Germany’s Coal Phaseout Fable

By Samuel Gregory-Manning
Samuel Gregory-Manning is Communications Officer at the European Environmental Bureau, Europe’s largest network of environmental citizens’ groups with 150 members in more than 30 countries. 

The negotiations to form a coalition government following the federal election in Germany have brought forward an aim for an accelerated and Paris Agreement compatible phaseout of coal “ideally” by 2030, eight years earlier than originally planned. While the inclusion of “ideally” is less concrete than as originally envisioned by the Greens, the realities of coal endgame in Europe are evidently clear to the new German government.  

The new date sees Germany join 16 other European countries ditching coal or committing to do so by 2030. More than half of European coal plants have been closed, while the remainder are set to do so by the end of the decade. The European Union’s largest member state ramping up its coal phaseout marks a significant step in the transition of the wider bloc away from coal. Germany is a top EU consumer of fossil fuel, accounting for the second-highest consumption of hard coal and the highest consumption of lignite coal in 2020.  

Germany could lead the way for the other EU member states that have so far proven reluctant to ditch coal, pointing to the Germans as an excusing example of ‘best practice’. Weaving a phase-out fable on the dangers of lagging behind, it would demonstrate that the rising economic, environmental, and political pressures make such a fate inevitable. Increasing carbon prices have made hanging onto coal a pricey prospect, while the political appetite of citizens grows ever hungrier for action on climate change. 

The tone is changing in the coal regions

A sped-up German coal phaseout by 2030 matches the responsibilities of the Paris Agreement goal to limit global warming to 1.5°C, alongside allaying the fears of Germans on the frontline of coal’s last stand in the country. Citizens of North-Rhine Westphalia have seen the Garzweiler coal mine swallow up villages and encroach on farmlands over the past few decades. The newly incumbent Minister-President Hendrik Wüst of the Christian Democrats has now voiced his intention for the most populous German state to phase out coal in line with the 2030 target.   

In a clear departure from his predecessor Armin Laschet’s affinity for coal, Wüst’s comments come as a milestone for the persistent efforts of civil society in the region to safeguard the homes and livelihoods of citizens from destructive coal mine expansions. Wüst’s call for clarity from the incoming federal government on the expansion of renewables and the security of coal alternatives further normalizes the 2030 phaseout date for the rest of the country.  

Riccardo Nigro, EEB Campaign Coordinator on Coal Combustion and Mines said: “Coal endgame is inevitable and accelerating throughout Europe due to economic, environmental, and policy reasons. The new German government has the possibility to set a new tone across Europe, align Germany to a Paris-compatible coal phase-out plan, and stop the shameful destruction of villages that RWE is bringing forward to dig unneeded coal in Garzweiler.” 

The pressure increases

Coal came under the spotlight like never before at this year’s COP26. The Glasgow climate pact resulting from the conference saw the greatest disputes during its negotiations arise over coal, with a last-minute watering down of ‘coal phaseout’ to ‘coal phasedown’ at the behest of China and India. Despite this weakening of language, the pact marks the first time such a resolution has made its way into a UN climate text and is indicative of a global shift, slowly but surely, away from coal.  

EU coal phaseout laggards risk falling even further behind the coal kicking curve. The climate summit produced a Global Coal to Clean Power Transition Statement, signed by a coalition of 190 countries and organizations agreeing to phase out coal, by 2030 for major economies and 2040 for the rest of the world. Announced to much fanfare, the infamously coal-addicted Poland was a surprise signatory. It quickly rectified its position however, reaffirming that its phaseout deadline remained 2049 as it did not consider itself to be a major economy.  

Elsewhere, the other member states falling short of 2030 include Croatia, which has set a deadline of 2033, while the coal phaseouts of Slovenia and the Czech Republic are under discussion, the latter having indicated a vague “pre-2038” exit.  

As the German coalition enters government, the pressure for earlier coal exits continues to mount on both the EU and global front. It will be but a matter of time before EU laggards have to heed the phaseout fable.  

This article was adapted from one originally published on the EEB’s META news channel 

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