Q & A

Here you can find some useful information about the history and politics of coal in Lower Lusatia.

  • Where and what is Lusatia?

  • What is the political context?

  • Who operates lignite mines and power plants?

  • Why could it be risky to invest in the lignite business?

  • What do the local citizens want?

  • What should protestors keep in mind when they go to Lusatia?

  • Where can I find more information about coal and the Lusatia case?

Where and what is Lusatia?

Lusatia (“Lausitz”) is in the Southern part of the German state of Brandenburg, some 100 kilometers away from Berlin. It is a homeland to the Sorbs, a slavic minorit that strived for independence from Soviet-occupied Eastern Germany after World War II. The earliest surviving mention of a Sorbian tribe dates back to 631 A.D.

Visitors from crowded and hipster Berlin rub their eyes when they take a time out in the sparsely populated region characterized by forests, meadows, small villages, and down to earth inhabitants. Visitors also widen their eyes when they see what extensive open-pit mining does to the land. If they see huge mines with moon-like craters and gigantic bucket-wheel excavators, they must doubt the widely admired German energy transition. The lignite industry has shaped Lusatia in the course of the 19th and 20th century. Brandenburg markets itself as „Energyland“. The second division soccer team of the biggest city is „Energy Cottbus“. In Brandenburg, energy basically means energy from lignite, or brown coal.

What is the political context?

Brandenburg is governed by a Social Democratic (SPD) and Left Party (Die Linke) coalition. Note that the SPD is a core member of the Pro Coal team“ in Germany. To quote a leading newspaper in Germany: There were days when the terms SPD (for Social Democratic Party) and ‚coal miner‘ seemed to be inseparable. Some SPD meetings could just have easily have taken place underground or in the pit.” Thus, it does not come as a surprise when Brandenburg State-President Dietmar Woidke (SPD) says that coal would be “indispensable“ given Germany’s nuclear shutdown by 2022. Coal would serve “as a bridge into the era of renewable energy”. The second largest German brown coal power plant in operation, Jänschwalde, is part of Woidke´s energy plan. Jänschwalde emits about 26 million tons of CO2 per year and is also one of the biggest emitters of mercury in the country.

Who operates lignite mines and power plants?

Energy giant Vattenfall operates lignite mines and power plants in Eastern Germany. Vattenfall is 100% owned by the Swedish state, which means that the Swedish government can determine the direction the company takes. And to achieve its climate goals the red-green coalition has decided to phase out dirty coal in its production portfolio. Accordingly, the company has announced its plan to discontinue coal mining in Germany. So, now all Vattenfall’s lignite generation and mining assets in Germany are for sale – power plants Boxberg, Jänschwalde, Schwarze Pumpe and Lippendorf block R as well as corresponding mining activities (Jänschwalde, Nochten, Reichwalde, Welzow-Süd and Cottbus Nord). Vattenfall plans to accomplish the sale until summer 2016.

Why could it be risky to invest in the lignite business?

Buying Vattenfall’s lignite business could be a risky bet. A new investor would have to deal with ever more strict environmental regulation policies, including a quite possible coal-phase out within the next 20 to 25 years. A new investor would also have to deal with the expensive challenge of post-mining rehabilitation. Julian Schwarzkopff of E3G says: ”It is also doubtful that a new owner, without a track record of responsible governance, would be willing to address the social fallout after a possible coal crash in the Lusatia region“.

What do the local citizens want?

Some communities are split into fractions: There are about 8.300 people employed directly in the coal industry and 3-4 times more in subsequent sectors. They are fond of their relatively secure and well-paid jobs. Lignite has been the backbone of the regional economy for decades. There was no discourse on developing alternatives and a (just) transition away from coal. Workers´ unions and industrial representatives argue that the loss of the coal industry would be a nail in the coffin of the regional economy.

Other people living in the area view coal mining as a risk to their homeland. If you talk to locals in villages like Proschim, Kerkwitz, or Atterwasch, villages that could be devastated by expanding open mines, you hear their concern that coal can also be a threat to social peace and cultural heritage. They want investments in more promising sectors than coal energy, such as environmentally sound, agriculture, and recultivation.

What should protestors keep in mind when they go to Lusatia?

For non-local activists it is important to understand that coal, its traditions, and the jobs argument are part of the fabric of local communities. In favor or against – the conflict extends into local gatherings and families. Citizens’ groups such as Klinger Runde and Allianz für Welzow have been engaged in talks with Vattenfall for years. They are pursuing a strategy of cooperation, not confrontation, with negotiations, roundtables and mediation involving energy companies, trade unions, planning authorities, and other stakeholders. Calls for phasing lignite out immediately are not acceptable to many citizens’ groups. They are afraid that there is nor economic alternative to the coal industry. It is important for “outsiders” to understand these fears and skepticism towards a structural change.

Where can I find more information about coal and the Lusatia case?

E3G (2015): The Vattenfall Report. http://www.e3g.org/library/vattenfall-report

Vattenfall is currently looking for a buyer for its East German lignite assets. However, any potential investor faces a high risk that they will find themselves forced to wind down Vattenfall’s lignite business before earning back their investment. A confluence of political, economic and legal risks puts the future profitability of German lignite in question. The time window in which Vattenfall’s lignite plants can still be run profitably is closing quickly – so quickly that investors would likely be unable to recoup their costs.

Stefanie Groll/Simon Straub (2015): Excavators to plowshares. About the German anti-coal movement: https://www.boell.de/en/2015/11/18/excavators-to-plowshares

Germany has seen protests against coal for decades. In the past, it was mainly borne by citizens’ groups and established environmental NGOs such as Friends of the Earth Germany (BUND) and Deutsche Umwelthilfe (DUH). The protesters were mainly those directly impacted by the coal industry. Now, the protest is spreading…

Stefanie Groll (2016): Proposal for a German coal phase-out. http://energytransition.de/2016/01/proposal-for-a-german-coal-phase-out/

A proposal by energy think tank Agora Energiewende for phasing out coal in Germany by 2040 aims for a grand political compromise. It is well-considered in terms of policy, yet a viable coal consensus will nevertheless require continued pressure from the bottom up…

Friends of the Earth Germany/Heinrich Böll Foundation (2015): Coal Atlas: Facts and Figures about a fossil fuel


The Coal Atlas contains the latest facts and figures on the use of coal and its environmental and social consequences. With more than 60 detailed graphics, the atlas illustrates the coal industry’s impact on nature, health, labour, human rights and politics.

Rosa-Luxemburg Foundation (2015): Beyond COP21: Disrupting German CO2 hotspots http://www.rosalux.de/news/41956/beyond-cop21-disrupting-german-co2-hotspots.html

Some are surprised at the German anti-coal movement’s absence in Paris. The movement nonetheless remains active: directly on German CO2 hotspot.

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