Start-up takes on second-largest energy company to save German forest

The 12,000-year-old ecosystem of the Hambach Forest in western Germany. Tim Wagner, Flickr
12 October 2018

On an unusually warm October night in western Germany’s North Rhine-Westphalia state, people are talking around campfires as the stars come out. A stage is being dismantled, where musicians had performed for a demonstration of a reported 50,000 people earlier during the day. These holdouts are staying for the night, sleeping in tents and hammocks strung between the trees of the 12,000-year-old Hambach Forest.

Nearby, Tagebau Hambach, one of the world’s deepest open mines, looms in the dark, with machines tirelessly biting into its terraces to extract lignite from the earth.

While just 100-or-so hectares, the swathe of forest has become a symbolic battleground between the growing public supporting a total transition to clean energy and stakeholders with vested interests in the retention of fossil fuels – and coal specifically – in the country’s energy mix.

The mine, owned by the country’s second-largest energy company RWE, already has a surface area of 8,500 hectares and is pending expansion into the forest the activists are trying to save. For some six years, activists have used their physical presence to protect the broadleaf forest ecosystem, living in RVs graffitied with political messages, tent fortresses staked in the soil and treehouses in the oak and hornbeam branches.

Activists at the demonstration to protect the forest on October 6, 2018. Ende Gelände, Flickr

Momentum has been building lately for the Hambi bleibt! movement – “Hambi (the forest’s nickname) stays!” – following RWE’s announcement to cut down this area, the remaining 10 percent of the Hambach’s former footprint.

Efforts culminated on October 9 with Berlin-based start-up search engine Ecosia offering to buy the forest from RWE for 1 million euros (USD 1.1 million). The energy company responded Tuesday in “an official email declining the offer,” says Ecosia founder and CEO Christian Kroll, adding that “they never wanted to talk about it again.”

But, it seems the conversation will continue.

Ignoring RWE’s closed door, Ecosia is currently preparing a second offer, with the ultimate aim of turning the forest into a protected reserve. Kroll says he will present this offer to RWE potentially within the next two weeks.

“When [RWE] bought the forest in the 1970s, we didn’t know about climate change, and we didn’t know about how important these forests were,” he says. “But since then, the world has really changed, and with it, the idea of ownership. Ownership means responsibility.”

Political pressure is also building. Following the German government’s announcement earlier this year that it plans to phase out coal-fired power production, a special commission was created to accelerate this process, with immediate deadlines of submitting policy recommendations for coal regions by October, further guidance on climate change initiatives in time for COP24 in early December, and a final report including a target coal “exit date” by the end of the year.

Whether the recent events around the Hambach prompted the commission to move more quickly is uncertain, but the commission is holding meetings in the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy today, October 12, to progress on their mandates.

Tagebau Hambach, one of the world’s largest open-pit coal mines. Gabrielle Lipton, Landscape News

Germany’s energy sector is starkly dichotomous. With one-third of its electricity coming from renewable energy sources, the country of 82 million is at the front of the global pack in green energy. Last year, it produced more energy from renewables than brown coal (lignite) for the first time.

Yet, Germany is also the world’s largest lignite producer, putting 59 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere annually in result. This accounts for a full half of the emissions the country needs to eliminate in order to reach its its emissions reduction target for 2020. Its lignite production increased by 1 percent last year.

Germany is also Europe’s largest energy exporter, with private companies such as RWE reaping enormous benefits. Tagebau Hambach is one of the single largest sources of carbon dioxide emissions in all of Europe.

“RWE says our energy will be in danger if we stop lignite production,” says Kroll. “This is simply not true. We can switch off all coal mines and all coal energy programs, and we would just export less energy.”

Using its profits largely from ad revenue, Ecosia funds tree planting to offset its own carbon and fight deforestation globally. Since its launch in 2009, the company has planted more than a third of its 1 billion–tree goal, primarily in tropical countries where trees providing economic benefits have proven to prevent communities from turning to logging for income.

However, during an office celebration earlier this year after a late-night comedy show featured a movement endorsed by Ecosia for Germans to switch to energy providers that use renewables, a team member brought up the Hambach and jokingly said they should save the forest by buying it.

The laughter turned serious when Kroll realized that doing so could be an economically savvy way to ensure the forest was retained, potentially keeping gigatons of carbon from being released – a far higher euro-to-impact ratio than Ecosia can often achieve.

Kroll says Ecosia is one of many actors supporting the forest’s protection, including the Hambi bleibt! organizers and the German Federation for the Environment and Nature Conservation (BUND), which earlier this year argued in a regional court that RWE’s plans to raze the forest were unlawful due to the native population of the rare Bechstein’s bat.

He also praises the hammock-sleepers, the tent-dwellers and the demonstrators who came from states and countries away to protest the forest’s destruction and environmental irresponsibility as a whole.

“We as a society must decide if we want to destroy not just our nature but also the chance of survival for the coming generations, and if we’re going to start building up ecosystems again.”

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