The Hambach Forest – caught between a coal lump and a hard place

3 mins read

By Anton Rosén

What do we picture when we hear “deforestation”? I guess many of us imagine slash-and-burn agriculture in the Amazons. Or maybe rainforests giving way to palm oil plantations on Borneo. Between Aachen and Cologne in western Germany another painting is drawn: an excavator machine stands ready to tug away the coal-rich soil with only a small forest defying its mission. The Hambach Forest or “Hambi” grew forth about 12.000 years ago and its rich ecosystem is home to over 140 species regarded as important to protect. Yet, less than ten percent of the forest still stands as a consequence of Germany’s brown coal addiction.

In recent years, environmentalists have occupied the forest to prevent more deforestation. Since 2012, tree house villages connected through networks of hang bridges emerged. Roadside barricades, preventing police and the mining company RWE AG from entering the forest, were also raised. The activists were either going to save the forest by staying or be reluctantly evicted.

The police and mining company have made their counter efforts over the years to clear the forest of activists. In the spring and summer of 2018, the standoff culminated in the eviction of the activists and in the razing of their tree houses. Following the tragic death of a journalist, who accidentally fell from one of the hang bridges, the efforts were halted for some time but resumed in late September and in October when the police reported that all tree houses had been evicted.

The activists’ civil disobedience might not have been complete in vain. In parallel with the occupation, BUND, an environmental NGO, has been taking legal actions against the mining company claiming that the forest habitat is too unique to be destroyed. The lawsuit is the Hambi’s only lifeline at this time, as the Higher Administrative Court of Münster ruled to temporary stop RWE AG from further tree-cutting. The final verdict will be delivered in 2020 but without active resistance there probably would have been even less forest for the judicial system to consider protecting.

The Hambach Forest reflects the ambivalent character of the “Energiewende”, the German transition from nuclear and coal power to renewable sources of energy and a low-carbon economy. On the one hand, Angela Merkel announced that Germany would close all its nuclear plants by 2022 following the Fukushima disaster and the government has stepped up its efforts to stop using coal altogether through the forming of a coal exit commission. Billions have also been invested in renewable energy over the years and in 2018 it surpassed coal-fired power plants, becoming the largest source of energy for the nation. At the same time, no other nation mines and consumes as much brown coal as Germany. The goal to reduce the greenhouse emissions by 55 percent by 2030, aligning the nation with the Paris Agreement, will not be viable with mines such as the one at the Hambach Forest continuing to operate.

Reduction of coal-based energy is necessary in order for Germany to deliver on the Paris agreement. But a complete stop to the use of the largest source of domestic fossil fuel in Germany seems to be an all too painful political decision at this point. An abrupt shutdown of coal-plants would have a devastating social and economic impact with thousands of jobs being lost. Another crucial factor is that the import of gas from Russia has increased over the past years and with Nord Stream 2 soon being completed, it’s likely that the trend will continue. Consequently, the German economy, and in extension the European energy market, will be at the mercy of Russian gas if coal-power were to seize abruptly.  Further, Russian energy dependency also has the potential to damage the relationship with one of Germany’s most important allies, the USA. President Trump tweeted “What good is NATO if Germany is paying Russia billions of dollars for gas and energy?”. Washington, in turn, is lobbying that Germany should buy American liquid gas.

So, with nuclear power riding off into the sunset, and gas imports looking like a circus balancing act, it becomes easier to understand why forests like the one at Hambach get cut down in order to keep the turbines spinning during the Energiewende – even if this means failure to deliver on the Paris agreement.

Anton Rosén studies media and pursues a bachelor in psychology. His goal is to one day be working in an international setting with issues like civic engagement and digital citizenship. Anton also has big interests in cinema, traveling and nature.

Illustration: Michelle Pencarski

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