A call by Germany’s environment minister to fast-track the country’s coal exit has riled Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative-led coalition government.

Rebuffed in the run-up to December’s U.N. climate conference in Paris, Minister Barbara Hendricks has once again raised the topic. This time, things could turn out differently.

The global deal struck in the French capital, experts say, has changed the calculation. Global carbon budgets and coal reserves are now in the mainstream of Germany’s public and political dialogue. There also is a widening recognition of the need for a long-term plan in order to provide regulatory certainty. Finally, many argue that continued coal burning imperils the country’s reputation as a leader on climate change.

According to Hendricks, a first-ever proposal for fully winding down German domestic coal production will be on Merkel’s desk before the summer recess, with discussions among energy companies, trade unions and regional officials set to conclude by late March.

Hendricks is pushing for a final 2040 exit, at the latest, while industry wants to continue to mine and burn coal until at least 2050.

Prominent climate scientists and environmental activists insist that ending coal production in the early 2030s is not only scientifically necessary but also technically and economically feasible. Only if the power sector decarbonizes first, they argue, can other sectors follow. Moreover, a planned coal exit involving all stakeholders holds forth the possibility of an orderly transition—thereby avoiding disruptive impacts such as mass layoffs of coal miners or a bursting coal bubble that strands billions of dollars of investments.

“If there is going to be a bust, the German government would like to shape it and make it as painless as possible,” said Craig Morris, an American writer and translator in the energy sector who has been based in Germany since 1992.

Think of the coal miners in Kentucky or the ongoing decline in the shale gas boom, Morris added. “In the U.S., we should be having the same debate.”

Industry pushes back
If Germany acts alone, greenhouse gases will instead be emitted abroad as industry would leave the country. Jobs are also at stake, argued Ulrich Grillo, the head of the powerful Federation of German Industries.

“National initiatives on coal are pointless,” said Grillo, rejecting out of hand the proposal put forward by Agora Energiewende, a respected think tank that recently offered a 2040 exit plan.

According to the Agora proposal, old generating capacity of 3 gigawatts—equivalent to three to four—large plants—would be decommissioned every year, starting in 2018. A ban on the opening of any new open cast mines would come into effect, alongside an annual €250 million investment fund, adding up to around €6 billion over the entire phaseout period.

This can be organized without making power much more expensive and without endangering supply security, according to the analysis by Agora.

Michael Vassiliadis, head of trade union IG BCE, said the suggestions in the Agora paper were “not convincing.”

“Germany with its high performance industry needs different priorities,” Vassiliadis said in a press release. Instead of discussing the coal exit, he added, Germany should pursue a path of innovation and solve the question of how large amounts of renewable power could be stored in the future.

Lignite: out of sight, out of mind
Scientists say they are worried. If near-term targets are missed, a path of dependency with long-lived infrastructure could make the timing and magnitude of future mitigation efforts that much more costly and difficult to achieve.

With the changeover to an auction system, Germany now has a very clear path for scaling up its renewables power, said Dr. Dominik Schäuble of the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies in Potsdam. The problem, he added, is on the coal side, specifically with lignite, but also concerning issues like the build-out of the transmission grid, the decommissioning of nuclear power plants and the reform of the energy market design.

“Lignite is the dirtiest power generation you can imagine, so even if you substitute it by hard coal imports, you will still have a net reduction in CO2 emissions,” Schäuble said.

Now that a carbon tax is officially off the table, advocates say options are more limited yet still feasible.

“What we need are the right political signals,” said Lili Fuhr, head of ecology and sustainable development at the Heinrich Böll Foundation, a Berlin-based think tank that is close to the German Green Party.

The removal of subsidies, new regulations like emission performance standards, and sustained or even increased support for renewable energies all need additional attention, Fuhr said.

In contrast to lignite, Germany’s extraction of hard coal will end in 2018, after the expiration of government subsidies. Reclamation of the former coal mines will cost €220 million a year, indefinitely, with the money coming from an endowment fund set up by the industry.

Coal imports will likely make up the shortfall, as could increased lignite production, of which Germany has an estimated 40 million tons in reserve—the most of any country.

Also known as brown coal, lignite causes the highest CO2 emissions per ton when burned, a third more than hard coal and three times as much as natural gas. It remains Europe’s most abundant and least-expensive domestic fuel, especially when located close to power plants.

“The difficult piece is that many Germans feel like it does not concern them if they don’t happen to live near a coal mine or coal plant,” Fuhr said.

“We have yet to spark a debate on the non-climate-related effects of burning coal,” she added.

In Lusatia, along the border with Poland, for example, sulphate from nearby open-cast pits is said to be threatening the water quality in the Spree River and, therefore, Berlin’s drinking water supplies. The United States has significantly stricter mercury and sulphur dioxide limits than Europe, a fact the Greens are now publicizing in their bid to influence upcoming coal-exit discussions.

“If that picks up,” Fuhr continued, “the debate will likely soon turn into a national and broad one.”

‘Here and no further’
Campaigns against coal in Germany have been held for decades, though they have only been local or regional in scope. Around 2006, however, protests grew louder after investors announced plans for 38 new coal-fired power plants. Successful court actions followed, as has an increase in public pressure questioning the role of coal in the government’s climate and energy policies.

Coal is now less popular even than nuclear power, according to a recent poll commissioned by the newspaper Die Zeit. (Asked about their preferred electricity sources, 80 percent of German respondents recently said they would prefer their power to come from solar, 76 percent from wind energy, 8 percent from nuclear and 5 percent from coal.)

This negative image is now obvious to most politicians, but to climate campaigners like Philipp Baum, 28, the rhetoric largely fails to match the reality of what he says he and most Germans now want.

“We were running for what felt like an hour,” said Baum, recounting a protest in August at the Garzweiler mine operated by German coal giant RWE AG. The protest, called Ende Gelände (in English, “Here and No Further”), is carrying out acts of civil disobedience targeted at open-cast lignite mines split among three major areas: the Rhineland in west Germany, Lusatia and in the center of the country east of Berlin.

Baum and 800 activists were able to close the mine for nearly the entire day. Chased by RWE employees in jeeps and confronted by police wielding batons and pepper spray, the group finally was stopped just a few hundred yards from their objective: giant diggers used to tear up the surrounding countryside.

Trained in climate camps in the run-up to the storming of the mine, Ende Gelände now draws support from the mainstream of the German nongovernmental operation movement. Steeped in the language of “unburnable carbon” and “divestment,” activists watch training films and participate in lectures. Actions include blocking access roads, forming human chains, and, if necessary, breaking into power plants and mines in order to halt operations.

The key motivation, Baum said, is a lack of faith in the political process.

“We saw the power struggle that unfolded when [Vice Chancellor Sigmar] Gabriel tried to shut down lignite power stations with his tax proposal,” Baum said. “But he failed.”

Involving more than 1,500 protesters in total, the Garzweiler action marked a turning point in its size and planning. Never before had so many protesters gathered to act in disobedience against the mining of fossil fuels. Nothing like it had been seen in Germany for decades.

“We will block the diggers in [Lusatia],” Baum said of the group’s upcoming action in Brandenburg. “See you there.”

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500