The Afterlife of German Coal Mining

This is the second feature in a weekly, three-part series on green jobs in various sectors of the global economy. Read Part 1 here.

Jochen SeifertIt was Jochen Seifert's job to adjust a conveyor belt under Germany's largest coal mine one day in 1959. As the 24-year-old locksmith worked, a crack split the rocks along the mine shaft. Walls caved in, and Seifert was trapped below.

"Hey, locksmith! Are you alive?" his fellow miners yelled. Seifert survived, but he recalls others who were less fortunate. Two miners once fell down a 160-meter shaft to their death. Seifert has no lasting illnesses, but a friend has a tracheotomy, likely due to black lung disease. "I really had a guardian angel," Seifert said.

It was the dedicated labor of coal miners like Seifert that fueled Western Europe's industrial revolution in the 19th and 20th centuries. Yet within the coming decade, the legendary coal mines of Germany's Ruhr Valley may be closed forever. The German coal miner is likely to go extinct as well.

The German government is phasing out the 2.5 billion euros (US$3.9 billion) of subsidies it provides to the coal industry by 2018. The move is mostly financial. German coal is often 1,000 meters below ground, making it much more expensive than imported coal, which accounts for 95 percent of the coal burned in Germany.

At the end of 2007, the German coal industry employed 32,800 workers - 76 percent of whom work in the Ruhr Valley. The industry employs about 43 percent fewer people now than in 2000, and 94 percent fewer than in 1959, according to the German Hard Coal Association [PDF]. An association-supported study predicts that unemployment in the Ruhr area will grow about 2 percent on average if coal mining ends. Steel production jobs are on the decline as well, due to mechanization. Unemployment in the Ruhr, already higher than surrounding areas of Western Germany, is now 11 percent on average.

The German government is searching for redevelopment opportunities for the valley, but a clear solution to the widespread unemployment is not in sight. The environmental community often touts the merits of green jobs - high-paying employment in an ecologically beneficial industry - but can these replace the lost mining jobs?

Green jobs may not be the absolute answer to economic decline in former mining economies. However, a greening of the factories and industries that once made a mining town vibrant may be the solution to ending job loss and generating future prosperity.

From Factories to ‘Cathedrals'

Forty years ago, a visitor to the most industrialized areas of the Ruhr Valley might have found it difficult to breathe the air. Pollutants from the hundreds of coal mines, steel factories, and chemical plants floated down the Rhine River and settled across the land. The region inspired many of Germany's sweeping air-quality controls. When many factories eventually closed, the structures remained unused for decades and rusted away.

Now, a visitor is likely to arrive into the Ruhr Valley as an ecotourist. Mountain bikers pedal through the re-grown forests of white birch and willow trees. Abandoned factories have been cleaned out and converted into theaters, art displays, and recreational destinations - it is perhaps the only place where an adventurer is encouraged to climb a gas furnace. The Zollverein industrial complex, formerly the largest and most modern colliery in the world, is now listed as a World Heritage Site, as a testament to modern industrial architecture.

"We're using the spirit of that old site and creating new jobs," said Frank Lohrberg, a German landscape architect. "Artists see the qualities of the site, see it's not ugly, it could be beautiful. Not only a factory, it could be a cathedral."

Former coal miners have found new opportunities in the site's "restoration economy." They are renovating the buildings and helping to create Emscher Park, a series of green spaces that spans 800 square kilometers (497 square miles) of northern Ruhr Valley. Seifert now works as a tour guide in Zollverein.

The German government pumped billions of dollars into the park, in part to recruit new businesses to the region. An Emscher Park consultant's development report [PDF] estimated that 5,000 jobs were attracted to the region, and 7,500 new homes have been constructed. The Economist reported that economic growth in the Ruhr Valley outpaced the other two regions of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia between 2001 and 2005, due mostly to the success of information technology firms.

"We have [significant] employment in the fields of IT, logistics, and nanotechnology. These are the main industries here," said Ralf Löckener, the co-owner of Sustain-Consult, a Ruhr-based development firm. "But that doesn't mean that people who lost their jobs in coal mines and steel workers got new jobs. They're not qualified for these industries."

A lack of opportunity has led many former mining residents to move to Germany's larger cities. A study by the Finland Futures Academy [PDF] predicts that the Ruhr Valley will lose about 5 percent of its citizens until 2020, due mostly to an aging population. A few large companies are moving out as well. Following in the steps of several German producers who cut expenses by moving to Eastern Europe or Southeast Asia, the Finnish manufacturer Nokia uprooted a mobile-phone factory from the Ruhr Valley to Romania earlier this year, leaving 2,300 German workers jobless.

A Renewable Future

ZollvereinMining towns often survive after their mines have shut down by shifting to an entirely new industry, such as skiing or tourism. But in the Ruhr Valley, the best way to survive may be through reinventing the past.

Many of the components of renewable energy technologies originate from mining technology. Two of the world's leading producers of wind turbine parts, Voith Turbo BHS Getriebe GmbH and IBC Wälzlager GmbH, were originally producers of coal-mining machinery. Siemens once produced conventional coal-fired power plants for the Ruhr area, and now the company is developing biomass generators. Instead of helping companies dig for coal, mining suppliers like TERAMEX are providing drilling machinery for geothermal energy.

If the Ruhr can attract Germany's growing renewable energy market, thousands of jobs are likely to follow. A study commissioned by the German government found that in 2006, the country was home to some 259,000 direct and indirect jobs in the renewables sector. Due to several recent government policies that encourage alternative energy, those jobs are expected to climb to 400,000-500,000 by 2020 and to 710,000 by 2030, the study said [PDF].

In addition to components for renewables, Ruhr engineers may be best suited to improve the efficiency of their own coal and steel industries. For instance, several German entrepreneurs are exploring whether hydrogen can replace the fossil fuels that now power steel production. "That is one of the greenest jobs you could think about. The iron industry is among the biggest contributors to CO2 emissions worldwide," said Löckener of Sustain-Consult.

New employment opportunities may also arise from development that combines renewable energy and other efforts to green the Ruhr Valley. As part of Emscher Park's 2010 master plan, the city of Dinslaken is negotiating with coal company MGG to convert a former mine site into a forest plantation. As much as 10,000 hectares of willows and poplars could be grown for biomass feedstock to provide heating.

In addition to turning a polluted landscape into a forest, biomass processing requires skilled workers, and it pays well. "This will certainly create new jobs for someone who plants, someone who maintains the plantation, and someone who is harvesting the biomass," said landscape architect Frank Lohrberg, who is leading this project [PDF]. "The work is done in the region - that's the advantage of biomass production."

Wolfgang Jung, the vice managing director of the Ruhr's Gelsenkirchen Science Park, and his three-person staff are working to "promote the Ruhr Valley as a new energy region" as they attract renewable energy businesses. The International Economic Platform for Renewable Energies, a German research institute, says 3,100 renewable energy companies [PDF] already exist in North Rhine-Westphalia, and they employ 18,500 workers. Jung estimates that one-third of those companies are located in the Ruhr Valley.

But green jobs are unlikely to replace the thousands of mining jobs that will disappear when Germany's mines close. "The jobs are significant, but it cannot be compared to the job losses in the mining and steel industry," Jung said.

Still, green jobs are renewing the landscape and expanding with a booming renewable energy market. While they cannot be the solution for all the problems in the Ruhr, these jobs offer something often lacking for the valley's unemployed: hope.

Ben Block is a staff writer with the Worldwatch Institute. He can be reached at bblock@worldwatch.org. For permission to reprint this article, please contact Julia Tier at jtier@worldwatch.org.

Stay tuned! This fall, Worldwatch senior researcher Michael Renner, in collaboration with Cornell University researchers and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), will release Green Jobs: Toward Sustainable Work in a Low-Carbon World. The report is a joint effort of UNEP, the International Trade Union Confederation, and the International Labour Organization.