Despite Germany’s commitment to ambitious emission reduction targets, the excavation of lignite coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel, continues in Lützerath, causing controversy in society and science. Why? The case offers insights into policy change about persistent coal mining. It highlights the protracted power battle between fossil capitalism and environmentalism.
As I write these lines, Germany is shutting down its nuclear power plants (April 15, 2023), bringing an era of virtually carbon-free energy to an end, while yet another town is being bulldozed for the excavation of coal. Paradoxically, environmental politics may be in a better place than it seems. To understand why we must look towards Lützerath.
The village resembles a showdown of power struggles in Germany’s energy transition as activists had to make way for the mining of lignite, the dirtiest of fossil fuels (Weber/Cabras, 2017; Nolting, 2023). This is despite the evidence of the harmful effects of greenhouse gases on climate and society and the country’s ambitious emission reduction targets (Geels et al., 2017; Masson-Delmotte et al., 2021). The case sparked controversy in society and science. The outcome seems counter-intuitive in a climate change context, and counter-productive for the government. Why did it happen?
In this essay, I show why politics unfolded the way it did in coal mining, assessing the use and non-use of environmental science in policymaking. I argue that there are two explanations to this story, each justified in its own terms. Lützerath represents a proxy conflict. Depending on the epistemological perspective the outcome was a matter of timing and/or the lesser evil for Green politics in a dilemma caused by protracted power battles.
I first turn to policy analysis through the lens of the so-called multiple streams framework. I then rewind events to unpack the coal conundrum and move back to the future to examine whose knowledge matters. I subsequently examine so-called advocacy coalitions in the run up to Lützerath to amend my assessment of power/knowledge in politics.
Multiple streams: it was a matter of timing
Lützerath sits on one of the largest coal reserves in Europe. RWE, an energy company, has been wanting to expand its open pit mine in the area since 2018. Since it would have to demolish the town and an ancient forest it faced fierce resistance by activists and villagers. In 2022, the government agreed to the mining project in exchange for bringing forward the coal phase-out (Gaus, 2023; Mastrodonato, 2023).
Multiple streams analysis (MSA) helps to understand why protestors had to make way for coal. The framework explains how issues get onto the agenda and policy outcomes see the light of the day. When three activity streams converge, they open a window of opportunity for policy change (Kingdon, 2014; Cairney, 2019a).
First, the problem stream is about issues that attract attention given existing beliefs. The opposition decries the industry’s impact on the environment. It claims that the lignite would exhaust Germany’s carbon budget and violate the Paris Agreement; that it is not required to meet energy needs, citing studies that back their claims (Brandes et al., 2021; Leicht/Hesel, 2022; Hainsch et al., 2022; Herpich et al., 2022). As the case is symbolically charged, government officials are hard pressed into reacting to the escalating issue that undermines climate policy at home and abroad. They problematize energy shortage due to the war in Europe, backing their claims with expert opinion (NRW-Ministry, 2022a).
Second, the policy stream refers to the cosmos of available ideas and feasible solutions in response to a problem. Scientists propose putting a moratorium on mining in Lützerath to initiate a stakeholder dialogue and expand renewables. In contrast, decisionmakers suggest appropriating some of the fuel in exchange for other concessions—a more feasible bet for them given energy concerns at a time of heightened uncertainty (NRW-Ministry, 2022b; S4F, 2023).
Third, the political stream considers that power, publics, and interest groups influence the adoption of policy solutions. Here, officials are more receptive to energy security claims. Indeed, investigations find that data in the Ministry’s expert opinions is sourced from RWE or their commissioned reports (Eberle/Müller-Arnold, 2022). Moreover, the newly elected coalition of social-democrats, greens, and liberal-democrats may be less inclined to jump on a bandwagon for too drastic measures such as a moratorium, thereby scaring away important industry and risking layoffs, popularity, hence other pro-environmental policy changes (Cairney, 2019a).
Given these streams’ interplay, MSA suggests that the policy around big coal was a matter of timing. As the protests escalated, and policy entrepreneurs took office by the end of 2021, a window of opportunity opened (Greer, 2015): Federal and state ministers (Green party) struck a deal with RWE to go after its business but to limit coal mining to Lützerath and to end it by 2030 instead of 2038. Officials later rationalized their decision through the energy crisis and climate emergency (NRW-Ministry, 2022b).
Overall, MSA highlights the complex interplay of problem, policy, and politics around contested coal mining. If the model holds, a moratorium may have required a different political setting, one in which energy is not politically constrained and the Greens are in opposition to exercise pressure rather than in dutiful government positions. However, there may be other reasons, such as powerful coalitions, which would require other frameworks with explanatory power. For this, we must look at the big picture, starting with the forces behind the coal conundrum (Jungjohann/Morris, 2014).
Let us rewind: the coal conundrum
People have been demonstrating against the extension of mines in the coal-abundant regions in Germany for many decades. New mines have threatened or caused the demolition of entire towns, the relocation of thousands of residents, and the extinction of vast land and forest areas (Morton/Müller, 2016; Reitzenstein et al., 2021). In East Germany, ecological damages from coal mining led to the formation of environmental movements which were instrumental in bringing down the socialist regime by 1989 (Weber/Cabras, 2017). Contemporary struggles point to a fundamental paradox: As the share of renewable energy in Germany has increased to among the highest levels in Europe, so has that of coal (OWID, 2022a/b).
Broadly speaking, two forces have contributed to this conundrum, representing a shift in power. On one side, the Green party, joined by the eastern environmental front, played a significant role in ending nuclear power by institutionalizing social movements’ opposition to the technology following the Chernobyl and Fukushima accidents. As part of the government in the early 2000s, it prompted decarbonization targets based on Kyoto and the widespread adoption of renewables by communities and cooperatives. The party’s policies have contested and been contested by power structures. But its advocacy gave impetus to grassroots advancements which invigorated environmental policy (Schreuers, 2012; Geels et al., 2017; Chilvers et al., 2021).
On the other side, the fossil fuel industry undermined the sustainability transition by challenging policy changes in court, pressuring politics, delaying power grid expansions, and publicly framing green technologies as unreliable and costly (Kungl, 2015; Schmid et al., 2016). Not only did industrialists keep relying on coal. They co-opted or allied with unions, policymakers, and their constituencies. While miners resisted shutdowns and levies, executives obtained new licenses (Prinz/Pegels, 2018; Harrahill/Douglas, 2019; Haas et al., 2022).
These coalitions of actors with shared beliefs in environmentalism and extractivism have led to the coal conundrum, a highly contentious issue. Their advocates have skin in the game. When it came to subsequent policymaking on coal, ‘knowledges’ were not treated equally.
Back to the future: whose knowledge counts?
Disputes over the environment are essentially disputes over competing ideas of the environment, claim constructivist scholars (Robbins, 2020). The deliberations about coal in Germany suggest that elitist ideas outshone other knowledge claims about the environment/climate. Three forms of knowledge production could in principle have played a major role in determining coal’s future.
In 2020, the governing conservatives/social-democrats appointed an Expert Council on Climate, resembling a mini version of the IPCC, in which scientists assess the evidence for climate policy (BMUV, 2020). But there are limitations. Conceptually, specific forms of power can utilize science to discursively define truths (Latour, 2013). For example, all too often, climate change is framed as a physical and economic issue, discounting cultural/social dimensions. Decision-making hence filters out situated, civil forms of knowledge (Hulme, 2007; Adger et al., 2011; Jasanoff, 2012; Castree et al., 2014). Practically, this Council has no mandate to evaluate or propose policies (Guckelberger, 2022). It thus had no stance on phasing out coal (EK, 2022).
In 2021, civil society organizations initiated a Citizens’ Assembly on Climate Change with science advisors to make recommendations for climate policy to the next government by consulting with industry, environmental, and civil society organizations (BK, 2021a). Such deliberative, participatory approaches can be subject to power imbalances, biases, or tokenistic engagement (Blome/Hartlapp, 2023). Appropriately designed, they can lead to better public engagement in decision-making and informed policy outcomes (Owens, 2000). Compared to top-down governance approaches based on consultancy, integrating scientific and public knowledge through civic science can foster a shared understanding in high-stakes, value-laden environmental issues (Funtowicz/Ravetz, 1993; Bäckstrand, 2003). Indeed, the Assembly recommended phasing out coal by 2030 through bioenergy and increasing carbon allowances’ price to render coal unprofitable and avoid compensations (BK, 2021b: 40).
However, the conservative/social-democratic government at that time had already brought about a phase-out decision, having established in 2018 a so-called Coal Commission that was tasked to propose a roadmap for the just exit from coal in line with climate targets. It was chaired by former heads of two coal-abundant states and consisted of 28 top representatives from industry, unions, environmental organizations, civil society, and scientists (Haas et al., 2022). Involving a diverse range of perspectives in environmental governance is meant to democratize decision-making and help co-create solutions to complex problems. Indeed, co-production can lead to transformational change if inherently unequal power relations among stakeholders are explicitly balanced to welcome grassroots forms of knowledge. Otherwise, elites in established power structures can depoliticize the discourse and reinforce power imbalances by pre-defining the terms of participation and framing the problem (Turnhout et al., 2020). That is what happened in the Coal Commission as participating advocates of extractivism dominated the discourse, intimidating others, and asserted favourable outcomes for the lifespan of mining projects up to 2038 (Löw-Beer et al., 2021; Haas et al., 2022).
It was the 2018 government’s Coal Commission that cemented coal’s pathway and the fault lines between the ideological coalitions, providing fertile grounds for renewed conflict.
Advocacy coalitions: it was a pawn sacrifice
The Advocacy Coalition Framework (ACF) (Jenkins-Smith/Sabatier, 1993; Cairney, 2019b) helps to make sense of complex policy processes surrounding Lützerath’s destiny. Accordingly, policy change occurs as disruption shifts the dynamic between coalitions competing for coal’s future.
The coalition of industrialists, allying unionists, and political advocates of coal utilized the Coal Commission to set the pathway for an extended phase-out. By establishing the Commission, conservative/social-democratic officials removed the dispute from the public spotlight and decided over the represented interests. By setting the agenda, they framed the discourse around coal as a source of energy and jobs. The ensuing deliberations strengthened industrial and energy security concerns, undervaluing environmental issues. In 2020, the government accordingly prompted policies to shut down coal plants by 2038, compensate the industry, and support affected states (Haas et al., 2022). In this vein, it not only pre-empted civic claims. Through the stakeholder representation, it asserted legitimacy, albeit not democratically, for its phase-out policy (Gürtler et al., 2021). The Commission and subsequent legislation sparked controversy within environmental groups and the public (Löw-Beer et al., 2021).
As the Greens reclaimed power following federal elections in late-2021, the political flank of the environmentalist coalition gained the upper hand on coal’s future and brokered a new phase-out plan to limit coal’s impact. Indeed, the new government took office with the ambition to expedite coal’s exit to meet climate targets (Haas et al., 2022). Invigorated by the civic science claims, Green federal and state ministers snapped up the opportunity for new state-level legislation, renegotiating concessions with RWE as resistance in Lützerath escalated.
The interplay of principal and auxiliary actors of environmentalism (Cairney, 2019b), or of moderate and radical flanks (Malm, 2021), thus helped bring forward coal’s exit to 2030. The deal protects five surrounding villages and keeps 280 million tons of lignite underground, officials claim. They had to give in Lützerath in return which they discursively rationalized towards critics through energy security (NRW-Ministry, 2022b; Gaus, 2023), having learned from extractivists’ tactics. Had they not, the damage from coal mining would probably be much larger. For environmentalists sacrificing Lützerath under the given circumstances may be the lesser evil, worth making to bring about a sooner end to the coal conundrum.
Reflections: theories are debatable, some insights are useful
Multiple Streams Analysis (MSA) and the Advocacy Coalition Framework (ACF) have been widely used to study policymaking and their validity is debated (Cairney, 2015; Greer, 2015). Here, MSA shows that the politically sanctioned evacuation of Lützerath to excavate coal was a matter of timing depending on the interplay of meandering streams that converged due to forces inside and outside the policy system. The ACF helps to explicate protracted power dynamics between ideology-driven coalitions of heterogenous actors that led to the precarious dependence on coal and its contestation (Cairney, 2019b: 171).
The role of knowledge is not trivial. It finds ways into the non-linear policymaking process through solutions filtered by preference and opportunistic behaviour (MSA); through learning in coalitions in line with beliefs to secure dominance (ACF). Science and society provide claims about the environment of different epistemological kinds. These are ignored or recognized by policymakers as they manage competing demands and have limited scope for rational choice due to beliefs and biases. Policy entrepreneurs, or brokers, are instrumental in framing and translating new ideas based on their values/interests into policy change, resolving the confrontation between fossil capitalists and climate activists.
Both theories together provide a more nuanced understanding. While party affiliation is circumstantial in MSA, ACF situates policy change within political colour, helping to understand policymakers’ decisions. While MSA does not account granularly for power dynamics, ACF allows to oversimplify complex coalitions. Both frameworks are generalizable. Despite the risk of one seeking facts that fit them, assumptions in my analysis require empirical testing (e.g., energy being politically constrained; radical flank effect).
Lützerath is a prime example of contested coal mining. Critics accuse the new government of a dirty deal with the coal industry. Officials claim that they expedite the exit from coal. Indeed, the new plan puts tighter limits on mining, protecting areas and ending it by 2030, eight years earlier.
One way to explain this outcome is as a result from the interplay of circumstances in which policymakers with new ideas exploited the opportunity of having to balance energy and climate concerns to secure a feasible exit deal with RWE.
However, protracted power battles caused Germany’s coal conundrum in the first place. Advocates of coal previously enshrined an extended phase-out into law. Hence, another way to explain the way politics unfolded is as a matter of environmentalists gaining the upper hand on coal’s future and limiting the damage whereby advocates at policy-level and on the ground strengthened one another.
The Lützerath dilemma highlights policymakers’ challenges and the instrumental role of power/knowledge in policy. It is a conflict resulting from short-term interests. It need not be indicative of the trend in environmental politics given society’s long-term interests.
(Featured image: lignite mine nearby Lützerath; photo: Geisheimer, Taz, 2022)
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