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Why was Greta Thunberg arrested?

Greta Thunberg joined thousands of climate activists to protest the coal mine in Germany

Police officers detain climate activist Greta Thunberg at a demonstration against the expansion of the Garzweiler coal mine near the village of Luetzerath on January 17, 2023. Image: Hesham Elsherif/Getty Images

A small village in western Germany has become a key fighting ground for climate change in the last week, after thousands of activists including Greta Thunberg barricaded themselves in a protest camp to stop coal mining.

Thunberg arrived in Lützerath in North Rhine Westphalia on January 13 to help stop further expansion of the area’s coal industry.

The 20-year-old was detained four days later by German police during the demonstrations, with the local authorities saying she was part of a group of protesters who “stormed” towards the edge of the open mine and was moved on with other activists.

A spokesperson for the Aachen police told the Guardian: “Greta Thunberg was part of a group of activists who rushed towards the ledge. However, she was then stopped and carried by us with this group out of the immediate danger area to establish their identity.”

Thunberg and her fellow activists were later released after an identification check, with the police confirming they would not be charged.

After news of the incident spread, Thunberg tweeted: “Yesterday I was part of a group that peacefully protested the expansion of a coal mine in Germany. We were kettled by police and then detained but were let go later that evening. Climate protection is not a crime.”

Videos and photos from the scene, which gained millions of views, showed three officers carrying Thunberg away from the site of the protest while she smiled. She was later seen sitting in a bus alone.

Social media users falsely claimed the images were staged after they went viral online, leading to a spokesperson for the local police denying being “extras for Greta Thunberg” to the BBC.

“We would never give ourselves to make such recordings,” they said, adding that it was important the police enable reporting and recording of events while denying Thunberg’s detainment was fake.

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There were previous clashes between protesters and police, as thousands of activists confronted a number of heavily armoured riot police on the edge of Lützerath. Police said there were between 8,000 and 10,000 people, while Thunberg said there were 35,000 people in attendance.

German police previously said they removed almost all of the climate activists from the village but a handful returned, including Thunberg, to continue protesting.

Lützerath yields around 25 million tonnes of Lignite, a form of coal considered to be the dirtiest and most harmful to the environment. 

The village, owned by energy company RWE, is planned for demolition to make way for the expansion of the nearby Garzweiler coal mine after striking a deal with the German government.

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This is despite the local government pledging to phase out coal mining in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia by 2030, eight years before the national target of 2038.

But, ministers and RWE say the lignite sourced from Lützerath would ensure energy security for Germany in the short term.

Following her arrival at Lützerath, Thunberg said the move was “shameful” and a “betrayal of present and future generations”. 

At least 20 coal-fired power plants in Germany were resurrected or had extensions to their closing dates to ensure the country had enough energy for the winter, after they had to reduce their reliance on gas imports from Russia in light of the Ukrainian invasion.

Coal burning accounts for approximately 30 per cent of the entire country’s total emissions.

“Germany is one of the biggest polluters in the world and needs to be held accountable,” she added.

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