Green growth or degrowth? Protests in Lützerath and the divided German Green Party


Criticism over government policy in Germany highlights the trade-off between the environment and economy

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Image by Stefan Müller

By Benjamin Gibbs

Earlier this year, environmental activists were evicted from the West-German village of Lützerath in order to allow for the expansion of the Garzweiler surface mine, Europe’s third-largest coal mine. The village, which had been occupied by activists for over two years and had previously been cleared of all its inhabitants, became the site of dramatic clashes between protestors and the police. Yet despite their relatively rapid resolution, these confrontations highlighted one of the most consequential divides in the German green movement.

The expansion of the mine, which is operated by the Rhenish-Westphalian energy company RWE, received particular attention for the fact that it was approved by Robert Habeck, a prominent Green Party politician and Germany’s Minister for the Economy and Environmental Protection. The Green Party is currently a junior coalition partner in both the federal government of Germany and the state government of North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW), the state that Lützerath is in. Last autumn, an agreement was negotiated between Habeck, Mona Neubaur, who is NRW’s State Minister for Climate Protection and Energy, and Markus Krebber, the CEO of RWE. This deal authorised the demolition of Lützerath on the condition that RWE’s coal phase-out would be brought forward from 2038 to 2030.

Habeck has argued that, as a result of the reduction in natural gas imports following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the additional coal under Lützerath has become necessary in order to guarantee Germany’s energy supply security. However, according to a report commissioned by Europe Beyond Coal, the lignite supplied by the already existing mining area will be in excess of Germany’s maximum demand over the next eight years, rendering the expansion of the mine unnecessary. A report commissioned by RWE, on the other hand, comes to the conclusion that the coal under Lützerath will in fact be needed in the next several years in order to make up for gas shortages.

The government is equally keen to present this agreement as an important step in the direction of ecological sustainability. By getting RWE to bring forward its coal phase-out to 2030, the coalition government hopes to get closer to fulfilling its commitment to cover 80 percent of the country’s energy supply using renewable sources by 2030, as well as achieving carbon neutrality by 2045. However, a study by Aurora Energy Research has found that advancing the coal phase-out in tandem with the short-term expansion of RWE’s mining operations has no impact on reducing total carbon emissions.

The Green Party has come under severe criticism for what many activists see as a betrayal of its most important values. Fridays for Future has been particularly outspoken in its critique, and the movement’s figurehead, Greta Thunberg, was also present at the protests in Lützerath. Luisa Neubauer, who is one of Fridays for Future’s most prominent activists in Germany, criticised the government for prioritising RWE’s profits over environmental protection.

Yet the party’s conciliatory attitude towards business is not new. It is part of a longer development in the party’s history which increasingly favoured attempts to combat the climate crisis through market-based solutions.

The Green Party, founded in January 1980, grew out of an environmental movement whose primary focus was its opposition to nuclear power, but which also made expressly anti-capitalist critiques of the idea of limitless economic growth as the guarantor of human well-being. In its early years, the party was characterised by impassioned conflicts between its two major wings: on the one hand there is the so-called ‘Realo’ wing (derived from the term Realpolitik), which sees itself as more pragmatic and willing to compromise, and on the other hand the so-called ‘Fundis’, the more explicitly anti-capitalist wing. Over the course of the last 40 years, but particularly after reunification, the Realo wing has become the dominant voice of the party.

There is also a noticeable difference between the stances adopted by the party before and after the Bundestag election in September 2021. In their election manifesto, they argued that “there cannot be unlimited growth on a finite planet”. In this manifesto, the understanding of economic growth is as a means to an end, seeing “ecologically just prosperity” as the primary goal of politics. In comparison, the current government’s coalition agreement sets out an agenda which involves a number of compromises which the Green Party had to make with the Social Democrats (SPD) and the more economically liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP). The agreement repeatedly emphasises the need to guarantee what it calls “sustainable economic growth”, which is here depicted as a desirable end in itself, and sets as its goal a “social-ecological market economy”.

The party’s current position can therefore be summarised with what has been called “Green Growth”. This is the idea that environmental protection and climate justice are best achieved by channelling capitalism’s spur to technological innovation and economic growth into ecologically sustainable avenues. On the other side of this debate is the idea of “Degrowth”, which argues that it is precisely this drive towards economic growth and the corresponding development of various carbon emitting technologies which has caused the climate crisis. Advocates of this latter view suggest that it is necessary to move towards an economic model which does not rely on perpetual growth, as this, according to them, is ultimately unsustainable on a finite planet.

What the recent events in Lützerath have made clear is that this debate is far from resolved. While the Green Party’s leadership and government ministers are clearly pursuing the path of “Green Growth”, many of its more left-wing members remain unconvinced. What this means for the future of the German green movement remains to be seen.