BERLIN—Hermann Ott was frustrated and angry. Germany’s recent decision to expand an open-pit coal mine in the small village of Lützerath was not the type of action he expected from the current government.
“I was sick,” he said. “I was really angry with the Green politicians.” Ott is a climate attorney and former member of parliament for the climate-minded Green Party. As a main player in Germany’s coalition government, the party has more power now than ever before.
Activists occupied the village for months to stop the mine expansion until police cleared them from the site on Jan. 11.
Ott was heartened by the intense protests. To him, it was emblematic of the unusually strong sense of civic responsibility in Germany that grew out of its history with the Holocaust and World War II.
“In the ‘60s, young people questioned their parents or grandparents: ‘Why hadn’t you done anything?’ I think there was a general feeling that if there’s something wrong, then you’ve got to speak up. You’ve got to be loud and make yourself heard.”
He and other activists are treating climate change the same way. As Germany ramps up fossil fuel infrastructure after Russia cut off gas pipelines, concerned members of the public aren’t letting the Green Party forget about the country’s climate commitments. The activists, lawyers and lobbyists involved in this fight are holding leaders accountable, even as other priorities pull the government in multiple directions.
The pipeline cut-off sent Germany and much of Europe into an energy crisis. Germany had a particularly strong dependence on Russian gas, with Russia providing 55 percent of gas imports in 2021.
But Lili Fuhr, a deputy director from the Center of International Environmental Law, disagreed with that characterization of the issue. “The current crisis is not really an energy crisis, it’s a fossil fuel crisis,” she said.
Two years ago, Germany pledged to achieve a 65 percent reduction in annual greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, as compared to 1990 levels. By 2045, the country promised to reach net zero emissions.
Those targets will be unachievable without a “paradigm shift” in energy policy, a government-appointed council of experts wrote in a report last year.
Working Towards a Clean Energy Transition
Germany has announced some policies to speed up its transition to renewable energy. Thanks to the Green Party’s historic success in Germany’s 2021 federal election, it now controls the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Climate Action, a vital agency for setting energy policy and monitoring the country’s climate goals.
“Last summer we redrafted the law for supporting renewable energies in the electricity sector,” said Katharina Grave, a spokesperson for the ministry. “We have a very ambitious target to get more electricity from renewable energy sources.”
The amendment last year to the country’s Renewable Energy Sources Act set this target at 80 percent of electricity demand by 2030. Other changes in the legislation included removing a renewable energy surcharge on consumers and stating that the conversion to renewable energy is in the overriding public interest.
Additionally, in January the ministry submitted a bill to Germany’s parliament that would speed up licensing for onshore and offshore wind farms.
The bill builds off a plan announced last year requiring Germany’s states to make at least 2 percent of their territory available for wind power infrastructure. “We have put in deadlines to be fulfilled,” Grave said. “If these deadlines are not fulfilled, then the regional state loses its power to decide for itself.”
The Greens also negotiated to halt Germany’s use of coal by 2030, eight years earlier than previously planned. However, the deal controversially included approval of the Lützerath mine expansion.
Falling Back on Coal
Last year, while the German government was taking these steps to encourage renewable energy, it increased the country’s reliance on fossil fuels to cope with the loss of Russian gas.
Despite agreeing to end coal use earlier, the government decided to delay the retirement of certain coal power plants. In some cases, it even agreed to bring deactivated plants back online.
The government also approved the leases of five temporary liquified natural gas, or LNG, terminals, and was in talks to build at least one permanent, on-land terminal.
The first terminal is already in operation near the Wadden Sea, a UNESCO World Heritage site on Germany’s North Sea coast that plays a critical role in the conservation of migratory waterbirds.
The terminals receive compressed, liquified natural gas shipped from overseas and return it to usable vapor. They represent a rapid and significant new investment in fossil fuel infrastructure—a move that is inconsistent with Germany’s emissions reduction targets, according to activists, scientists and research analysts.
Natural gas, which is primarily methane, is highly polluting. New academic literature suggests it is just as harmful as other fossil fuels, even though some label it a so-called bridge fuel. It emits less carbon than coal when burned to make electricity, but methane, which traps about 80 times more heat than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period, frequently leaks from wellheads, pipelines and even household use.
The Wadden Sea area is home to impressive mud flats that stretch nearly a mile from the shoreline before reaching the water. Beneath the muck is a crucial ecosystem of worms and mussels that fuels the migration of 10-12 million birds every year.
The new LNG facility is mere meters from the protected area’s boundary and could endanger the habitat, according to an official guide from Germany’s national park service.
Local activists said they felt let down by the government’s failure to conduct an environmental review before allowing the facility to come online. They also question the country’s need for such a facility at all.
The NewClimate Institute recently found that, if measures to improve energy efficiency and reduce demand for gas continue, Germany’s energy needs could easily be met by importing gas from neighboring countries using existing pipeline infrastructure.
Lili Fuhr is careful to assign blame for recent events across the German political spectrum. She is a committed environmentalist who sits on the board of two environmental charities. Previously, she headed up the international policy department at the Green Party-affiliated Heinrich Böll Foundation.
“Everyone talks about what the Greens did or didn’t do while all of the other parties get let off the hook, even though they played the biggest role,” she said in an interview, referring to inaction on climate over the last two decades in Germany.
Hope and Disappointment in the Green Party
Still, Fuhr struggles to accept these decisions as reasonable compromises at a time when the German climate movement has grown significantly and the Green Party has more power than ever. She called the decisions on coal and LNG “dumb and unhelpful.”
“I think it’s just outrageous. It is unacceptable,” she said.
Beginning in 2018, climate change began climbing quickly as a concern for voters in Germany. It became the country’s top issue before the coronavirus pandemic began.
After the pandemic subsided and before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, climate action once again became the top issue in Germany at a crucial moment.
Just months before the federal parliamentary elections in 2021, that year’s summer was historically bad as heavy rain and humidity in the country’s western region caused floods that killed at least 180 people and cost $40 billion in damages. Experts agreed that climate change played a significant role in causing the disaster.
The Green Party, which has pushed for environmental protection since its founding in 1980, was well-positioned to capitalize on that concern.
The 2021 election results “brought hope to me and many in the German environmental movement,” Fuhr said. “The Greens brought a lot of smart and experienced people into key positions in different ministries.”
But conflicting priorities have muddied the Greens’ progressive climate agenda. Germany’s energy market was not prepared to lose natural gas imports amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. A complicated coalition arrangement has made it difficult for the Greens to fully implement their climate action plans. And rising costs of living, in part driven by higher gas prices, have preoccupied voters.
“They are pulled in too many different directions,” Fuhr said of government leaders. “And I think power corrupts as well. When you're in power, you want to remain in power.”
Stefanie Eilers, a zealous opponent of the Wadden Sea LNG terminal and nearby resident, is devastated by her government’s decision to approve the facility. She rallies other locals to learn about and protest the buildup of fossil fuel infrastructure in the area.
But even she acknowledged the challenges facing her country’s government.
“They have to handle a war,” she said. “They have to have military production. They have to handle… inflation.”
She and other activists draw motivation from the government’s shortcomings. “We have to fight in this system to make it better,” Eilers added.
Grassroots Activism Powers Germany’s Climate Movement
Several activists remarked on the importance of the Fridays For Future movement, the student activism campaign founded in 2018 by Greta Thunberg, as a crucial part of that fight.
The organization is prevalent in Germany. “They're quite influential. They have a hold on society,” Fuhr said. It has spawned allies such as Scientists for Future, Psychologists for Future, Parents for Future and even Grannies for Future.
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Most recently, Fridays For Future and other activists attracted national and global media attention as a result of the Lützerath coal mine protests.
The events of that day were front-page news across Germany. Süddeutsche Zeitung, the country’s second-largest newspaper, published a front page headline that said, “The whole world is watching.”
“It's really impressive when you watch these talk shows on a Sunday evening, and you have really experienced politicians, and then really young people from the climate movement—and they're better. They're really doing a great job,” said Paula Ciré. She works as an attorney for ClientEarth, an environmental law organization that shares a busy Berlin office building with a half dozen other environmental and energy organizations.
According to Ott, the former Green Party member of parliament and current director for ClientEarth Germany, it is these grassroots activists who really power Germany’s climate movement. He sees himself in a supporting role.
“We provide power to people so that they can defend themselves against governments, authorities and also companies,” he said.
Reflecting on Lützerath, Ott and Ciré said the government failed to recognize how important cooperation and transparency are to climate activists. They criticized the government’s lack of communication with environmental activists and organizations in the lead-up to decisions regarding the mine. “Negotiations were taken behind closed doors,” Ciré said.
Oliver Powalla, an energy policy expert at the environmental lobbying organization Friends of the Earth, said moments like that can strain the working relationship between activists and Green Party leaders. “They are supposed to be our friends. We try to be as friendly as possible to them, but sometimes our voices get more angry,” he said.
Sometimes, the only way forward is through the courts.
“Our sharpest sword is definitely litigation,” Sascha Boden said. His organization, Environmental Action Germany, works to protect Germany’s climate and natural resources. Members engage in campaigns, work alongside the German national and EU governments, and, when necessary, bring litigation to hold them to account.
The organization recently pursued legal action opposing planned construction for a LNG terminal near the Baltic Sea island of Rügen. It also filed litigation last year seeking to ensure that Germany’s new LNG terminals only operate for as long as they are demonstrably required to meet energy shortfalls. These cases remain before the courts.
While courts in some jurisdictions, including the U.S., tend not to intervene in climate policy issues, German courts have shown a willingness to rule on the adequacy of the country’s climate targets.
In 2021, the Federal Constitutional Court ruled that the domestic climate law was inadequate because it lacked details on emissions reduction beyond 2030.
“The challenged provisions do violate the freedoms of the complainants, some of whom are still very young," the court said in a statement. "The provisions irreversibly offload major emission reduction burdens onto periods after 2030."
Following the court’s decision, federal lawmakers strengthened the climate law to require, at a minimum, a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions of 65 percent by 2030. The previous goal was 55 percent.
The court’s landmark ruling has invigorated climate attorneys in Germany.
“What is very important to me, as a lawyer, is that we have this constitutional backup to what we do now,” Ciré said.
Resiliency Through Song
Back on the mud flats at the edge of the Wadden Sea, Stefanie Eilers gathered with fellow activists. They grabbed ukuleles and drums, and sang their appreciation to the sea.
The Wadden Sea, with its gray mucky sand, may not look like much to some. But the upbeat folk tune celebrated the sea’s bountiful resources. Eilers’ desire to protect that bounty propels her activism.
“No, [I’m] not happy. But I see how they struggle,” Eilers said, acknowledging the challenges facing the Green Party and the coalition government.
“This is why we argue, that is why we speak, that is why we dance and sing.”