Human chain to protest coal mining in Germany and Poland

Activists to link two villages threatened by opencast lignite mines, highlighting climate change risks

A German opencast mine (Pic: Flickr/Bert Kaufmann)

A German opencast mine (Pic: Flickr/Bert Kaufmann)

By Megan Darby

Thousands of people are set to form an 8km-long human chain across the German-Polish border tomorrow in protest against a coal mining project.

Climate activists from across Europe will join local protestors who could be forced from their homes if the mining plans go ahead.

They plan to line up between Grabice, Poland and Kerkwitz, Germany, two of the villages that would be bulldozed to make way for coal pits. Some 6,000 people in the region are under threat of relocation.

This will be followed by a music festival with bands from across the continent, including Asian Dub Foundation, Duck or Dove, Jamal and Isua.

Meri Pukarinen, climate and energy unit head at Greenpeace Poland, said: “This human chain clearly shows the growing anti-coal movement, not only in Germany and Poland, but in the whole of Europe.

“We expect people there from at least 14 European countries who want to declare: ‘The age of the coal is over and the era of renewables is here.’”

Cheap and dirty

The demonstration highlights a conflict between demand for cheap fuel and the drive to prevent dangerous climate change.

Both countries are on a path of significant coal use despite being obliged by European agreements to cut their carbon dioxide emissions.

The border region of Lusatia is estimated to hold the largest fossil fuel reserve in the EU.

It holds lignite, also known as brown coal. This fuel is cheap but particularly dirty to burn due to its high moisture content.

The opencast mining techniques used involve tearing up large stretches of land, making a lot of dust and noise.

“If proposed lignite plans become true, this landscape would turn into the biggest dirty and dusty hole in Europe,” said Pukarinen.


Energy companies are already active in the region and want to expand.

Stockholm-based energy company Vattenfall extracts 60 million tonnes of lignite a year from the German side of the border.

A corporate leaflet acknowledges some of the environmental and human costs of its activities but insists lignite has a future as a major energy source.

Mining supports 33,500 jobs in eastern Germany and provides one quarter of the country’s electricity, it says. Lignite is Germany’s “only competitive fuel” and can provide energy “for generations to come”.

Meanwhile, Poland’s state energy company PGE is turning back to coal after estimates of its shale gas potential were slashed.

The country gets 90% of its electricity from coal, much of it domestically produced.

The government’s draft energy strategy foresees a dominant role for coal for decades. The strategy explores options to ramp up renewables or nuclear, but its favoured scenario involves getting 60% of electricity from coal in 2050. That means exploiting new reserves.

Carbon budget

However, Greenpeace argues the plans to exploit lignite would make it “virtually impossible” for the two countries to meet their carbon reduction targets.

It estimates burning the fuel would use up half of Germany and Poland’s carbon budgets between 2020 and 2050. That limits the allowed emissions for other, less polluting, sectors.

Greenpeace UK climate campaigner Emma Gibson said: “When scientists are warning we need to leave most fossil fuels in the ground if we’re to avoid dangerous climate change, sacrificing entire communities and ecosystems to dig up more dirty coal is as irrational as it is morally unacceptable.

“The alternatives, from clean technologies to energy saving measures, are getting cheaper and better. If our political leaders don’t start getting to grips with Europe’s coal problem, their pledges to take action on climate change are doomed to remain empty words.”

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