The Hambach Forest is a historic forest in Germany which lies ontop of a brown coal field. The energy company RWE has been fighting activists who want to stop mining there. An occupation of the forest in conjunction with court cases has so far been successful in blocking the mining there from beginning.
Comprised mainly of oaks and hornbeams, the 12,000 year-old forest is home to 18th century trees and over 140 endangered species. Previously covering over 5,500 hectares, beginning in 1978, the Essen-based RWE AG power company began cutting it down to excavate and burn the vast amounts of brown coal lying beneath. Now less than a tenth of the original canopy survives, with a core of only 200 hectares remaining.
In its place lies one of the largest holes in Europe. Between 370 to 450 meters deep, the mine stretches across an 85-square kilometer moonscape and workers annually extract some 40 million tons of brown coal.
Lignite from this and two other nearby mines are burned by five adjacent power plants that generate about 15% of the electrical needs of the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia. But since lignite is so filthy, these plant’s combined carbon emissions alone were responsible for roughly ten percent of Germany’s total CO2 output.
RWE, one of Germany’s “big four” energy companies, has been locked in a protracted battle with German activists who want to prevent coal mining in the forest. The struggle has become a symbol for the environmental movement. The German Coal Commission visited the area in October 2018 and one commissioner commented that the commission could not succeed in its work to phase out coal if the company was openly escalating the situation in the forest.
In October of 2018, the Higher Administrative Court of Münster ruled that a complaint before it made by the BUND (Friends of the Earth Germany) regarding the legality of RWE’s mining plan through 2020, including the impacts of cutting down the Hambach Forest, were too challenging to quickly decide upon. While RWE could continue mining brown coal in the area next to the forest, they could not begin logging.
For now, the struggle between activists and RWE is at a standstill. The outcome of the Coal Commission and the setting of a coal phaseout date may yet impact the future of the Hambach Forest.