With the recently concluded COP26, two things emerged clearly: first, that coal is a major player in global carbon emissions (38% of the total in 2020); and two, coal is also a fuel that many countries cannot do without in this energy transition phase.
However, a recent study in Nature suggests that to remain in the 1.5 degree C scenario, 89% of proven coal reserves need to be retired.
Today coal generates nearly 40% of the world’s electricity. And in recent months coal generation has seen a spike due to soaring gas prices.
In Europe, Germany is the country with the most coal fueled power plants. The third largest economy in the OECD, it happens to be the world's biggest producer of lignite - or brown coal. Lignite is the most polluting of all coal types, and is responsible for 20% of Germany’s carbon emissions. According to a recent study by the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago (EPIC), people living in coal power plants areas lose around five years of life due to air pollution.
Germany has pledged to phase out coal production by 2038. However it is still developing new deposits, destroying villages and forests to expand mines and forcing people to move to new settlements. Activists are fighting to keep the coal in the ground, saying it is not only a local matter but a global issue of climate justice.
The present ongoing project is a visual exploration of the German coal industry. I have documented the sprawling open pit lignite mines, the pressure on villages that are demolished, the resistance by residents and activists, and the pollution by power plants.
I am planning to continue the project by documenting the workers' activities in mine pits and coal power plants and their everyday life, and continue to document the fight by activists in various parts of the country, including in the eastern part of Germany, where the industry is historically strong, but less visible in the media.
A view of the Garzweiler a 48 square kilometres lignite surface mine owned by RWE In Germany lignite extraction amounts to excavating the original 1869 Suez Canal 16 times per year
A piece of lignite Germany leads the world in lignite production with 183 million tonnes mined in 2013 and sustaining 25 of electricity generation The cost of domestic lignite is so low that even a CO2 emissions penalty of 40 per tonne six times recent EU ETS trading prices might not be sufficient to eliminate the competitive advantage of an older fully paid lignite power plant
A Bagger a bucket-wheel excavator used at the Hambach lignite mine Because of the great demand for lignite lignite mining has also been one of the areas of greatest development for these machines The largest Baggers can move up to 218 880 tonnes of soil per day
Neurath Power Station is a lignite-fired power station at Neurath The power station consists of seven units and it is owned by RWE It was named as the second biggest single polluter for carbon dioxide emissions in the European Union in 2019 by the EU s Transport and Environment Group The lignite is delivered by rail from open pits in Rhenish lignite district in particular from the Garzweiler and Hambach mines According to the European Pollutant Release and Transfer Register E-PRTR German lignite plants Neurath and Niederaussem are second and third Europe s biggest carbon dioxide polluter in Europe Of the twelve worst CO2-polluters seven are German lignite plants
A tree house in the activists camp of L tzerath in the German North Rhine-Westphalia state The town sits about 200 meters Garzweiler 2 lignite mine Since the 1970s the expansion of the mine has caused the demolition of 20 villages and today 6 more are under threat
Alex member of Ende Gel nde the organization coordinating the movement of people fighting to stop evictions and destruction of villages due to mining in Germany Alex was in the Hambach Forest occupation in 2011 since then he started doing education workshops about environment In 2015 he founded Ende Gel nde His Master thesis was on the psychological effect of evictions in residents Than also the environment component became important What we do here is not for the villagers it is an issue of global climate justice L tzerath became the symbol of this fight and its demolition is ideally on the line of the 1 5 C increase in global temperature
A digger removes trees from a cleared section of the town of Manheim The village was once home of about 1 700 people but has been slowly purchased and cleared by RWE to make space for the expansion of the Hambach lignite surface mine Hambach mine has been running since 1978 Since then four villages within the mine s boundaries have made way for lignite extraction Legally-backed evictions are possible in Germany Also Morschenich village is facing the same destiny
Sabina an activist from the camp in L tzerath She has been there for more than one year In July 2020 the road in front of the town was dismatled and she decided to stay with a small group of people first a chair under an umbrella then tents than now a camp with hundreds of people This is a like a funnel here all the worst and evil of the world is getting together People congregate here they want to express their rage and disappointment and they find a place where to do so and try to build an alternative Sabina believes that Lutzerath is not a local problem br L tzerath has ben almost entirely destroyed and totally vacated with the exception of a last farmer who is now in court and is expecting a rule by early 2022
Niederaussem Power Station is a lignite-fired power station owned by RWE It consists of nine units built between 1963 and 2003 It is the second-largest lignite coal power plant in Germany with total output capacity of 3 864 MW The plant is estimated to have been one of the ten most carbon polluting coal-fired power plants in the world in 2018 at 27 2 million tons of carbon dioxide According to the study Dirty Thirty by the WWF Niederaussem Power Station is the second worst power station in Europe in terms of mercury emissions
The cemetery in the new town of Neu Morschenich where most residents of Old Morschenich have moved to Originally Morschenich-Alt had 600 inhabitants The RWE AG the energy cooperation that executes the mining reimburses the former inhabitants and reserves building plots for them Morschenich New is completelly different from the old village It is a developing area on the outskirts of the town of Merzenich Everything is new except for the names of the streets and most of the inhabitants The streets are named after the streets in Morschenich-Alt The cemetery and its graves have been transferred here too
Helmut Kehrmann in his home It is the last time he visits the house before moving to the family s new place His eviction was forced the land belongs to the Church which sold it to RWE - the owner of the lignite mine It is difficult to leave behind your home he says Keyenberg used to have 1 000 inhabitants now only about 250 are left The rest have moved to the new town of Neu Keyenberg The resettlement process began in 2016 and RWE wants the town to be erased by 2024 Lignite mining has already claimed nearly 50 villages in the region and since the mid-1950s more than 40 000 people have been displaced by it