A vision for a greener future for the world seems very distant if you descend into the heart of one of Germany’s largest coal mines. While researchers and officials are in Berlin preparing the next report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the country’s fossil fuel industry is as busy as ever.
Giant machines dig for brown coal near Jänschwalde, Germany, in the Lausitz region.
The report is expected to set out options to switch from sources of energy that give off the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide to cleaner types like wind and solar.
This mirrors Germany’s own ambitions with a plan known as the Energiewende, best translated as “energy transition”, which calls for at least 80% of power to come from renewable sources by 2050.
But south of Berlin in the region of Lausitz, down at the coal face in a mine called Welszow-South, machines the size of office blocks gouge out chunks of lignite and low-carbon dreams hardly seem plausible.
The lignite, also known as brown coal, is one of the dirtiest, most polluting kinds of fuel, but it helps generate no less than 26% of Germany’s electricity.
Add in the country’s harder black coal as well and you find that nearly half of the country’s electricity comes from the one source which climate scientists argue most needs to be phased out.
The challenge is that, for the moment, coal offers a relatively cheap and easy solution, there is plenty of it and thousands of jobs are involved so the mining enjoys robust support from unions and local politicians.
For a country that prides itself on showing green leadership, and hosting the IPCC meeting, the reliance on coal illustrates the sheer difficulty of turning visions into reality.