Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg was briefly detained by police on Tuesday to protest a controversial coal mine expansion in western Germany that has become a hotspot for climate debate in that country.
Protests in Lützerath, a small village set to be cleared and demolished to make way for the nearby Garzweiler coal mine , have grown significantly and controversial over the past week. At least 15,000 people demonstrated on Saturday.
This included Thunberg, 20, who has been among the world’s most high-profile climate demonstrators since she gave a speech at the 2018 United Nations Climate Change Conference as a teenager.
Thunberg traveled to Germany this week to join the Lützerath demonstrations. According to the German news agency (dpa) that she was among a group of demonstrators who were taken away by the police after they approached the edge of the mine. She was released shortly after, according to Reuters.
The Garzweiler mine is one of three huge open pit coal mines in the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia. The type of coal produced in the mines, lignite, is responsible for about 20% of Germany’s carbon emissions .
The three mines have been expanding for decades. Over the years, some 50 villages in the area, many dating back centuries, have been cleared and bulldozed to make way for mines.
Lützerath, about 15 miles from Germany’s western border, has been the focal point of protests since a court approved its destruction nearly a decade ago.
The hamlet was once home to about 100 residents, all of whom have relocated since 2017, according to RWE, the company that operates the mine. Since then, protesters have crowded into empty buildings.
A court ruling last week paved the way for the eviction of squatters and the destruction of the hamlet. The demonstrations have since grown in size and contention, with clashes between police and protesters in recent days.
Climate activists say that expanding the mine will lead to more greenhouse gas emissions, which could cause Germany to fall short of its climate targets under the Paris Agreement .
Energy has been perhaps the hottest political issue in Germany over the past two years. The country has traditionally relied on fossil fuels, but in 2019 committed to dramatically reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. Then, the timeline was accelerated in 2021, when the country’s Supreme Court ruled that the government had to do more to reduce emissions.
But after Russia invaded Ukraine in early 2022 – and subsequently cut off natural gas shipments to Europe – Germany has once again turned to coal power. At least 20 coal-fired power plants across the country have either been revived or extended beyond their original closing times in an effort to keep the lights on this winter.
Germany missed its 2022 climate targets, and officials have warned it will likely miss its 2023 targets, too.
In October, RWE and the German government announced a deal to shut down the company’s coal operations sooner than planned in exchange for moving ahead with the demolition of Lützerath.
The deal called for RWE to close the coal mines in 2030, eight years earlier than originally planned. This plan would save five more villages and three farms that were once slated for demolition.
But the destruction of Lützerath, located near the current edge of the mine, was still “essential to the optimal use” of the coal even then , according to RWE.
All of this has angered climate activists , who have staged almost daily protests in recent months, including demonstrations that blocked main city streets and airport runways in Munich and Berlin.
“The company regrets that the planned demolition can only take place under substantial police protection and that opponents of the open pit mine are calling for illegal obstruction and criminal actions as well,” RWE said in a statement last week.