13 Mar 2019, 11:10
Benjamin Wehrmann

Court rejects lawsuit aiming to protect Hambach Forest, woodland’s future still uncertain

The Hambach Forest in western Germany has become a symbol for climate activists, who are seeking to prevent energy company RWE from razing it to expand a nearby coal mine. A lawsuit by the environmental NGO BUND last year temporarily halted RWE's clearing operations, but a court has now ruled there is no legal basis for stopping RWE's expansion. The decision comes as Germany debates the end of coal-fired power production, and environmental NGOs are calling on policymakers to step in and mediate between climate activists and the energy industry. 

A court in the western German city of Cologne has rejected a lawsuit aimed at protecting the embattled Hambach Forest, leaving the woodland's fate uncertain. Environmental NGO Friends of the Earth Germany (BUND) had argued in a lawsuit that EU environmental law should prevent energy company RWE from clearing the land to expand a nearby coal mine. BUND argued the ancient woodland must not be cleared as it is home to a rare bat species, and achieved a temporary halt to the clearing operations in late 2018. With the court's decision, the Forest's fate is once again up in the air.

The Hambach Forest has become a symbolic battleground for climate activists from Germany and beyond, as an example of the conflict between the country’s energy industry and proponents of a rapid emissions reduction. Anti-coal activists have held out in self-made treehouses in the forest for years, but the conflict drew more widespread public interest when RWE had protesters removed by police last year. There were large-scale demonstrations in October 2018 demanding that the forest be preserved while Germany’s coal exit commission debated how to end coal-fired power production in the country.

The BUND lawsuit would have placed the ancient woodland off-limits under the EU Habitats Directive, and rendered existing mine expansion licenses issued by the federal state North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) void. But the court argued that deadlines for registering the Hambach Forest under the EU directive expired in 2005. The ruling said “no public interests” and no environmental concerns prevent the forest’s clearing, which current licenses allow until late 2020. The court further ruled that BUND has to cede ownership of a property next to the open pit lignite mine, as guaranteeing a secure power supply is an “important goal of public welfare” overriding property rights in this instance. The court argued that the composition of Germany’s power mix is out of its own field of expertise and that current legislation still allows the use of lignite.

RWE says it will not touch forest until at least late 2020

“As of yet, there is no democratically legitimated legislation to end lignite-fired power production,” the court said, arguing that the coal exit commission's proposal still has to be adopted by Parliament and the executive branch. Moreover, Germany’s international climate action commitments do not mean that any particular mining project has to be stopped, the court said. The commission itself officially had said it would not intervene in the conflict over the forest's clearing but in its final report stated that preserving it would be "desirable." 

Energy company RWE said it welcomes the court’s ruling, adding that it would stick to a commitment made in February to abstain from clearing the forest until the autumn of 2020 in order to “de-escalate the still difficult situation in the woodland.” Anti-coal activist group Ende Gelände, which was also involved in earlier protests, declared it will help organise “a mass action of civil disobedience” at the forest in June to protect both the forest and nearby villages from destruction.

Plaintiff BUND said it would lodge an appeal against the court’s decision. That is likely to result in further delays, and could make it difficult for RWE to proceed with clearing operations before its license expires. BUND head Hubert Weiger said the court’s decision means that NRW state premier Armin Laschet now must take the reins and protect the forest as well as adjacent villages that are slated for demolition. Weiger said Germany’s federal government must quickly implement the coal exit commission’s proposal and decommission three gigawatts of lignite capacity “to put a check on RWE.”

Karsten Smid of environmental NGO Greenpeace commented that it was the duty of the NRW state government to ensure that the coal exit compromise leads to “social peace.” He argued that the large-scale protests against coal in late 2018 had shown that cutting down the woodland for a mine is “socially inacceptable.”

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