Klaus Zischke looks out over his backyard goldfish pond—the one he and his wife, both 70, built years ago—and he knows its days are numbered. Really, the end is near for his entire village, an 850-year-old hamlet nestled in the flatlands just outside Cologne.
In a process being played out across Germany, Zischke and his neighbors will soon be relocated so that a dozen of the world’s largest digging machines can begin chewing up the brown coal that lies just below those goldfish and extends more than 1,000 feet down. Despite its reputation as a world leader in solar- and wind-power technologies (16 percent of its electricity comes from renewable sources), Germany also has a dirty secret. It is highly dependent on lignite, so-called brown coal, which is one of the filthiest fuels known to mankind, emitting 27 percent more carbon dioxide to produce the same amount of electricity as regular black coal. The country mines some 180 million metric tons of the stuff every year—slightly more than China and the United States combined—and is home to six of the 10 most polluting power plants in Europe. “On the one hand, Germany looks quite progressive, but if you take a closer look, it’s another story,” says Anike Peters, of Greenpeace Germany.
While Germany’s reliance on brown coal may run counter to its efforts to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions by 40 percent of 1990 levels in the next decade, the abundance of lignite is tough to ignore. The country sits on about 77 billion metric tons of brown coal. Which means that compared with importing natural gas from Russia, or oil from Saudi Arabia, or hard coal from the far-flung ends of the planet, mining lignite is cheap—even if does involve pulverizing a village now and then.