The Current

German coal mine expansion threatens to displace villagers, even as country charts green energy future

A dozen or so historic villages in Germany are about to be swallowed up by open-pit coal mines in the coming years. Meanwhile, a neighbourhood in the city of Freiburg has forged its own reputation as a leader in energy conservation, solar power and green building standards.

While coal mining operations continue, an green energy-friendly 'eco-district' in Freiburg is turning heads

A man holds a placard as young climate activists attend a Fridays for Future protest outside Germany's chancellery in Berlin on Sept. 13, 2019. The banner reads 'Stop coal.' (Fabrizio Bensc/Reuters)

Originally published on September 23, 2019

Germany finds itself at a crossroads when it comes to its reputation as a leader in the fight against climate change: while the country has invested billions in renewable energy, coal is still its second largest source of electricity.

The clearest example of the country's climate change contradictions may be the dozen or so historic villages that are about to be swallowed up by open-pit coal mines in the coming years.

"We are fighting in a union together to stop coal mining in Germany and to protect our houses from being destroyed," said David Dresen. His family is under pressure to leave their home village of Kockum in western Germany because a mining company has a permit to dig there.

Dresen and others across the country whose homes are being threatened by coal mining expansion gathered in Podelwitz, a tiny village north of Leipzig, perched on the edge of an open-pit coal mine.

The prospect of being dislocated is especially hard for Dresen to fathom, given the government's pledge earlier this year to phase out coal power.

David Dresen came to Podelwitz all the way from his village of Kockum in western Germany to meet with others who live in villages threatened by coal mining expansion. (Kristin Nelson/CBC)

"It's crazy because all of us are talking about climate change, and we know how important it is, and there's no other opportunity than making climate protection. And in the same sentence they say we have to destroy villages for the coal mining," says Dresen.

"For me I don't get it, I really don't get it, because it makes no sense."

'We need the coal there,' says mining company

Ten years ago 140 people lived in Podelwitz, but the coal company has slowly purchased most of the homes and only 26 villagers remain.

Those who have stayed are fighting to save the village, and in August they invited climate change activists to set up camp in the village.

Dresen's family has roots in Kockum dating back to 1862. He lives on the farm that his grandfather built.

"My grandfather has never been anywhere else," said Dresen, "and the biggest city he's ever seen was Cologne, which is not far away, and he's only been there twice in his life."

Ten years ago 140 people lived in Podelwitz, but the coal company has slowly purchased most of the homes and only 26 villagers remain. (Kristin Nelson/CBC)

He's not sure how his 82 year-old grandfather will cope with having to leave the village.

"He said to me: 'If I have to go, I would like to die.'"

Dresen agrees with the climate change activists gathered in Podelwitz who want Germany's government to phase out coal by 2020, not 2038, the government's current target date.

But coal company spokesman Guido Steffen says that's simply not possible.

"You have a present situation where you still need the coal for Germany's energy provisions, for German's electricity," says Steffen. "We need the coal there."

The coal power plant near Podelwitz, Germany. (Kristin Nelson/CBC)

Steffen works for RWE, the company that runs the mine next to David Dresen's village. In 1995 the state granted RWE a permit giving it the legal right to mine coal within a certain area that includes Dresen's village and four others.

"People in Kockum knew they were on land with coal below that is going to be dug one day," said Steffen.

He says the village will not be destroyed, but rather moved "a few kilometres northwest of its present location."

RWE compensates villagers for their homes and helps to develop the new location — "a new Kockum," as Steffen describes it.

Steffen says two-thirds of the roughly 600 families in the village have negotiated with the company and signed contracts to leave.

He adds that Dresen's family has received multiple offers from RWE to help their relocation.

"And whether they accept it or not, it's their choice."

With its vegetal roofs, solar panels and streets where pedestrians are kings, the Vauban eco-neighbourhood attracts thousands of foreign visitors, mainly French, looking for information on energy savings. (Frederick Florin/AFP/Getty Images)

'Eco-district' in Freiburg stands out

In spite of the country's continued reliance on coal and nuclear power, the western German city of Freiburg, home to around 220,000 people, has forged its own reputation as a leader in energy conservation, solar power and green building standards.

Two decades ago, its Vauban neighbourhood took the steps to transform itself into a sustainable "eco-district."

Now, it consumes about half the energy of a typical neighbourhood in Freiburg. About 5,000 people live there in low-carbon, passive or even "plus-energy" homes that produce more power than they consume.

Astrid Mayer, resident of the Vauban neighbourhood of Freiburg, Germany. (Kristin Nelson/CBC)

Astrid Mayer moved to Vauban from Paris 10 years ago, and currently lives in a plus-energy three-bedroom townhouse.

"There are no drafts in wintertime, it's cozy. And I have this tiny garden that is just the right size – I have a bit of green, not too much work," says Mayer, who is now director of a group called Freiburg Future Lab.

"We have the solar panels on the roof so it's good for your feeling that you do something for the environment."

Most people in the Vauban neighbourhood of Freiburg, Germany do not own cars. (Kristin Nelson/CBC)

Vauban's quiet streets and combination of high density housing, parks and public spaces is the recipe for high quality of life, according to Mayer. She doesn't own a car, as cars are banned from two-thirds of the neighbourhood.

Mayer believes Vauban can serve as an inspiration to other communities around the world, but the path to a low carbon future will depend on the local circumstances.

"The motto is 'think global and act local'", she said. "You have a goal – saving energy and having a better life – but in every spot in the world it will mean something different."

Written by Kristin Nelson. Produced by Kristin Nelson and Joan Webber.