Germany is slowly shuttering its prolific lignite mines, which produce the least efficient type of coal. The ghostly towns in the mines’ shadows may hold a lesson for how to move on.
I’m standing in the middle of Old Manheim village, but my phone is telling me otherwise. On one side of me I can see the old church, its windows boarded up. On the other, there’s the village pub looking similarly abandoned. But Google Maps is adamant this place doesn’t exist. The little arrow on my phone can’t even pick up the street I’m on. It thinks I’m in a field.
Since the late 1940s, around 50 villages like this have been cleared to make way for coal mines in North-Rhine Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state. Old Manheim – or just Manheim, as it was once known – is on the edge of Hambach, one of three open-cast mines in the region where lignite, a soft brown coal used almost exclusively in power generation, is extracted. The majority of Old Manheim’s residents have had their houses purchased by energy company RWE, which operates the mines, and have moved to the freshly constructed New Manheim just down the road. They’ve even taken the road names with them, and the ones where I am now have been wiped from the map.
We want to become a model for the rest of the world on how to exit coal – Ralph Sterck
Germany is the world’s biggest producer of lignite, and the industry has shaped both the landscape and the lives of communities here for generations. As well as the destruction and reconstruction of villages, forests and farmland, the mines have provided a steady supply of skilled, blue collar jobs for thousands of people. They have also been the site of huge protests, with activists fighting to save parts of the neighbouring Hambach forest – 90% of which was swallowed by the mine. Tensions between environmentalists, police and RWE employees have been a familiar backdrop to everyday life over the past 15 years. Old Manheim was even occupied by activists at one point, and their “Hambi stays” graffiti can still be seen on the walls of some houses.
But all of this is about to change. Last year, Germany announced that it plans to phase out the use of coal entirely by 2038. Lignite is the most polluting of all coal types, as its lower density means larger amounts need to be burned to produce a unit of power, and it is responsible for 20% of the country’s carbon emissions. The region has received €15bn (£12.9bn/$17.8bn) from the federal government to make this exit process a success. The mines will eventually be filled in, and some parts of land once earmarked for destruction will now stay, including the last remaining patch of Hambach forest. Now, the community faces a new challenge – how to create a new future for the region after coal.
Rudolf Juchelka, an economic geographer at the University of Duisburg-Essen who studies the history and culture of coal mining, says that despite the destruction of homes being upsetting for older residents in particular, most people in this coal region were accustomed to it. “People have known for 30 or 40 years that their village will one day be destroyed,” he says. “And many also worked in the mines themselves, so there’s a conflict there.” And although politicians had discussed the prospect of a coal phase-out for a number of years, the sudden introduction of the 2038 date came as a bit of a surprise. “People have planned their lives, and now suddenly everything’s changing,” says Juchelka.
Tasked with coming up with a strategy for how best to use the €15bn is Zukunftsagentur (Future Agents), a not-for-profit based in the nearby town of Jülich. Its executive director Ralph Sterck tells me there are many grand ideas being cooked up. “We want to become a model for the rest of the world on how to exit coal,” he says.
RWE is switching its focus to renewable energy, but windfarms require far fewer workers than mines, meaning thousands of jobs at the company will be lost. AI research parks, hydrogen production centres and quantum computing are all being touted as potential new industries, and Zukunftsagentur hopes to not just replace jobs that are being lost but create new ones too.
We need to stop this lignite mining, right now. There’s no need for it – Dirk Janson
Two mines, including Hambach, will be filled in with water to create lakes – a process that will take 100 years due to their size – while another, Garzweiler, will potentially be filled in with soil ready for new settlements to be built on top.
However, Sterck knows there’s one major challenge to be overcome if any of this is to be successful. “Whenever you build something new, you need to bring the citizens along too, or it won’t work,” he says. “There are a lot of people working in the mines right now and they’re very open to ideas, and there are also the climate activists, who are more critical of the process. But we have to bring everyone together.”
It’s important to be clear that Germany’s coal exit plan falls far short of environmental recommendations. According to estimates, the European Union needs to phase out coal by 2030 to meet the 1.5C target of the Paris Agreement, which all countries in the bloc have signed up to. The EU has called for a global phase-out of coal power, where it is not coupled with carbon capture and storage to absorb emissions.
“It’s too slow,” Dirk Janson tells me, shaking his head. The managing director of the regional Friends of the Earth group has been campaigning against the mine expansions for years, and supports activists who have occupied forest areas and villages. Under the current plan, mine expansions will continue for a number of years, meaning that five more villages will be destroyed. Janson is also critical of the compensation payouts lignite power plant owners are set to receive.
“We need to stop this lignite mining, right now. There’s no need for it,” Janson says. He would like to see the region turned onto a hub for renewable energy, and for wooded areas to be expanded and joined together to help reverse biodiversity loss.
Back in Old Manheim, Marco and Claudia Jakobs show me the spot where their house once stood. “I knew the village would one day be cleared when I moved here [in 1999],” Claudia says. “But it seemed so far in the future.” In around 2001, the first meetings were called to explain to villagers they needed to move. “It felt very surreal. But we soon realised, we had to live with it and make our new lives the best we could.”
The couple say they felt supported by both RWE and the authorities when planning the new village – “we got most of the things we wanted, such as a lot of green space” – despite the money raised from selling their old house not covering the full cost of the new build. Handing the keys over to RWE on the day they moved out was also emotional. “My son will never be able to return to the place where he grew up,” says Claudia.
Many houses in the village were occupied by activists after residents left, which the Jakobs say the community found traumatic even though they were generally supportive of saving the forest. “Some of our neighbours took it very personally, because they felt their hearts were still in those houses, even if the energy company now owned them,” says Claudia. “They were happy for them to be torn down.”
But despite the mining industry causing so much disruption to their lives, the Jakobs say they feel uneasy about the race to exit coal. “It seems a bit too fast,” says Marco. Older RWE employees have been offered comfortable early retirement plans, but Marco says he is concerned for those in their 20s and 30s, who will need to retrain. “I do hope we manage to build a new economy,” he says.
The European Commission and other international agencies have praised Zukunftsagenteur for its success in bringing different affected groups into the transition process. The EU also suggested that their outreach work has helped bring about a high acceptance of the need for a coal exit, compared to other parts of the world where it has become a hugely divisive issue.
But project manager Nicole Kolster, who works to bring community members into the planning process, insists that this tricky task is still ongoing. People in the region say they want to see changes happen quickly. Yet they also want as many people on board as possible, which slows processes down. The Covid-19 pandemic has also meant the feedback sessions have so far been held online, which limits their impact.
However, she says she has still managed to gain fascinating insights into how plans could be shaped. “People have told us they believe quality of life is just as important as the economy,” she says. Increasing biodiversity through more wild, wooded areas and the creation of the lakes are popular ideas, as is commemorating the role mining played in the area through monuments and museums. The plan now is to try and reach residents more directly as Covid-19 restrictions lift. “We want a ‘dialoguemobil’ vehicle that will allow us to go to people directly, explain who we are and why we want them involved,” she says.
What would the good life look like here after coal has gone?
In Old Morschenich, not far from Old Manheim, the local mayor George Gelhausen is hatching a scheme which he hopes can bridge community divides. As you drive in, a new sign has been erected underneath the original village name: “Village of the Future”. This settlement was set to be destroyed to make way for Hambach mine, just like Old Manheim. But when the coal phase-out was announced last year, further digging in this direction was cancelled. Unfortunately, most of the residents had already moved to new houses elsewhere.
“People were disappointed that it was too late for them to choose to stay,” he says. “But most agreed that, rather than new people moving in, they would like to see the village transformed into something else.” The plan now is to create a renewable energy and research hub, and Gelhausen is working with students from the local university to draw up solid plans, as well as gathering views from the community on want they want to see happen.
“People will automatically reject any plans if they feel they weren’t involved,” Gelhausen says, adding that he thinks it will take two or three years to put together a strategy that takes everyone’s views into account. “My aim is to bring peace to this village,” he says. “There were 50,000 protestors and 2,000 police here at one point. Many villagers worked in the mines and were upset, as they felt their community and jobs were being destroyed. There are strong emotions on both sides, and they can easily clash, so it’s important we build a peaceful dialogue.” The community is also keeping their options wide open as to what the new village could look like. “Maybe it won’t even need to have roads.”
Germany has a long history of industrial transformation, which may have helped it remain the largest economy in Europe. But this hasn’t always been well-received by its citizens. The reunification process in the 1990s saw lots of workers in the former communist East Germany lose their jobs when their industries were privatised, which has resulted in resentment and a feeling of being left behind.
“I don’t see that any European countries are handling this issue of citizen engagement very well,” says Dagmer Schmidt, who has worked with communities in Lusatia, another lignite region in eastern Germany. “We seem to have lost the art of having good conversations about the future – or perhaps we never had it to begin with.”
Schmidt says that, rather than asking people for feedback on specific ideas, it’s better to ask questions such as what would the good life look like here after coal has gone? “If you just ask people on the street, you’re not going to get very intelligible answers – not because people are stupid, but because they haven’t really engaged with the subject,” she says. She also warns that you can’t just plonk something like a museum in an area without building the community around it first: “Who’s going to visit the museum? Who’s going to care about it? It doesn’t need to be a perfect project, but it needs to be something that people feel belongs to them.”
Residents are, overall, supportive of the coal exit and understand its importance from an environmental perspective, a survey of other mining regions in Germany found. However, they also say they are struggling to identify an overall vision for the transition.
Back in Old Morschenich, standing in front of the houses once marked for destruction, Mayor Gelhausen says he is feeling rather optimistic. “This is a really unique situation, so we have a unique opportunity,” he concludes. “I think it’s going to be thrilling to see how ideas develop here.”