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Federico Gambarini
climate protest

Explainer: The story of Greta Thunberg and the small German village on brink of demolition

Here’s a breakdown of the circumstances of the protest in Germany and the activist’s short detention.

IN A SMALL village in western Germany, police made a high-profile detention yesterday amid a tense stand-off between authorities and climate activists.

Greta Thunberg was briefly detained and transported by police near an open coal pit mine at a protest against its enlargement.

The climate activist was not acting in isolation, nor was the protest an unusual event. The area is the site of a years-long opposition to the demolition of a village to allow for the expansion of the large mine.

Here’s a breakdown of the circumstances of the protest and Thunberg’s short detention.

The occupation of Luetzerath

The latest protest was part of long-running opposition to plans to extend a coal mine into an adjacent abandoned village.

Luetzerath, a small hamlet in Germany located around 45km from the Dutch border to the west of Cologne and Dusseldorf, is set to be destroyed to make way for an expansion of the Garzweiler mine, which has displaced thousands of people since the early 1980s.

In 2013, Germany’s Federal Constitutional Court ruled in favour of an expansion that meant Luetzerath would be destroyed to allow for the growth of the mine.

Activists arrived in Luetzerath from around two years ago, bracing to try to halt the imminent demolition by building treehouses and maintaining a human presence in the community. The vast majority of locals have left the area. 

demonstration-in-luetzerath Demolition and tree-clearing in progress in Luetzerath DPA / PA Images DPA / PA Images / PA Images

In October, a deal signed between the German government and energy company RWE agreed to spare five other neighbouring villages but left Luetzerath still on the chopping block.

Last week, police forced most of the activists out of the settlement despite a massive protest on Saturday that attracted thousands of demonstrators – police put the attendance at 15,000, though organisers say it was closer to 35,000.

Banners included slogans such as “stop coal” and “Luetzerath lives!”

Thunberg’s detention

Greta Thunberg, who was among the protesters on Saturday, continued to attend ongoing protests near Luetzerath this week. Police have sealed off the village itself.

The demonstrations garnered large support after the last two occupying activists, who had been hiding in an underground tunnel, were removed by police. 

Authorities have been bulldozing buildings and chopping down treehouses in the ill-fated village.

On Monday, at a separate mine also operated by RWE – the Hambach lignite mine – four activists climbed onto a giant digger, causing operations to be suspended. Meanwhile, a second group of activists occupied a bridge to block access to Luetzerath.

Clashes between protesters and police came to a head during a protest march yesterday when a group of activists near Luetzerath ran towards the Garzweiler mine. 

Police, who said they acted on the basis that the protesters were dangerously close to the edge of the mine, forcibly carried around 50 people away from it, including Thunberg.

germany-coal-protest Activists walk along the edge of the mine AP / PA Images AP / PA Images / PA Images

germany-coal-protest Police surrounding Greta Thunberg and other activists Roberto Pfeil / dpa via AP/PA Images Roberto Pfeil / dpa via AP/PA Images / dpa via AP/PA Images

A police spokesperson said the protesters were removed from the area by bus, their identities were checked, and they were released “several hours” later having not been formally arrested. 

Thunberg addressed the incident on social media this morning.

“Yesterday I was part of a group that peacefully protested the expansion of a coal mine in Germany. We were kettled by police and then detained but were let go later that evening,” she wrote on Twitter.

“Climate protection is not a crime.”

RWE agreed in October to stop producing electricity with coal in western Germany by 2030.

However, its continued pitch to expand the Garzweiler mine in the immediate future came as Germany deals with the fallout of Russia’s war on Ukraine and the loss of Russian gas.

The activists’ argument is that falling back on coal will undermine Germany’s attempts to cut its greenhouse gas emissions.

Germany, like other countries around the world, is required to reduce its emissions under the 2015 Paris Agreement to prevent global average temperatures from continuing to rise.

The agreement called for countries to try to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees and not to allow it to surpass 2 degrees in order to avoid highly dangerous consequences of unabated climate change.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has warned that the impacts of climate change are already causing severe and widespread disruption to people’s lives across various regions of the world and that urgent action is required to prevent the situation from spiralling out of control. 

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