The Bundestag and Bundesrat — Germany’s lower and upper houses of parliament — passed legislation on Friday that would phase out coal use in the country in less than two decades as part of a road map to reduce carbon emissions.
“The fossil age in Germany comes to an irrevocable end with this decision,” said Economy Minister Peter Altmaier. Environment Minister Svenja Schulze called it a “great political success for all those who care about the climate-friendly future of our children and grandchildren.”
The legislative package has two main features. The first establishes a legal avenue for the gradual reduction in emissions by 2038 at the latest, while the second targets regional economies that would be impacted by the phaseout.
Read more: As Germany phases out coal, villages still forced to make way for mining
Preparing for the future
Coal-producing regions in the German states of North Rhine-Westphalia, Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt and Brandenburg will have access to €40 billion ($45 billion) to help absorb the impact. Those funds are also expected to go towards restructuring regional economies, re-skilling workers and expanding local infrastructure.
Financial compensation is also be available to coal plant operators who face losses as a result of the early phaseout. However, compensation is contingent on operators announcing plans by 2026 to shutter plants and cease other emissions-intensive activity.
Michael Vassiliadis, who heads the IG BCE trade union, called the measures a “historic landmark.” He said the package has provided a safety net for workers affected by the phase out and would provide them with the necessary support to transition to future sectors.
Read more: Carrying coals to Germany: Imports still vital despite sagging demand
However, not everyone agrees that the measures are enough to mitigate climate change.
Environmentalist activists say the legislation falls short of its ultimate aim, with Greenpeace managing director Martin Kaiser describing it as a “historic error.”
This will be a melancholy and nostalgic Christmas for the people of Bottrop, especially for the last coal miners and their families. Three days before Christmas Eve, the Prosper-Haniel coal mine — the last black coal mine in Germany — is set to close. German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier was gifted the last piece of “black gold” to be brought up and see the light of day.
The coal was initially stored outside for days, like here with the Prosper-Haniel tower in the background. Then it was usually taken by train to the nearest port where it was loaded onto barges or ships to be taken to consumers; a large portion of it was shipped overseas. German hard coal was in demand worldwide for its quality, as long as the price was right.
The work in the coal mine was not only well paid, the miners were also held in high esteem. Their dirty, exhausting and dangerous work welded the miners together. Even now, they all call one another mate (“kumpel”). Their solidarity and camaraderie were always a reason for professional pride as can be seen here in this photo taken in Bottrop’s Prosper-Haniel mine.
The miner operators built housing for the miners in the immediate vicinity of the pits. In the gardens, workers often kept chickens and pigs. Sometimes they’d even find room for a pigeon coop. Meanwhile, these houses have become very popular. Having a garden in the city is no small luxury.
After World War II, many so-called guest workers from southern Europe and Turkey came to work in the mines alongside colleagues from Silesia and Masuria, both in today’s Poland. Many of them decided to stay.
The 1950s and 60s were the highpoint of the Ruhr mining industry. And yet, the first cracks in the mining business model were becoming apparent. The coal, which was initially near the surface, soon had to be dug out deeper and deeper — up to 1,500 meters underground. That was very expensive and German coal gradually became less competitive on the international market.
For decades the Ruhr area was notorious for its bad air. If you lived near a coking plant, freshly laundered sheets would turn dirty if you hung them out on the washing line. The image here depicts a skyline of coal, smokestacks, and smoke in Oberhausen — not far from Bottrop. Today, few people in the area miss these consequences of the coal business.
Even after coal mining is discontinued, it will continue to play an important role in the lives of the people of Ruhr Valley. Time and again, the earth opens up and houses, roads or railway lines are badly damaged by the notoriously unstable ground.
In the last 150 years, the Ruhr area has sunk in places by up to 25 meters (82 feet). Without intervention, the groundwater would rise again, transforming the area into a huge lake. So the water has to be pumped out — continuously. This legacy is sometimes referred to as an “eternal cost” for the more-than-five million people who live in the Ruhr area.
The omnipresent mining towers have now been demolished for the most part. Huge areas of the former complexes have been made green. Many former industrial monuments — and there are plenty of them — have been transformed into amusement parks — the best example being the Zollverein in Essen, which is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
German Green party chief Annalena Baerbock said the legislation was “oblivious to the future” and instead called on the government to complete Germany’s coal phase out by 2030 the latest.
Earlier this year, a DeutschlandTrend survey found that 27% of Germans believe climate change is the most pressing issue facing the country, just slightly behind refugees and immigration policy.
Germany is seeking to establish a carbon-neutral economy by 2050. The European Commission has also pushed forward with similar plans for the EU.
ls/rs (dpa, epd, AFP)