Why we’re winning the war on coal
20 April 2022
Image credit: Europe Beyond Coal / Felix von der Osten
Norbert Winzen’s family has been living on a farm in the village of Keyenberg, Germany, for generations. Keyenberg is close to the enormous Garzweiler coalmine, which took its name from the town that once stood there. At one point the mine was 30 kilometres away from Keyenberg village, but now, as the coalmine expands, it is eating into the town limits, not far from the Winzen family farm. “It’s the biggest hole in Germany,” says Norbert.
In 2016, Norbert and his large family, as well as the entire village of Keyenberg, were offered payment to leave their homes. The Garzweiler mine wanted access to the coal beneath the village. The company offered the family a piece of land elsewhere, a fraction of the size of their current home, along with money as compensation for their land. In terms of quality of life, Norbert saw this as poor compensation, but was afraid that if he did not come to an agreement, his family would be removed from their property by force.
Norbert and his family would certainly have moved by now, if it wasn’t for the efforts of community members and not-for-profit organisations working behind the scenes in solidarity with the residents of Keyenberg and other villages in the same predicament.
Indeed, the struggle to end the age of coal has been a David versus Goliath battle, and this is one of many stories of how local communities are being displaced by coalmines, the most polluting form of energy. In the decades-long work to stop coal from being the dominant source of global energy, many families have lost their loved ones due to the choking effects of pollution. Miners, who have worked perilously underground, have been killed in explosions, drinking water has been poisoned, and communities on the frontline of the climate emergency have been forced from their homes due to global warming, which coal burning has contributed to.
Following the historic Paris agreement in 2016, one of its architects and chief UN executives, Christiana Figueres, was asked to describe the biggest obstacle to safeguarding our climate future. She replied quite categorially: “It’s without question, coal.” In the years since the Paris agreement, Oak Foundation has committed to supporting organisations working to stop new coal plants being built and switch off existing ones. Addressing these goals is a vital step to safeguarding our fragile climate and cleaning up the air we breathe. Tenacious clean power and climate justice organisations have sharpened their strategies and tactics. They are working alongside governments, addressing key players in the industry, telling inspiring stories, and most importantly, joining affected local communities on the frontline. Those like Norbert.
And, they are having an impact.
For example, in April 2021, the climate community passed a critical milestone. Half of all 324 coal plants in Europe had been either closed, or had announced a retirement date before 2030. This monumental feat has occurred largely as a result of the strong, vibrant, and well-coordinated community of people and organisations that Oak supports through the Europe Beyond Coal campaign. In addition, in 2020, renewables generated 38 per cent of Europe’s electricity , overtaking coal and gas to become the main source of electricity for the first time ever on the continent. Europe’s actions are a huge step toward a clean energy future, as companies and governments make the transition away from fossil fuel-based energy sources.
In May 2021, another major victory for clean air came into force when the International Energy Agency declared that in order to limit global heating to 1.5 Celsius, we must end all new investments in coal. China, the world’s largest user and funder of coal power globally, then made a gamechanging commitment to ‘stop building new coal-fired power projects abroad’. This effectively ended any plans for any new coal plants across Southeast Asia and the rest of the world. At the same time, China declared it will finance clean energy projects instead – a decision that overnight redirected approximately USD 40 billion of investment towards tackling the climate emergency.
At the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow that took place in November 2021, there was also reason to hope. One of the first pieces of good news received was South Africa’s announcement that it had secured commitments for USD 8.5 billion in financing over the next five years from the United States and the European Union to help install more clean energy. That means that South Africa will accelerate its transition away from coal, while supporting workers who will be affected by the shift.
“This is a hugely significant and advanced just transition package,” says Masego Madzwamuse, director of Oak’s Environment Programme. “It demonstrates the ‘power of the possible’ for North-South cooperation and collaboration.” “The net is closing in on fossil fuels, and coal is at the frontline,” says Dave Jones from the energy analyst group Ember. “It was awe-inspiring throughout COP to hear leaders discuss coal phase-out with a passion and energy that I’ve never seen before. The momentum has reached a new gear.”
As the conference centre emptied, attention turned to Germany. The current political ambition of ending coal use by 2038 falls well short of what the science demands, and a new target of phasing out coal by 2030 is being considered. This sits alongside a commitment to power 80 per cent of the German economy with clean power by the end of the decade. If delivered, the odds will shift in the favour of people and planet. And, the residents of Keyenberg will be able to stay in their homes.
When the Europe Beyond Coal team visited Norbert at his farm all those years ago, he had little chance of keeping his home. Today, his family home looks safe, and Germany has a chance to once again become a leader in driving climate action.
“Each and every step towards ending coal use has started with a local community member wanting to safeguard the future of their home, their family, or their neighbour,” says Nathan Argent, head of Oak’s Climate Change Subprogramme. “Each and every action creates a connection, which builds a vibrant and diverse movement. This is why Oak does what it does.” While there is still work to be done, the victory for our safe climate future has never been closer.
This is thanks to the strong, vibrant, and well-coordinated community of organisations and people that have come together under a single objective: to build a cleaner, safer future for us all. Oak is grateful to its partners working to safeguard our future, by restoring our connection to nature, and changing the ways we feed and fuel our world.
Oak supports Europe Beyond Coal through our Environment Programme, which funds initiatives to create zero-carbon cities to improve air quality. Our partners work alongside local community groups to transform cities into places where innovation and nature can thrive. To find out more about the Environment Programme, click here. You can also read more about the work of Europe Beyond Coal on its website: https://beyond-coal.eu/.
 Feins, William (2021) Renewable energy 38% of Europe’s energy supply for 2020. Available from: https://www.eurocheddar.com/economy-in-europe/renewable-energy-europe-2020/ (Accessed 09-02-22)