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Former Coal Commissioners Slam Germany’s Phaseout Plan

Carbon emissions from a coal plant in Germany

Former members of Germany’s coal commission are accusing the national government of breaking the compromise behind its much-acclaimed agreement to phase out coal-fired power generation by 2038, producing a final plan that must now be updated to achieve quicker emissions reductions in line with the country’s climate targets.

Former commission co-leader Barbara Praetorius, Potsdam Institute founding director Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, and all the environmental NGO representatives on the panel made their objections known in a letter to Chancellor Angela Merkel, “saying the compromise that had so far enjoyed their backing would be void if no changes are made to the agreed roadmap,” Clean Energy Wire reports. Praetorius told media the final roadmap deviates “considerably” from the original plan, with “no continuous and linear shutdown of lignite plants” and most of the capacity coming off the grid in the 2020s remaining online until the last two years of the decade, the Berlin-based newsletter adds.

That was after the commission members negotiated a fast start and smooth pace for coal plant shutdowns over the next few years, said Kai Niebert, president of the Deutscher Naturschutzring environmental network. “Now everything will be postponed,” he said, adding that he felt “clearly betrayed” by Merkel and the premiers of Germany’s coal mining states.

Despite the equivocal reaction from RWE, the giant utility at the centre of the phaseout announcement and its €40-billion compensation plan, Niebert “argued that other members of the commission consisting of industry representatives, policy-makers, and environmental and civil society organizations had no reason to complain about the roadmap, as most interests that were negotiated during the group’s talks had been satisfied ‘except climate action’,” Clean Energy Wire adds.

“In a sometimes hot-tempered panel debate at the same event between Praetorius and RWE head Rolf Martin Schmitz, the former coal commission co-leader insisted the agreement needs to be adjusted for the sake of climate action,” writes reporter Benjamin Wehrmann. “Schmitz countered that the coal compromise stipulated a gradual emissions reduction but no continuous decommissioning of lignite plants.”

Wehrmann says the original coal commission compromise called for both a “steady [stetig] reduction of lignite capacity in the market” and a “steady” reduction of greenhouse gas emissions from coal between 2023 and 2030.

“There will be continuous CO2 reduction because we’ll also close hard coal plants in the years when no lignite plants are taken off the grid,” Schmitz said, cautioning that quicker phaseouts would mean greater hardship for coal workers. Praetorius countered that the country’s hard coal plants have far less impact than its more emissions-intensive lignite operations.

“That’s why lignite is at the heart of the entire coal compromise,” she said.

The former commissioners also noted “that although the symbolic climate activist battleground Hambach Forest is going to be saved, it would be ‘outrageous’ for several villages near existing coal mines to still be torn down,” Clean Energy Wire adds. Antje Grothus of Buirer für Buir, which represents the interests of people living near the surface mines, said her group was being “used as a tool” to justify the government’s plan, vowing that protests at coal mines and plants would continue.

The group also said the compensation plan announced last week, with RWE alone receiving €2.6 billion, would undercut the effectiveness of the European Emission Trading System (ETS), while the country’s “current expansion blockade” on onshore wind and its looming cap on new solar would make it difficult to replace the shuttered coal capacity and hit Germany’s 2030 target for bringing renewables to 65% of total electricity use.

Felix Matthes, energy and climate research coordinator at Germany’s Institute for Applied Ecology (Öko-Institut), said Germany’s willingness to open a new coal plant, Datteln 4, in the midst of the phaseout “would now send a disastrous signal to all countries which considered emulating parts of Germany’s coal exit,” Clean Energy Wire says. The facility could emit up to 14 megatonnes of carbon dioxide more than the plants scheduled for closure, and Öko-Institut said the overall deal would produce 40 megatonnes more than the coal commission’s original negotiated compromise by 2030.