The wanton destruction of Germany’s ancient Hambach Forest

By Kate Goldstone

Brazil’s leader, Bolsonaro, is waging war on the Amazon, large areas of it are already dying thanks to global warming (1), unable to handle the drought. 170,00 acres of Peru’s rainforests have been trashed over the last five years alone (2). The Congo Basin rainforest could disappear altogether by the year 2100 (3). And still, the remaining precious fragments of Germany’s stunning Hambach Forest are under threat from coal mining.

Hambach Forest lies between Cologne and Aachen. It is remarkably bio-diverse, existing as home to more than 140 important species. It’s also the final remnant of a woodland ecosystem that has graced this part of the Rhine River plain since the end of the last Ice Age around 12,000 years ago.

If it sounds magical, it is. But only 10% of the original forest remains, and this precious fragment has been under threat from brown coal mining – thanks to RWE AG’s Hambach surface mine – for many years. No wonder there’s a constant stream of protests and occupations.

While most of us already know that rainforests and cloud forests are the lungs of the world, essential to our survival, fewer people understand that every type of ancient woodland, from temperate deciduous forests to mangroves, needle leaf woods to freshwater swamp forests, is vital for mitigating climate change. Newer growth isn’t anywhere near as effective, which means Hambach is critical to our future.

All this is happening in a country that has long enjoyed a powerful Green movement and boasts decent environmental credentials. So why is the German government sitting on its hands? What’s going on?

Why has there been no Environmental Assessment study of the Hambach?

The incredibly rare Bechstein’s bat is just one of the threatened creatures living in the Hambach, an animal strictly protected by annexes 2 and 4 of the European Habitats Directive. But despite its uniqueness there has never been an Environmental Impact Assessment study on the forest. Germany’s Administrative Court in Cologne vetoed a study in 2017 because permission for mining operations was given to RWE AG way back in the 1970s, decades before Environmental Impact Assessment studies even existed.

A critical disconnect puts profit above our future.

The Hambach surface mine is Germany’s biggest open pit mine, a whopping 33 square miles. RWE AG has always argued that the coal lying under the remainder of the Hambach Forest is vital to meet Germany’s energy needs. However, we all know burning fossil fuels is madness and it has to stop right now.

Sadly there’s the usual baffling disconnect between profit, commerce, power and the future of every living creature on the planet. If RWE AG is allowed to mine the rest of the forest, it’ll mean total destruction. The coal is ripped out of the earth by massive excavators, which mangle the landscape and leave it unrecognisable. Even if they replace the trees with new ones after they’ve mined the heck out of the land, new growth is nowhere near as valuable as the old growth where climate change mitigation is concerned.

Why old forest is better at mitigating climate change than new growth.

According to research reported by the journal Global Change Biology, (4) biodiversity in forests changes irreparably as the climate changes. Trees vulnerable to dry conditions, the water-lovers, usually die off first. These findings alone ‘highlight the need for strict measures to protect existing intact rainforests’, says Dr Kyle Dexter, co-author of the study from the University of Edinburgh.

An article on the Oxford Student website (5) concurs, saying that:

“Tropical forests are not just a random combination of organisms, but a complex ecological web of interactions between species. As written in ‘On the Origin of Species’ (1859): ‘When we look at the plants and bushes clothing an entangled bank, we are tempted to attribute their proportional numbers and kinds to what we call chance. But how false a view this is!’.

I think this complexity is best shown by the forest’s sensitivities. The Biological Dynamics of Forest Fragments Project shows that when the forests become fragmented, the entire ecological community changes. For example, in a one-hectare fragment after 2 years of isolation, the number of bird species declined by 60%. The high complexity means changes in the population sizes and community compositions can trigger a chain reaction, with synergistic effects, that ripples through the forest, impacting many other species.”

Wikipedia also reveals the importance of old growth in forests (6).

“Old-growth forests … store large amounts of carbon above and below the ground (either as humus, or in wet soils as peat). They collectively represent a very significant store of carbon. Destruction of these forests releases this carbon as greenhouse gases, and may increase the risk of global climate change.”

When Wikipedia says, “Research suggests older forests that have trees of many ages, multiple layers, and little disturbance have the highest capacities for carbon storage ”, they’re referring to research carried out by Jennifer C. McGarve, Jonathan R. Thompson, Howard E. Epstein and Herman H. Shugart Jr. in 2015, (7) which proved old growth naturally sequesters a lot more CO2 than new, for all sorts of reasons including the larger-diameter trunks of old trees, and the presence of lots of dead wood, leaf litter and other organic material left to rot down naturally. Their research adds to a growing pile of scientific proof that old‐growth forests have greater CO2 storage potential than anyone previously realised, supporting the findings made by other scientists including the IPCC in 2006, Luyssaert et al. In 2008, Lichstein et al. In 2009, Keith et al in 2009, Keeton et al in 2011, and Burrascano et al in 2013. And they’re just a few members of a long list of scientists who have come to much the same conclusion.

The fact that these studies even exist reveals how wrong Germany’s failure to save the remains of the Hambach Forest really is. RWE can re-forest all they like, but it’ll potentially be hundreds of years before the new growth performs the same essential carbon storage role as old growth. Destroying forests then simply planting new trees is not good enough, and it’s highly disingenuous of governments and commerce to claim otherwise.

Is there any good news?

While the German government seems to be paralysed, doing nothing to help, there is some good news. A non-profit tech startup in Berlin (8) has offered to buy the remaining 200 hectares the forest to save it from RWE’s coal surface mining activities. They’re called Ecosia and the search engine they’ve created donates the majority of its advertising revenue to conservation initiatives (8). They’ve already funded 40 million new trees, planted right across the world, and they’ve offered RWE €1m to save the last remaining corner of the 12,000-year-old Hambach Forest for the future.

As Ecosia said, “Last year for the first time, Germany produced more renewable energy than brown coal energy, and this is the direction we need to keep working towards. There is a momentum here that we do not want to see lost and we invite other companies and organisations to join us in our offer for the Hambach forest.”

Will RWE agree? So far, no. Their lack of action proves that RWE and the German government don’t think climate change is worth taking seriously. It’s all talk, very little action. Once again, short term gain matters more than the future of our children – and theirs, too.

Action feels good – Join Extinction Rebellion

In a world where as much as 80% of the world’s forest loss is down to agribusiness, even though research proves better forest stewardship plus natural climate solutions might deliver over 33% of the climate mitigation needed by the year 2030 (9), we can’t even afford to let another square metre of the remaining Hambach Forest go.

It’s time for peaceful non-violent direct action, to force our governments to change their policies, even if we must go to jail for it. If the future matters to you, join us. You can also support the good people who are on-site, risking their lives every day to prevent more destruction at Hambach.

Resources:

(1) https://www.independent.co.uk/environment/amazon-rainforest-climate-change-death-global-warming-drought-a8622626.html

(2) https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/11/181108130525.htm

(3) https://www.ecowatch.com/congo-basin-rainforest-deforestation-2618692110.html

(4) https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/gcb.14413

(5) https://www.oxfordstudent.com/2018/10/16/the-importance-of-tropical-forests-why-we-should-conserve-them-and-how-they-affect-the-rest-of-the-world/

(6) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Old-growth_forest#cite_note-25

(7) https://esajournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1890/14-1154.1

(8) https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/oct/09/berlin-startup-offers-1m-to-save-ancient-hambach-forest-from-coal-mining

(9) https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/nov/12/eu-states-call-for-tough-action-on-deforestation-to-meet-2020-un-goal-amsterdam-declaration

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