A stacker works in the Garzweiler opencast lignite mine.
Photo: Federico Gambarini / picture alliance / dpa
The war in Ukraine and the energy crisis have been wrecking climate plans for the Federal Minister for Economic Affairs for months.
Robert Habeck can only lose in terms of climate policy with controversial gas deals or the ramping up of charcoal piles.
At the beginning of October there should be good news: NRW Economics Minister Mona Neubaur (NRW) and Habeck announced that the phase-out of lignite in the Rhenish mining area would be brought forward to 2030.
A total of eight years than originally planned.
The relief was palpable at the appointment.
As a result, 280 million tons of coal are said to remain in the ground - half of the currently planned 560 million tons of the climate-damaging energy source.
The pain of the Greens' clientele that because of the energy crisis, climate-damaging lignite power plants burn more coal than previously planned and that the village of Lützerath am Garzweiler has to give way to the coal excavators should be alleviated.
The promise of the two ministers: Although more coal will be burned for the time being, the early phase-out would ultimately significantly improve the CO₂ balance.
Habeck said at the time that “this is a good day” for climate protection.
Lützerath and the short-term coal renaissance can be gotten over, because there are a total of many millions of tons of emissions saved, according to the political message from Habeck and Neubaur.
On Thursday evening, the printed paper 20/4300, the "draft of a law to accelerate the phase-out of lignite in the Rhenish Revier" is to be passed in the Bundestag - and thus supposedly do something good for climate protection.
But according to a study by the energy consulting firm Aurora, which is exclusively available to SPIEGEL, the early phase-out of coal will do little to protect the climate.
The promise is not even enough as a consolation.
Coal phase-out sham
In the past few weeks, the energy experts at Aurora have checked the claim that it was a "good day for climate protection" - and came to a less than pleasing conclusion: the early phase-out of coal was a sham, according to the study.
If the law is passed on Thursday evening, paving the way for a coal phase-out in NRW for 2030, there will be no savings in emissions, contrary to what was announced.
Up to 61 million tons more CO₂ would be emitted if charcoal piles were “recovered” at short notice.
By 2030 there will even be an excess of 164 million tonnes of the emission path envisaged in the Climate Protection Act.
The analysts have calculated three different coal scenarios up to 2038 on behalf of the coal-critical alliance Europe Beyond Coal.
They calculated the emissions for a "business as usual" without a short-term increase in coal capacities, the now planned model of a temporarily higher but shorter coal combustion and a scenario that also takes into account the increased electricity consumption up to 2030.
In the middle scenario, which corresponds to the draft law, there is a kind of emissions boom that flattens out again by 2030 - the climate targets for the energy sector in 2030 are therefore still just met.
But until then, there will be numerous overruns and, in terms of quantity, a much higher output than planned.
This, in turn, eats up the alleged savings that result from the eight-year early phase-out of coal.
Violation of the Climate Protection Act?
The study also argues that coal will become uneconomical anyway after 2030 - due to falling gas prices and a sharp rise in CO2 prices in European emissions trading.
This means that the emissions allegedly saved by the early phase-out of coal would also become obsolete.
The study reads as if the early exit from coal is not much more than a political placebo: intended to calm people down, but actually does nothing.
The commissioners of the study even see a violation of the Climate Protection Act.
There, a "constant possible" reduction in CO2 emissions is prescribed by 2030.
"The federal government must now make all the necessary legal changes and implement the coal phase-out 2030 throughout Germany in such a way that compliance with the climate protection law is ensured," says Francesca Mascha Klein from ClientEarth.
After all, such an emissions boom is not covered by the law.
Karsten Smid from Greenpeace adds: "Because more lignite is being burned, the energy sector is in danger of massively exceeding its residual CO2 budget that is permissible in terms of climate policy and will not be involved in climate protection for years."
The climate researcher Niklas Höhne, who was not involved in the study, says: "The study confirms that bringing back coal-fired power plants that have to be shut down will increase emissions before 2030".
According to the study, however, it is questionable whether bringing forward the phase-out of coal will really reduce emissions after 2030.
And with it the reasoning of the Economics Minister.
Lützerath: The village has to go - or does it?
Coal critics also see themselves confirmed in the controversial excavation of the village of Lützerath.
According to the operator RWE, the site is to be demolished in order to meet the increased demand for coal in the coming years.
There is now a free ticket for this in the exit law.
In the meantime, the village has become a symbol for the climate movement.
However, the authors of the Aurora study calculated that a maximum of 234 million tons of lignite from the Garzweiler and Hambach opencast mines would be needed to operate the Neurath and Niederaussem lignite-fired power plants by 2030 – even under the scenario of increasing electricity consumption.
According to the calculations, a maximum of 124 million tons would have to be excavated in the Garzweiler, where the village is located.
That would save the village.
Because the coal under Lützerath is only needed from a requirement of 170 million tons - that in turn is in the report on which Habeck and the NRW state government base themselves.
These numbers are the basis of the early coal phase-out law that will be passed on Thursday.
They come from the report of the Office for Energy Economics and Technical Planning (BET) from September.
In contrast to the current Aurora study, a much higher amount of coal is assumed to be burned by 2030.
According to this, more than 170 million tons have to be excavated from Garzweiler in any case - and thus also the village of Lützerath.
Otherwise there would not be "sufficient amounts of coal" to supply the power plants, according to RWE.
This leads to a "shortfall, especially in the gas shortage".
There was much criticism of this report by BET.
The estimates of the experts on the amounts of lignite were influenced too much by data from the coal company RWE and were created under time pressure.
However, the chaotic data situation also shows how imprecise such forecasts are - and that these assumptions can change at any time: "The coal law must therefore be checked regularly and adjusted if necessary in order to achieve a CO2 reduction path in line with the climate protection law," says Fabian Huebner from Europe Beyond Coal.
This applies to both cases when more or less coal is required.
The Green member of the Bundestag Kathrin Henneberger explained that such reviews are now also included in the coal phase-out law.
In the worst-case scenario, so much coal could be burned that even the 2030 climate targets would be at risk.
That cannot yet be estimated as of today.
"In the event of a threat of non-achievement of the climate protection goals, measures to achieve the goals must be proposed." Calling for this review is now the responsibility of Parliament, "no matter how much this contradicts the interests of coal companies like RWE," says Henneberger.
Expert dispute about electricity volumes and the success of the energy transition
Nevertheless: how is it that the new study by Aurora assumes much lower amounts of coal - despite increasing electricity demand from electric cars, heat pumps or hydrogen production?
The problem: Nobody can say exactly how much electricity demand will increase by 2030.
That also depends on the extent to which fossil fuels are replaced by renewable energy sources.
In the end, this also decides how many emissions will rise into the atmosphere.
The experts from BET expect 750 terawatt hours of electricity consumption in 2030, Aurora only around 670.
"Our scenario describes the most likely path, we do not adopt pure goals 1:1 in our central outlook," says Aurora study author Nicolas Leicht.
"We assume that although there are more renewables, the government's goals cannot be achieved due to the sluggish expansion."
According to the Aurora scenario, gas will become cheaper again, while coal piles will become unprofitable in the late 2020s.
"If the operators can no longer cover their marginal costs due to high CO2 prices, they will gradually take the reactor off the grid," believes the author of the study, Leicht.
It is currently unlikely that wind and solar energy will increase at the rate planned by the government.
Gas will probably fill the gap because hydrogen is not yet available and coal would be more expensive, at least initially.
This is precisely the criticism of the Aurora study: "These assumptions of very low natural gas prices and significantly increased CO2 prices are highly speculative," comments Felix Matthes from the Öko-Institut.
"If the market develops differently, we would only be able to phase out coal, which is harmful to the climate, much later," says Matthes.
Relying solely on the market for climate protection is not a good idea.
Without secure data, no political decision
Scientist Höhne, on the other hand, believes that the study confirms what many experts have long suspected: that after 2030 it will simply no longer be worthwhile to run coal-fired power plants.
"Previating the formal phase-out of coal to 2030 has no additional positive effect after 2030 compared to what would happen anyway," says Höhne.
Only if one assumes that coal-fired power plants really run until 2038 does the advance of the coal phase-out actually reduce emissions.
No matter which scenario is believed in the end, the Aurora study shows one thing quite clearly: Federal Minister of Economics Habeck and the state government of North Rhine-Westphalia must now be asked why they did not calculate again.
The previous reports may not have been completely wrong, but they were at least quite one-sided.
Relying on operator data when discussing coal volumes is never a good idea.
After all, it's not just about numbers, but about a law, considerable amounts of CO2 and the fate of a village that is no longer inhabited.