In a video released two months ago by the official Instagram account of the Bundespolizei (German Federal Police), a group of cheerful police officers dressed in full-riot gear descend on a group of actors simulating a climate protest – seated on the ground, the “activists” release plumes of orange smoke and throw rocks at the throng of officers, who proceed to blast them with water cannons.
The video, which appears to be part of a recruitment drive to attract more young people to join the Bundespolizei, sends a clear message that the role will involve joining the fight against climate protesters.
Exclusive Energy Monitor analysis reveals that police across Europe are increasingly cracking down on climate protests.
According to analysis of data from the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), an open-source registry tracking all reported political violence and protest events around the world, the rate of police intervention in European climate protests since 2020 has almost doubled – 40% of climate change protests in Europe saw police intervention in the first half of 2023 compared with just 21% in 2020.
For its analysis, Energy Monitor filtered all European protests from ACLED’s database, in which protests are categorised as either “peaceful protest” or “protest with intervention” (in this case, meaning intervention by police forces), using a series of related search terms to determine whether the protest was climate-related. This excludes anti-climate action protests.
As ACLED sometimes records coordinated events on the same day or in close proximity as multiple events, this analysis counts the number of days per month on which different types of protests were recorded to avoid double counting.
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For anyone engaging in climate activism in Europe, it may come as no surprise that police are increasingly cracking down on protests.
In the UK, Just Stop Oil protestors are facing “extraordinary” sentences of up to three years for scaling the Dartford Crossing of the River Thames, jail terms their attorney dubbed the “longest ever handed down in a case of non-violent protest in this country in modern times", following the implementation of the Public Order Act, aimed at cracking down on protest tactics.
Meanwhile, in June, the French Government called for the dissolution of environmental group Les Soulèvements de la Terre (SLT) (Uprisings of the Earth), with Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin describing the group as “eco-terrorists” (although the French courts have recently suspended the ban, with a full ruling due later this year).
The move to ban SLT follows a period of intense clashes between SLT and the police; in March, 3,000 anti-riot police shot tear gas at a group of at least 6,000 individuals including SLT members protesting a controversial irrigation project, which protesters argued would direct water away from drought-stricken land, injuring 200 protesters, leaving two in a coma and one without an eye, while 47 officers were injured, and four of their vehicles burnt.
In the Netherlands, at least six climate activists were arrested at their homes for “incitement”, several days before a planned peaceful blockade of a highway. Numerous individuals and organisations expressed concern about the police taking “disproportionate actions”. At a protest several months later, blocking the same highway, police arrested more than 1,500 climate activists.Keep up with Energy Monitor: Subscribe to our weekly newsletter
In Germany, police in the state of Bavaria are leading a crackdown on climate activists who are members of the Last Generation movement, targeting individual protests with raids, telephone searches and preventative arrests, using powers ordinarily reserved for terrorists. In June, the home arrest of Last Generation activist Simon Lachner, for alleged plans to glue himself to a German city street in order to raise awareness for climate change, sparked a public outcry.
According to a recent report from Reuters, while states in Germany and national authorities in France are now “invoking legal powers often used against organised crime and extremist groups to wiretap and track activists”, it is not yet clear whether European countries are “coordinating policies or vigilance of the protesters, beyond normal cooperation between police forces”.
While each European country is unique in terms of its climate protest groups, and government response to protestors’ actions, Energy Monitor’s data nevertheless shows a pattern emerging in a number of countries, where climate protests are increasingly likely to see police intervention.
According to our analysis of almost 9,000 unique climate protest events across Europe, nine out of 14 European countries assessed have seen a recent increase in police intervention at climate change protests.
This is likely to stem from a combination of police becoming more hostile to climate activists, as well as protesters adopting more radical tactics in response to what they perceive to be government inaction on climate change, particularly since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine prompted fresh concerns about energy security, leading Germany, for example, to temporarily reactivate coal plants.
In the UK, Energy Monitor’s analysis highlights the growing presence of climate protest group Just Stop Oil (JSO), which employs direct action tactics similar to that of Last Generation, such as blocking roads and 'locking-on' to public infrastructure, to protest the government’s failure to end new oil and gas licensing.
In 2023, JSO were involved in a greater share of UK protests than the previously ubiquitous Extinction Rebellion, whose presence diminished around the pandemic due to lockdown and because its leader Roger Hallam split from the group in 2020. He went on to mobilise smaller groups of individuals prepared to take more disruptive action – first, Insulate Britain, and later, JSO, which have both returned to Extinction Rebellion’s initial modus operandi of member arrests.
Simultaneously, the UK Government has introduced two new laws that directly inhibit protestors; first, the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022, which gives the police greater powers to restrict “unacceptable” protests, as well as the Public Order Act 2023. The government explicitly notes in the official "factsheet" for the Act that the law’s introduction is linked to "recent actions by protest groups such as Just Stop Oil and Insulate Britain".
Among other measures, the Public Order Act allows police to “stop and search” anyone they suspect intends to commit one of a handful of new protest-related offences like locking-on, where protestors attach themselves to other people, buildings or objects, or carrying equipment intended to be used "in a protest-related offence", as well as new rules that ban certain people from participating in protests.
In the UK, the past few years have seen “successive attempts to restrict the right to protest”, Jun Pang, policy and campaigns officer at human rights organisation Liberty International, tells Energy Monitor. She notes that these “increasingly draconian” laws emerged during the pandemic, which saw a groundswell in civil liberties movements including Black Lives Matter, or in response to the murder of Sarah Everard by the police, which “really laid the groundwork for some of the most harsh restrictions that we are seeing today”.Read more from this author: Polly Bindman
Pang adds that while the Public Order Act, for example, has elements clearly aimed specifically at restricting climate change protests, like locking-on, a number of its elements, for example “really egregious stop and search powers that can be exercised on both a suspicionless and a suspicion-based basis”, will ultimately affect “those who already face the brunt of over policing, including black and other minoritised and marginalised communities”.
While the UK Government has referenced climate protest groups such as Just Stop Oil as justification for creating laws that will impact much wider segments of the British population, in Germany the police have started using laws designed for terrorists to curb the freedoms of climate protests.
In Bavaria, for example, police have used a controversial law that came into force in 2018 from the state legislature, which allows them to use preventative detention to hold protesters for up to 30 days without charge – and which came into force to help police track suspected terrorists – to target climate protestors like Last Generation’s Simon Lachner.
In response to a request for comment, a spokesman for the Bavarian State Ministry of the Interior, Sport and Integration said (translated): “It is perfectly legitimate to stand up for climate protection and to demonstrate peacefully for one's cause. In these cases, no detention is ordered. For detention to be necessary, there must always be a concrete danger, for example, if concrete criminal offences are announced or the life or limb of others is endangered… We appeal to climate activists to abide by the law and not to endanger anyone with their actions.”
The spokesperson added: “An independent judge decides whether and for how long detention is necessary in each individual case”, noting that although the maximum period of detention was increased from two weeks to three months by the Act Amending the Police Tasks Act in 2017, this was later amended in 2021 to reduce the maximum period of detention to one month, with a maximum possible extension of two months. Individual municipal Bavarian police forces did not respond to requests for comment.
According to Energy Monitor’s analysis, Last Generation was the most prevalent protest group at German climate protests from January to May 2023 by number of mentions in total German climate protests, surpassing the peaceful, youth-led international protest group Fridays for Future, which was by far the most prevalent group present at German climate protests in 2020.
Germany-based Fridays for Future activist Michael Staniszewski told Energy Monitor that although German activist groups like Last Generation have used direct action tactics in climate protests for years, notably during a widespread mass-civil disobedience campaign in 2017, what has changed recently is the “increased police targeting of individuals – particularly members of Last Generation – for their actions”.
Staniszewski explained that Last Generation are increasingly attempting tactics of widespread disruption “with a high frequency” and the police have reacted with heightened surveillance. “At a more systematic level mainly [the Bavarian police] is attempting to define [Last Generation] as a criminal organisation nationwide, which is extremely problematic.”
What distinguishes a number of the more disruptive climate protest groups that have emerged in Europe and across the globe over the past couple of years, is the nature of their demands.
Groups like Just Stop Oil in the UK; Insulate Britain; Restore Passenger Rail in New Zealand; Renovate Switzerland in Switzerland; and Stop Fossil Fuel Subsidies in Australia, are each focused on one clear demand, self-evident in the name of their group.
Moreover, each of these disruptive groups is a part of the A22 Network, which was founded in 2022, and consists of a group of projects across 11 countries that engage in high-profile protests using nonviolent, “mass civil disobedience” to spread alarmist messages about climate change.
James Özden, founder and director of the UK-based Social Change Lab, a non-profit that researches the impacts of climate movements, told Energy Monitor that in his opinion Last Generation’s demands are not only specific, but “incredibly moderate: [they want] a speed limit on the Autobahn, and a permanent €9 ticket for travelling [regional public transport]”.
"The whole point is that they want things that seem like a no-brainer," says Özden.Read more from this author: Isabeau van Halm
The Social Change Lab, which is very focused on the work of the A22 network and its impact, has recently found, contrary to some media narratives, that more disruptive protests can have a positive effect on public support for the wider climate movement, if not for those individual groups.
For example, December 2022 research by the non-profit found that during Just Stop Oil’s M25 campaign in November 2022, when activists shut down some of the busiest parts of UK motorways for four consecutive days, the number of people saying they support Friends of the Earth’s climate goals increased from 50.4% of the UK population to 53.7%, a “statistically significant” finding, according to Özden.
This is known as the “radical flank effect”, which has a historical precedent with Martin Luther King Jr and Malcom X, or the Suffragettes and Suffragists, Özden told Energy Monitor. At the time, protestors engaging in more disruptive actions experienced huge public vitriol and condemnation, but they have since been credited with benefitting the wider movement by bringing greater public attention to the cause.
While Özden notes it is hard to establish a “strong” causal link between ongoing UK climate protests and changing policy, there are cases where protests appear to have had some effect. For example, following Insulate Britain’s lengthy campaign for more home insulation, mentions of housing insulation in the British press surged, with the government recently rolling out a “Great British Insulation scheme” described as a “war effort”.
It remains to be seen whether a widespread crackdown on climate protests in Europe will have a chilling effect on climate policy, or enhance it.
Either way, the impact of new restrictive protest laws will extend far beyond the climate movement itself, Liberty’s Jun Pang argues: “Expanding the police's powers to restrict protest will most affect the people for whom protest is and can be the only way of making their voices heard.”