In late November 2021, Germany’s new coalition government announced its goal of phasing out coal power across the country by 2030, eight years ahead of schedule.
Earlier that month, the government of the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia, where activists are protesting against coal mining, announced that it would accelerate the phasing out of coal by 2030, saving five of the six villages slated for demolition for the expansion of a huge mine. .
While activists are still awaiting a court decision on the future of the sixth village, Lützerath, these decisions to phase out coal by 2030 are breakthroughs for the German climate movement.
They come after years of protests by climate activists through forest occupations, blockades of strip mines and street demonstrations with tens of thousands of people.
Globally, few people have yet cared about the climate crisis because they have had the privilege of not thinking about it. This is especially true in a wealthy country like Germany where many people feel the crisis is happening elsewhere and not threatening them.
But activists in Germany have drawn attention to this by tackling Germany’s obsession with cars, coal and rules.
The coal industry has a centuries-old tradition in Germany and was the driving force behind Germany’s post-war economic boom. The car is one of Germany’s most valued material goods because of its importance to the national economy – the automotive sector accounts for around 10% of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) – and as a symbol of freedom and independence. And, it’s a cliché, but Germans like rules. Civil disobedience therefore attracts attention.
By targeting these obsessions, the activists struck a chord among politicians and civil society and helped put climate change on the German agenda.
To draw attention to the climate crisis, activists like me – I belong to Wald Statt Asphalt (Forests Instead of Asphalt), an alliance of forest occupations against highways – have focused on cars and the coal and broke the rules to point the finger at the hypocrisy of the country’s environmental policies.
Germany has long embraced pro-environment rhetoric, while often lacking real effective measures to tackle the climate crisis.
For example, despite passing a law on the “Energiewende” – a transformation towards renewable energy – in 2010, Germany drastically reduced subsidies for solar panels in 2012.
Germany still relies heavily on coal for the country’s energy needs and has even allowed a new coal-fired power plant to open in 2020 despite pledging to phase out coal in the same year.
In 2020, the Neurath, Niederaussem and Weisweiler power stations alone released a total of 42.1 million tonnes of CO2 into the air. This is more than double what Kenya emits each year.
This paradox of rhetoric versus action is perhaps even worse in the transport sector. While emissions have fallen in all sectors since 1990, the transport sector remains an exception.
Although cars generally emit less emissions today, road traffic has increased due to larger, heavier and more vehicles.
Germany today has one of the longest motorway networks in the world, ranking 5th after China, the United States, Canada and Spain, and yet it continues to build such roads, cutting down forests and destroying biodiverse habitats, and increasing CO2 emissions from traffic.
In October 2019, activists took a stand against highway construction by occupying Dannenröder Forest in the central German state of Hesse to protect it from clearance for the A49 highway.
The Green Party, as part of the state coalition, gave its approval to cut down the ancient forest, revealing that even the Greens were willing to sacrifice the woods for political reasons.
From July to December 2020, I was part of the occupation for six months with hundreds of other activists. We built treehouses to prevent the police from evicting us too easily, and during the occupation these treehouses became our homes. Every day we met with other activists and townspeople to organize food, water and other daily chores, but also to develop strategies to win this struggle.
The eviction of protesters by the police at the end of 2020 leading to the final demining of the forest was a crushing defeat.
However, just after the Occupation eviction began, the Federal Green Party, facing so much pressure from disappointed activists but also from its own disillusioned members, called for a halt to construction of new highways nationwide.
The reactions of the authorities also generated wide publicity. During the eviction, the police arrested protesters and the local government criticized our use of civil disobedience. However, we have gained broad popular support through the construction of treehouses and coalitions among townspeople.
One of the main lessons of the protests was that it was possible to challenge German political parties on the gap between rhetoric and climate action and urge them to act. It also showed that popular mobilization against car infrastructure was possible in a car-obsessed Germany.
The fact that civil disobedience is publicized is also linked to the preservation of the “Ordnung” (order) – a strong cultural tradition in Germany that dates back to the reformist Martin Luther’s call for obedience. to the authorities in his writings.
Foreigners traveling in Germany might find strangers reporting petty crimes they’ve committed, such as talking too loudly in a quiet train section.
It is therefore not surprising that no group to date has managed to arouse more emotion in power-loving Germans than the school strike movement, Fridays for Future (FFF).
In December 2018, activists began skipping school to draw attention to the climate crisis.
The movement, which I later joined, initially received intense criticism. In March 2019, months after the strikes began, then-Liberal Party leader and now finance minister Christian Lindner questioned protesters’ ability to understand the complexity of global issues, saying the fight against climate crisis should be left to the “professionals”. The Association of German Teachers has also frequently criticized students who miss school to participate in political actions.
But reactions like these only inflamed discussion in the German media about the legitimacy of the youth protests and ultimately led to climate change becoming a top political issue.
By breaking the rules, climate activists like me have made politicians listen to our simple argument: how can we obey your rules if they lead us right into the climate crisis?
After nearly a year of mobilization and becoming one of the largest FFF offshoots in Europe, 1.4 million people in Germany took part in the Global Climate Strike in September 2019. Some 6 million people in the world joined in the protests that week.
The same week, then-German Chancellor Angela Merkel cited student protests as a reason for faster and more decisive action on climate change and the government presented a climate package. Later that year, it passed a Climate Action Act to achieve climate goals. In 2021, the law was updated with the aim of achieving climate neutrality by 2045 with strict emission reductions across all sectors.
Germany’s new coalition government – made up of the Greens, Liberals (the Liberal Democratic Party) and centre-left Social Democrats – wants, among its climate targets, to have 15 million electric cars on the road by 2030 .
Germany will need to go far beyond producing electric cars (which require roads) to effectively transform the automotive sector.
Even though many Germans don’t like to hear it, reforming the automotive industry will be a crucial part of creating effective climate policies, as will huge investments in public transport and rail.
Only in the past three years have German activists taken on the car, which has long seemed immune to criticism due to a strong cultural attachment.
“Sand im Getriebe” (Sand in the Gearbox), a group that emerged from the anti-coal movement, staged large-scale protests at prestigious motor shows, sparking discussions about the future of mobility in Germany and questioning deep-rooted ideas about the automotive and automotive sector.
Even if the new German government seems engaged in the crisis, the climate movement will not be short of stakes.
Politicians can focus on fake, environmentally-washed and unjust solutions to climate change, including unproven technologies, and see them as a free pass to do less in the present. But activists will be there to challenge them. And we know that if you want attention, disturb the Ordnung.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.