December 10, 2019

‘No regrets’: activists who shut down power plant await sentence | Environment


A group of climate activists who shut down a lignite coal power plant in Germany said they had no regrets and were prepared to repeat the action, as they awaited the conclusion of their trial.

The activists from the group WeShutDown blockaded the Weisweiler power plant near Aachen for several hours on 15 November 2017, by halting its coal-carrying conveyor belts and diggers. The energy company RWE, which owns the plant, claims the shutdown cost it €2m.

The group has called its action “legitimate and necessary”, claiming that it stopped significant amounts of emissions from entering the atmosphere.

“We prevented 26,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions which would otherwise have been pumped out in the several hours we shut it down,” one of the activists, going by the alias Wanja, said. “That’s the equivalent of the amount of electricity used by 2,672 people in Germany in one year, or 104,000 people in Tanzania.”

The group, he said, “created a moment of effective opposition to this infernal machine – lignite is also one of the most ineffective fuels there is, only economically viable if produced on a huge scale.

“By bringing it to a halt, we reduced the damaging emissions it produces, so it was legitimate and the opposite of criminal. We are convinced it was worth it.”

The 37-year-old Wanja, along with four other activists on trial in Eschweiler, faces charges of trespassing and disturbance of public supply in a case that has received widespread publicity. Their act has been labelled ecoterrorism and industrial sabotage by some, while others consider it a masterstroke in the history of environmental protest in Germany.

The accused are unlikely to face prison sentences, but could receive hefty fines when the judge delivers his verdict, expected on Wednesday.

The activists said they want the publicity given to their trial to have the effect of putting pressure on the German government to act faster to phase out coal mining, which it has pledged to do over the next 20 years.

Weisweiler coal protesters



The five defendants appeared together in the street before their trial Photograph: Henning Kaiser/dpa

RWE, which apart from Weisweiler runs two other large lignite-fired plants and is said by activists to be responsible for about 10% of Germany’s CO2 emissions, has accused the group of criminal activity which cost it millions and forced it to take it off the grid and buy in extra electricity from elsewhere. It is hoping the trial will act as a preventive measure against copycat actions.

WeShutDown has said it had made use of the trial, which started on 29 October, to highlight “the worldwide destruction of livelihoods through lignite coal combustion”.

Its lawyers asked the court to hear statements from climate emergency experts to illustrate that their action was justified in Germany and beyond, because “air pollution is local, but climate change is global”.

Rosa Gierens, a Finnish meteorologist from the University of Cologne, who is an expert on air pollution and specifically on how fine particles emitted from power plants affect human health, told the court that peer-reviewed statistical data proved that Weisweiler “caused 280 premature deaths every year”.

The global impact was to be illustrated by a Tanzanian farmer, due to give evidence on how the power plant, by contributing to the climate emergency, had affected the livelihoods of people in his country.

Seuri Sanare, 28, a member of the Masai community from Monduli in northern Tanzania, was refused the chance to speak.

But he told the Guardian that had he been given the chance, he would have explained to the court the devastating effects, including the lack of rain and resultant loss of grass and livestock on his community.

“The knock-on effects are multiple,” he said. “People are having to go much further for water for both cattle and humans, at considerable risk to both.

“Land is splitting due to the parched conditions,” he said, showing photographs of huge rifts that had formed in agricultural land near his home. “In turn this leads to social unrest as neighbours dispute whose land is whose,” he said.

Women in particular were among the most vulnerable, he said. “They are having to get up earlier and earlier to go further and further for that water for their families, and because it’s often still dark, they regularly face rape en route and are vulnerable to sexual exploitation in exchange for water, particularly in the cities.”

Wanja said the court’s refusal to hear Sanare as a witness, illustrated “that German justice is more interested in German suffering, but not suffering elsewhere in the world”.

He recalled the night in November when he and 12 other ecological activists finally embarked on the action they had been planning for months. They had broken the skin on their fingertips sealing the ridges with superglue to avoid leaving fingerprints, and some were wearing nappies in anticipation of a long night’s sit-in. Wanja said that as he was running towards the power plant, he fell and broke his ankle. “But I continued, hardly feeling the pain probably because of the adrenalin,” he said.

The group climbed over the fence “with surprising ease – there was very little to keep us out”, he said. They made it to the plant, activating the emergency stop buttons on the conveyor belts. Some of the activists chained themselves together on the conveyor belts, others on mechanical diggers, while Wanja climbed up on a tripod they had placed five metres above the tracks, unfurled a banner reading “Never Trust a COP” – a reference to the UN climate change summit that was taking place in Bonn at the same time – and settled himself into a hammock, listening as the plant literally ground to a halt around him.

One of the activists sits atop a tripod near the conveyor belt of the plant during the blockade



One of the activists sits atop a tripod near the conveyor belt of the plant during the blockade. Photograph: Jannis Grosse/Revomage Pictures

“I wasn’t scared,” Wanja recalled. “I was overwhelmed by a sense of intense relief that we had achieved what we’d set out to do, and relished the hours it took for them to extract us, knowing the longer it took, the more effective our action was going to have been.”

A spokesman for RWE condemned the activists’ action, saying there was no question that they should be held criminally culpable for what it sees as an act of sabotage. “Just as if someone were to unauthorisedly break into someone’s private house and cause damages there, there would be a demand for compensation, so it’s the same in this case,” he said.

He said accusations that the company itself was doing damage by producing energy lacked substance: “The company is producing electricity with a plant and equipment which have been erected and are being operated in accordance with democratic decisions and state approval. The company said the activists’ blockade had led to a loss in performance of more than 2,000 megawatts, forcing the company to buy in replacement supplies on the energy exchange.



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