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Despite Climate Concerns, Germany Bulldozes Land To Expand Coal Mines


Ten years ago, Germany promised to phase out nuclear power. And Chancellor Angela Merkel got the nickname the climate chancellor. But Germany is the largest miner of lignite coal, one of the dirtiest and cheapest fossil fuels. It's responsible for a fifth of Germany's carbon emissions. And as NPR's Rob Schmitz found out, old villages are still being bulldozed to make way for expanding coal mines.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: The first thing Norbert Winzen wants me to know about the machine is that it never stops moving.

NORBERT WINZEN: Constantly, every day, every night, Sundays, even on Christmas.


SCHMITZ: The creaky, incessantly moving machine is known as a bucket-wheel excavator. It is taller than the Statue of Liberty, longer than Madison Square Garden and heavier than the Eiffel Tower. It holds aloft a wheel 70 feet in diameter with 18 massive buckets along its edges, each of them capable of digging 6 1/2 tons of soil. It is one of the largest machines on the planet, and it's used to dig open-pit mines. Its technical name is the Bagger 288. But as a little boy on his family farm, Winzen knew it by a different name.

WINZEN: It was a monster. It was like, oh, this is huge.

SCHMITZ: Back then, the monster was miles away. It wasn't until a few years later when the mine grew bigger and the monster slowly crept closer to his family farm when little Norbert realized how threatening it really was.

WINZEN: Four years later, when I was 8 or 10, my father said, maybe they will come someday to our house. And then I was - the first time I thought, what? This big machine, we have no chance against this big machine. How can we fight this?


SCHMITZ: Winzen is now 57 years old, and the machine looms just a few football fields behind his family farm, closer than it's ever been, digging into sugar beet fields to find more coal. This is the Garzweiler mine, and it keeps getting bigger. It's one of three massive open-pit coal mines in Germany's state of North Rhine-Westphalia along the Dutch border where lignite coal is mined, a dirty coal responsible for a fifth of Germany's carbon emissions. Nearly 50 villages in this region have been evacuated and destroyed for the ever-expanding mines. And Winzen's village of Keyenberg, more than a thousand years old, is set to be next, and his family is worried sick.

WINZEN: Did you see my mom there? Yeah, she's really - she's really sick. She's not able to talk about this anymore.

SCHMITZ: RWE, Germany's largest power company, runs the mines, and it has moved 80% of the village's residents. But Winzen refuses to leave. His family has farmed this land for more than three centuries, and they cannot imagine living anywhere else.

WINZEN: My niece is 16 years old, and she's protesting a lot. And she always pushes us and said, you have to fight more. You have to fight more.

SCHMITZ: The Winzens aren't fighting alone. In April, Germany's climate policy was upended when the country's constitutional court ruled the government must speed up its plan to cut emissions. It said current climate protection laws plays too much of a burden on future generations. Germany's government has now been forced to revise its plans, proposing legislation that will make the country greenhouse gas neutral by 2045 instead of 2050.

DIRK JANSEN: (Through interpreter) This means we have to phase out coal much more quickly.

SCHMITZ: Dirk Jansen is managing director of the North Rhine-Westphalia office of Friends of the Earth, one of the organizations that brought the case which led to the constitutional court decision. He's fighting to get Germany's government to ban all coal by 2030.

JANSEN: (Through interpreter) You always hear the argument that if we phase out coal, that the lights will go off. But the power stations are already being shut down because they're no longer needed.

SCHMITZ: And this debate is consuming Germany's federal election in September. Chancellor Angela Merkel is set to step down after 16 years in power. And her choice to take her place is Armin Laschet, state premier of this very region and the son of a coal miner. Jansen's been fighting his policies for years.

JANSEN: (Through interpreter) He wants to mine a further 900 million tons of lignite, destroying villages in the process. And he's making the construction of wind farms difficult.

SCHMITZ: Jansen is rooting instead for the Green Party to get a big enough share of the vote to be able to call the shots in a coalition government. The mining company RWE is already being paid more than $3 billion by Germany's government to phase out its coal mines.

GUIDO STEFFEN: And if politics say we paint the town red, then everybody will do it. I mean, that's politics, and that's the law.

SCHMITZ: RWE spokesman Guido Steffen says his company has made drastic cuts to its carbon emissions. And, says Steffen, RWE is building wind farms. He takes me to one near a decommissioned portion of one of the company's mines. And he says RWE's three open-pit mines in the region are shutting down much earlier than planned.

STEFFEN: Two of our three mines will close at the end of 2029, and only Garzweiler mine will run a few years longer, probably till 2038.

SCHMITZ: But Norbert Winzen, whose farm is on the edge of the Garzweiler mine, doesn't have until 2038. He wants the phase out now. He refuses to move to the so-called New Keyenberg, a town RWE set up for villagers who've agreed to move.

WINZEN: It's nothing like village. It's a suburb.


SCHMITZ: Winzen's story has become a cause celebre. A violist from the nearby Beethoven Orchestra in Bonn has organized musicians to play an annual benefit concert at his farm. Seated inside the barn, the orchestra eases in to Beethoven's Sixth Symphony, the "Pastoral," a not-so-subtle reminder of the ecosystem outside slated to be destroyed.


SCHMITZ: In the meantime, another organization moved by Winzen's struggle has donated tens of thousands of dollars' worth of solar panels to his farm. Winzen says they'll install the panels next year, a message to the coal mine and the monstrous machine looming over his fields that his family has no plans to move. Rob Schmitz, NPR News, Keyenberg, Germany.


Rob Schmitz
Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.
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