Image source: DPA
When we look at aerial photographs of the Hambach Forest, a two-hundred acre stretch of woodland in North Rhine-Westfalia between Cologne and Aachen, we might be forgiven for wondering why it needs saving at all. With the forest’s definitive disappearance almost assured, it would be easy to reach for a consolatory cup of tea and just carry on. But this particular forest may well haunt us long after it is gone.
What we see is a relatively small parcel of woodland surrounded on three sides by the regulation patchwork of farmland, and on the fourth by every environmentally-concerned individual’s worst nightmare, a 85 square kilometre hole-in-the-ground technically known as an lignite or brown coal opencast mine. The whole area was once home to a forest that dated back to the last Ice Age, a rare European example of first-growth forest. What should have been transformed into a natural reserve and protected with the toughest laws available was instead sold off to RWE mining group, and within the space of a decade a 12,000-year-old habitat had been reduced to one tenth of its original size with no hope of recovery for the lost ninety percent.
In its drive to lead the way in combating carbon emissions and meeting Paris Agreement targets, Germany has invested heavily in renewables and has committed to phasing out nuclear power by 2022. For many in government this is reason enough to put the brakes on when it comes to transitioning away from fossil fuel. Yet indicators suggest a global tipping-point has already been passed in the shift towards cleaner and safer sources of energy. One report, ‘The Global Fossil Fuel Divestment and Clean Energy Investment Movement’, published earlier this year by Arabella Advisors, a Washington DC-based Certified B Corporation providing strategic guidance to philanthropic organisations, claims that the total assets pledged to fossil fuel divestment has increased by 11,900 percent from $52 billion to $6.24 trillion in the last four years alone, with over 1000 institutional investors primarily in the banking, insurance and fiduciary sectors committing to channelling investment away from coal, oil and gas.
The report concludes that:
“Fossil fuel companies are listing divestment as a material risk factor in their annual reports and securities filings, and climate litigation around the world is deepening the risk for fiduciaries. Challenged by grassroots campaigns, banks and insurance companies are starting to pull their core business—financing and insurance—from a fossil fuel industry already beset by financial and regulatory challenges. Movement leaders are doubling down on divestment pressure, and institutional investors are responding.”
So why, asks energy and mining journalist Michael Buchsbaum in an article for transitionenergy.org, are lignite plants still being held as a security reserve in Germany when renewable energy is making coal redundant? Hundreds of millions of euros in taxpayers’ money are being spent annually to maintain a 2.7 gigawatt reserve that has never even been used to generate electricity, and, with the abundance of renewable energy coming online, in all probability never will be. Between 2017 and 2018 alone, lignite power plant operators will be paid 234 million euros for doing nothing. As Buchsbaum wrily observes, one wonders how the five people employed at Buschaus, the first lignite power plant to be put on standby, keep themselves awake waiting for something that will in all likelihood never happen.
And why, we might add, when the industry is apparently on its knees and the fight has finally been taken to the large corporations that think nothing of wiping out ancient ecological systems, hastening the extinction of hundreds of endangered species, reducing vast areas of virgin forest to dust, executing billions of animals every year to feed our gourmet culture, filling the oceans with plastic, dumping all manner of toxic waste, both legally and illegally, in countries or habitats that have no voice to defend themselves, is the German government dragging its heels on the question of what to do with the last remaining pocket of a post-Ice Age forest rich in biodiversity?
While writing this, an article has appeared in The Guardian informing us that Germany’s energy secretary, the Christian Democrat Thomas Bareiß, has backed plans to clear the forest for mining. This comes as the logging season gets underway, and RWE, who were prevented by activists from cutting down the trees in 2017, plan to double their allowance to make up for what they were not able to cut last year. The scale of the police operation to remove the roughly 100 activists who have been living in treehouses in the forest’s canopy for the past six years is bewildering: thousands of officers supported by tanks, helicopters, drones and water cannon.
In the words of one activist reported on Euronews, “it is unbelievable what is happening in Germany, these days. Supposedly we are the trailblazer in climate politics. This forest could have been the symbol to exit coal. But right now this forest is being destroyed right in front of our eyes. That’s an absurdity, it cannot be.”
Home to 140 endangered species, this ancient oak and hornbeam forest with trees dating back to the eighteenth century represents the wantonness at the heart of a system that is unable and so far unwilling to move away from a profit-driven business model towards an ethic that safeguards life for its own sake. Unlike for the politicians and business leaders, for many of us the tree-fellers and bulldozers are not operating in a void: they are murdering thousands of life-forms, and their arguments for doing so are no longer even logical. It is simply wrong.
Hambi Bleibt! A Hopeful Update
A court in Münster has blocked RWE’s plans to cut half the remaining 200 hectares of the Hambach Forest starting from 15 October because there is insufficient evidence that there is a genuine need to extract the lignite that lies beneath it. According to an RWE spokesperson, the court could take until 2020 to come to a final ruling. The news has sent share prices plummeting, but has triggered a celebration among the 50,000 demonstrators who are there to protest against the destruction of the forest in what has been described as the region’s largest ever anti-coal rally.
See ‘Thousands of anti-coal protesters celebrate German forest’s reprieve‘ in The Guardian and on Youtube ‘The Struggle to Save the Hambach Forest Continues‘.
- Arabella Advisors, ‘The Global Fossil Fuel Divestment And Clean Energy Investment Movement’, 2018
- Buchsbaum, Michael L., Energy Transition: The Global Energiewende:
- Democracy Now!, ‘Special Report from the Occupied Forest: Meet Activists Fighting Europe’s Largest Open-Pit Coal Mine’, 15/11/17
- Energy Transition: The Global Energiewende:
- 350.org, ‘Solidarity with #HambiBleibt’
- 350.org, ‘Fossil Fuel Divestment Goes To Washington’
- Vaughan, Adam, ‘German energy secretary backs forest clearance to build coal mine’, The Guardian, 01/10/18