Not far from Germany's Rhine River, a fight to thwart giant excavators from grinding away what's left of the 12,000-year-old Hambach forest came to a head this month as thousands of protesters faced off with police in a tense, and at times violent, showdown.
Activists formed a human shield by occupying dozens of self-made tree houses, set up barricades in the woods and threw stones and even Molotov cocktails toward police. The standoff revolves around utility RWE's plans to extend a giant open-pit mine to dig up lignite - a soggy form of coal - for burning in local power plants in a short-term fix for Germany's energy needs.
[Source: Bloomberg / Houston Chronicle Article 09/29/2018]
The conflict represents another challenge for Germany's political establishment as it pits the country's economic interests against goals of becoming an environmental leader in a 500 billion-euro ($590 billion) shift to renewable power. Those competing agendas are now colliding in and around Hambach - a district known as Rhein-Erft-Kreis - where concerns range from lost jobs and soaring electricity prices to the incessant hum of wind turbines and "electrosmog" from new power lines.
"I've got it all here, violent militants to law-abiding constituents rightly concerned about their power bills," said Georg Kippels, a German lawmaker from Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats who represents the area just west of Cologne. "The next phase of the energy shift is an upheaval happening right here."
The tensions are rooted back in 2000, when Germany put its "Energiewende" in place to overhaul its coal-dominated power infrastructure in favor of sources such as wind, solar and biomass. Then in 2007, the government pledged to slash carbon-dioxide emissions 40 percent by 2020 and unveiled a raft of subsidies and regulations to hit those goals.
Those grand, feel-good aspirations were further complicated in 2011 when Merkel decided to phase out nuclear power. That made coal and lignite, which still account for nearly 40 percent of German electricity, all but indispensable, even though the country wants to exit the fuel. The messy overhaul is now turning into painful reality for many.
In last year's federal election, support in the district for the populist AfD more than doubled to 9.5 percent, while CDU dropped 8.8 percentage points to 33.5 percent. Backing for the far-right party nationally has since surged and is the second strongest in some recent polls. Upcoming state elections will be the next test, with Bavaria and Hesse voting in October and the lignite centers of Saxony, Brandenburg and Saxony-Anhalt holding ballots in 2019.
In North Rhine-Westphalia, where Rhein-Erft-Kreis is located, the AfD's Christian Loose says he's watching developments in Hambach very closely and expects voters to become "more and more disillusioned" with climate-linked policy.