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As Australia looks to expand coal exports and buildnew mines, like Adani's proposed Carmichael project, Europe'sbiggest economy is phasing out its entire coal industry for good.

Germanyis shutting down its coal industry for good, so far without sacking a singleworker


By EricCampbell in Germany

Updated about 10 hours ago


A wind turbine with smoke stacks in the background.PHOTO: Germanyhas struck a deal to retire its remaining brown coal mines and powerplants. (Reuters: Hannibal Hanschke)

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Deep underground in Germany's Ruhrvalley, Uwe Seeger plunges a drill into the black earth just as thousands ofcoal miners in this region have done before him.

"My grandpa did it like this, we usedit like this to destroy the big stones," he tells Foreign Correspondent.

Black coal mines like this one in Essen, which opened its first shaft in 1875, once firedthe furnaces that made Germanythe economic powerhouse of Europe.

But this is no longer a working mine — it'sa museum, set up by Mr Seeger and some other former miners to show tourists howlife once was in Germany's western industrial heartland.

That's because Germany shut down its last blackcoal mine in 2018.

Miners were offered a new job or an earlyretirement and a centuries-old way of life came to a sudden end.

Space to play or pause, M to mute, left andright arrows to seek, up and down arrows for volume.

 VIDEO: Ex-minerUwe Seeger tours a coal mine turned into a museum (ABC News)

"We don't have [black] coal mining in Germanyanymore," says Mr Seeger. "I'm very sad about that."

But Germany is not looking back. Anation that built its fortunes on coal has decided the fossil fuel's days arenumbered.

As Australialooks to expand coal exports and build new mines, like Adani's proposedCarmichael project, Europe's biggest economyis phasing out its entire coal industry for good.

Is solar thermal power the way forward?

As the world looks to Germany as a shining example of how to shift away fromcoal power, a nuclear expert in Queensland is advocating for solar thermal power.

Having already extinguished black coal, Germanyis now doing the same to brown coal — a cheaper, dirtier fossil fuel that spewseven more carbon emissions.

Berlin has announced a timetable to close not only every remaining browncoal mine but all the carbon-emitting power plants that burn coal to makeelectricity, by 2038.

In a grand compromise that many Australiansmight find hard to fathom, trade unions, energy companies, green groups andgovernment have all agreed that the coal industry must go.

And the Government will give tens ofbillions of dollars to coal regions to create new jobs and industries.

From mines to museums

In the corporate foyer of German coal giantRAG, in Essen,a heaving black nugget of coal sits proudly on display.

It's one of the last hunks of black coaldragged up from the company's mine in Bottrop,in the Ruhr valley, before it was closed inDecember 2018.

A large piece of coal sits on a plinth.PHOTO: Germancoal giant RAG displays one of the last pieces of black coal mined in Germanyin its corporate foyer. (Foreign Correspondent: Ron Ekkel)

"It's part of the Berlin Wall for us,it's the last coal," says RAG spokesman Christophe Beike.

"We take care of this part andnobody's allowed to take a piece of it. It's like a baby."

Germany'sblack coal industry was shut down with the cooperation of big coal companieslike RAG. And it had nothing to do with climate change.

By the 1970s, Germany's remaining black coaldeposits were buried so deep the mines were unprofitable and surviving ongovernment subsidies.

It was cheaper for Germany to import coal from countries with lowerproduction costs like Colombia.Germany was even buying coalfrom Australia.

So in 2007, the government, coal companiesand trade unions struck a historic deal to wind down black coal for good.

A miner kisses a piece of coal as his colleagues huddle around him.PHOTO: Backin December 2018, miners kissed a chunk of coal at a press event as Germanyshuttered its last black coal mines. (Reuters: Thilo Schmuelgen)

"[The government] asked us how muchtime you need to do that without any problems, not to bring the people off theworking market," Mr Beike said.

Mr Beike said they were given plenty oftime — and money — to make the transition.

RAG maintains only a skeleton staff toadminister workers' pensions and contract mine restorations. Mr Beike says only100 workers are still in need of a job.

What is brown coal?

Cheap, abundant and dirty — brown coal is alow-grade coal also know as lignite. Brown coal is softer than black coal andcontains more moisture. It releases less energy and more carbon emissions whenit burns.
But the economics of brown coal still stack up in places like Germany. That'sbecause lignite is often found close to the surface, making it cheap and easyto extract from open-cut mines. It can then be hauled over short distances tofuel nearby power stations.

One former miner tells ForeignCorrespondent he found work as a research scientist; another has been retrainedfor a job as a trade union secretary.

Government subsidies were used to transforman old RAG coking plant into a World Heritage site, preserved as a piece ofhistory for international tourists. It now has solar panels on the roof.

Black coal may have been shut down foreconomic reasons but a new move to phase out brown coal is purelyenvironmental.

Renewables currently account for 40 percent of Germany'senergy generation but there are plans to increase that to 65 per cent by theend of the decade. To meet its Paristargets, the country must do more.

Unlike Australia, where the FederalGovernment's response to climate change is being debated after a season ofcatastrophic fires, there is broad agreement in Germany that coal's demise isinevitable.

An aerial view of the disused coal mine.PHOTO: Theformer Zollverein coal mine in Essen, Germany, has been remade as a worldheritage site for tourists. (Foreign Correspondent: Ron Ekkel)

The successful closure of the black coalindustry is now providing a blueprint for how to finish the job.

Under what's known as the Coal Compromise,struck in January 2019, the rest of Germany's coal industry will soonstart retiring their mines and power plants.

Corporations have been given nearly twodecades to completely shut down and the Government has promised 40 billioneuros ($65 billion) to coal regions to ease the transition.

This time around the upheaval will largelybe felt on the other side of Germanyfrom the Ruhr, where brown coal has providedan economic lifeline for many former East German towns since the collapse ofcommunism.

A new front in the coal war

In the coal town of Spremberg near the Polish border, workers arebracing for the coming confrontation.

Thousands of climate activists aregathering across Lusatia, an industrial region in Germany's east, to occupy coalmines and power stations.

At a local coal power plant — slated toclose in 2028 — coal workers are holding a vigil in defiance of the climateprotests. Each worker ending their shift throws a lump of coal into a fire asan act of solidarity.

A protester with a sign around her neck reading 'because there is no planet B'.PHOTO: Climateprotesters are demanding a faster exit from coal than the 2038 Coal Compromisedeadline. (Foreign Correspondent: Ron Ekkel)

Despite the Coal Compromise, a new rift hasemerged between the coal industry and climate change activists who say the dealis too generous to the coal industry.

Daniel Hofinger stands in front of other activists disrupting a coal mine.PHOTO: EndeGelaende activist Daniel Hofinger says Germany has a duty to lead on climatechange. (Foreign Correspondent: Ron Ekkel)

"To suggest we continue burning coalfor another 18 years is just ludicrous," Daniel Hofinger, an activist withEnde Gelaende who is joining the protests in Lusatia,said.

"We have to phase out coal in Germany rightnow. If we don't do that, it's going to be quite near the end of the world aswe know it.

"The [Intergovernmental Panel onClimate Change] tells us that if we continue burning coal, we're running intocatastrophic climate change."

Ende Gelaende, which means "GameOver", is a radical environmental group set up specifically to stop browncoal. And it wants to stop it now.

The group does not march in the streets. Itfields thousands of disciplined activists in military-style formations tooccupy coal regions and shut down infrastructure.

YOUTUBE: YouTube videoof Ende Gelaende's military-style protest tactics

Ende Gelaende is non-violent but itstactics of mass invasion are devastatingly effective in outmanoeuvring police.

"The drive for climate justice didn'tcome from the government," Mr Hofinger said.

"It was fought for and won by a strongsocial movement."

But Germany has arguably gone furtherthan most countries in its response to climate change. By 2030, it aims toreduce emissions by 55 per cent compared with 1990 levels. By 2050, it would bea 95 per cent cut.

Protesters in white and red jumpsuits are blocked by police in black riot gear.PHOTO: EndeGelaende activists were briefly stopped by police before breaking through thelines to shut down a mine. (Reuters: Christian Mang)

Environmental critics insist the emissionsreduction figures do not add up. They say if Germany wants to meet its climategoals it has to stop burning coal much sooner than 2038.

Almost a third of Germany's powerstill comes from dozens of coal-fired power plants burning domestic andimported coal.

Making the challenge even harder, Germany is planning to shut its lastzero-emissions nuclear power plant in 2022 in response to the Fukushima disaster.

Companies like LEAG, the largest powercompany in eastern Germanywith 8,000 employees, are warning solar and wind cannot yet be relied on toprovide alternative power sooner.

"People agree and understand thattimes are changing," LEAG spokesman Thoralf Schirmer said.

"They understand that we need tochange into a renewable world. We only want the right period to make thischange successfully."

Pleading for enough time

The gathering protests have angeredcommunities like Spremberg. Once part of the old communist state of East Germany, Lusatia'stextile industry collapsed after the fall of the Berlin Wall and reunificationin 1989.

Christine Herntier is interviewed by Foreign Correspondent.PHOTO: Sprembergmayor Christine Herntier was a representative on the commission that worked outthe coal compromise. (Foreign Correspondent: Ron Ekkel)

"Coal has done us a lot of good,"Christine Herntier, the town's Mayor said.

"Unfortunately, after reunificationall the other industries — the glass industry and textile industry — have beenabolished."

There is still a sullen resentment againstWest German liberals and middle-class environmentalists. One banner hanging upoutside the power plant proclaims, "We want jobs, not green fairytales".

"What's going on now is without senseor reason," a power plant worker said of the climate protests.

"Where will the electricity come from?Nothing will happen in the dark."

Workers gather with placards to show supports for the coal industry.PHOTO: Coalpower plant workers are pushing back against climate activists, saying theyneed more time before the industry is shut down. (Foreign Correspondent:Ron Ekkel)

Yet most coal workers support the CoalCompromise as the best hope for the region in dealing with coal's inevitabledemise.

Ms Herntier was part of the commission thatformulated the Coal Compromise and fought hard for a 2038 exit to allow hercommunity time and money to adapt.

The mayor remains optimistic the 40 billioneuros will create industries to replace coal jobs.

"If a country like Germany wants to achieve itsclimate goals and wants to complete the energy turnaround, that should probablybe worth two billion per year in its budget," she said.

Lusatia is already becoming a hub for renewable energy, with solar fieldsand wind turbines sprouting up.

They are even hoping to attract tourists.Disused mines are flooded to form artificial lakes and developers aresurrounding them with houseboats, restaurants and cycling tracks.

A lake with boats in the foreground and a smokestack in the background.PHOTO: Amine in Germany's east has been flooded to create an artificial lake with amarina and houseboats. (Foreign Correspondent: Ron Ekkel)

At the power plant vigil, Ms Herntierreceives a cheer from coal workers as she defends the Coal Compromise.

"Yes, I have been in the commissionand yes, it has not been easy for me," she said.

"I stand here today and say thecompromise we negotiated is one that offers prospects for Lusatia.And I am really glad that this compromise is also supported by the Lusatiansand also by the employees of LEAG."

A fragile compromise

The next day, Mr Hofinger and hundreds ofEnde Gelaende activists break through police lines and snake through a forestunder the cover of smoke flares. They storm a giant coal mine forcing it toclose.

Other activist groups target mines, powerstations and railway crossings. For 10 hours, they bring Lusatia'scoal industry to a standstill.

Space to play or pause, M to mute, left andright arrows to seek, up and down arrows for volume. 

VIDEO: EndeGelaende activists storm German coal mine (ABC News)

Coal extraction and burning soon resumesbut the activists' message is clear: coal is going to end, so Germany shouldend it now.

But the Government is also depending on along transition period to carry the support of coal mining communities.

Whichever way the plan develops, in Germany it's nolonger a question of if coal goes, only when.

Watch Foreign Correspondent's 'The CoalWar' on iview and YouTube.

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