NOEL KING, HOST:
Germany has this reputation as a pioneer of clean energy. Angela Merkel was called the climate chancellor when she decided to ditch nuclear power. But the reality in Germany is a lot dirtier. The country is the biggest miner of brown coal in the world. It's called lignite, and it is the filthiest of all fossil fuels. And across the country, centuries-old villages are being bulldozed to make way for mines. Esme Nicholson has more.
ESME NICHOLSON, BYLINE: The medieval village of Podelwitz in rural Saxony is a quiet place where even the church bells no longer ring out. But this idyllic setting is fast losing its charm. Quaint, timber-framed houses stand empty, and only 27 out of 200 villages remain because the local mine wants to dig up the brown coal that lies beneath. Sixty-two-year-old Elke Konrad has known Podelwitz all her life.
ELKE KONRAD: (Through interpreter) It's such a shame. The character of the place has gone to pot. There's nothing left.
NICHOLSON: But this week the village is full of life again. Hundreds of climate protesters have pitched tents on the green in front of the church. They've already seen the destruction of dozens of villages in the Rhineland and in Brandenburg but hope to save this 800-year-old hamlet. Local farmer Jens Hausner is grateful for the support. From his farmyard you can see the coal plant that's threatening his livelihood. But you can also see wind turbines on the horizon. He says the contrasting view is an apt analogy for the country's confused climate diplomacy.
JENS HAUSNER: (Through interpreter) In Berlin they're talking about how to phase out coal, but here in Saxony they're scaling it up as if it wasn't an issue.
NICHOLSON: One of those talking about coal in the capital is Stefan Kapferer, who heads up Germany's largest energy sector lobby. He says that for an industrial giant like Germany, it could take 20 years to switch off coal.
STEFAN KAPFERER: (Through interpreter) Security and cost are major issues. We've got to ensure that our chemical, steel and aluminum industries can access and afford the electricity they need.
NICHOLSON: Kapferer sits on the newly formed Coal Commission, which has until the end of this year to come up with a phase-out plan for the government. He points out that coal plants are private companies and will need compensation. Rebecca Bertram, senior policy adviser with the Heinrich Boll Foundation, agrees that weaning the country off brown coal is no easy task. She says that while the sector employs just 20,000, it provides jobs in regions with little else in terms of industry. And so the miners are going to fight for their jobs.
REBECCA BERTRAM: The problem with coal is that it's so localized and that they're very well-organized in terms of unions. Unlike in the United States, our trade unions are very, very strong and always have to be part of the discussions.
NICHOLSON: But back in Podelwitz, on the edge of the village at the gates to the coal plant, Thomas Guter disagrees. Guter is a miner, and he feels vulnerable despite being a union member.
THOMAS GUTER: (Through interpreter) It's so, so unfair. Nobody ever talks about the advantages of brown coal, what it does for the region economically or the energy security it provides.
NICHOLSON: Guter is a fourth-generation miner. He's never known anything else. And he says there aren't any other decent manual jobs in this region. But he may not need worry. If Germany continues to drag its feet over how to give up its dirty coal habit, 52-year-old Guter will probably work at the pit until retirement. For NPR News, I'm Esme Nicholson in Saxony.
(SOUNDBITE OF EVELYN'S "AND THE FLOWERS WERE GRAY")
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