comply with the 1.5°C limit”.

As the chart below shows, Germany’s coal phase-out target of beyond 2030 is already too slow, so an additional estimated 280mt of CO2 produced by the coal under Lützerath would far exceed its remaining carbon budget. 

While Chancellor Scholz has doubled down on the claim that it will help rather than hinder the country’s ability to reach its climate targets, a number of researchers have argued that the razing of Lützerath is a step too far. Some campaigners, like Fridays for Future activist Michael Staniszewski, have even argued that the “decision making process between the government and RWE was undemocratic”. 

Staniszewski, who was among the campaigners camped in Lützerath opposing the mine, says that the government's decision to dig up an additional 280mt of coal deemed by researchers as not necessary for the preservation of energy security shows that it has “favoured the company’s interests over those of the people. This has led to a huge loss of trust in the moral integrity of the German Greens.” 

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The events occurring in the village of Lützerath have had global implications due to the involvement of multinational financial institutions. An investigation by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism published in January 2023, revealed that British bank HSBC made a “secretive multimillion-dollar loan” to RWE at the start of last year – just three months after it pledged to end financing to companies expanding their coal production. Ironically, the investigation reveals that the loan was initially dressed up as a “sustainability-linked loan”, because it was tied to an agreement that RWE would hit certain climate targets by 2025. 

In response to critiques of the deal, Dr Wilfried Rickels, director of the Global Commons and Climate Policy Research Center at the Kiel Institute for the World Economy, argued that the “direct CO2 emissions from the coal that is to be mined in Lützerath have no impact on whether the 1.5 degree target is achieved or not”, because the CO2 emissions in the EU’s energy sector are capped by the European Emissions Trading System. As such, he argues that “if the lignite from Lützerath is converted into electricity, the corresponding CO2 emissions must be avoided elsewhere within the EU”.

Dr Rickels added that the Paris Agreement “does not prescribe any national CO2 emissions budgets”. 

Whether or not the emissions from Lützerath are offset by wider emissions reductions elsewhere in the EU, the evidence suggests that they further jeopardise Germany’s ability to meet its national climate targets. If the research claiming that the additional reserves under Lützerath are not necessary is correct, it calls into question the claim that expanding the mine is a necessary response to Europe’s energy crisis, and casts doubt on the German government’s ability to guide the nation through a timely energy transition.