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Fighting Coal: Top-down and Bottom-up

Protest in India

August 25, 2020

Despite dramatic differences in focus, tactics, and location (one in Germany and one in India), two Goldman Prize winners are united in their ongoing fight against a common enemy––coal. In 2019, the Goldman Environmental Foundation’s grantmaking program was thrilled to support the organizations of Heffa Schucking (Germany, 1994) and Ramesh Agrawal (India, 2014) in their campaigns to make coal-fired power plants extinct, from opposite ends of the supply chain.

Stopping Financial Flows

Predominantly headquartered in Europe and the United States, global banks and insurance companies are major engines driving coal development projects. Urgewald, a German NGO founded by Goldman Prize winner Heffa Schucking, wants to shine light on this complex web of coal financing and development. Urgewald created the Global Coal Exit List, a key public database that identifies hundreds of companies integral to the development and operation of coal-fired power plants. The list is updated annually and currently features a whopping 775 parent companies and over 1,100 subsidiaries. The Exit List, first created in 2017, has allowed Urgewald to launch campaigns pressuring companies publicly tied to the coal industry.

Dominoes are starting to fall more quickly as a result of Heffa’s work. Last spring, Urgewald celebrated its “shortest campaign ever.” In April 2019, Urgewald planned a campaign timed with the arrival of a new CEO at Hannover Re, one of the world’s largest insurance companies. Within a month, Hannover Re and Talanx, another German insurance giant, committed to halting investments for coal plants and coal mines. Urgewald continued to build momentum with another huge milestone in 2019: more than $1 trillion in assets from European investors are now applying at least one of Urgewald’s criteria to screen coal companies from their portfolios.

Picture of a billboard with an anti-coal message in German
As part of the shortest campaign ever, Urgewald took over a billboard just outside the Hannover Re headquarters. The sign reads, “Give the climate a chance: stop insuring coal!”

Engaging Communities on the Frontlines

As grassroots movements in Europe pressure coal investments, communities in Chhattisgarh, India, are fighting from the bottom up to protect their lands from proposed coal mines. Goldman Prize winner Ramesh Agrawal works with the organization Janmitram to inform and mobilize communities located near proposed coal mines. Through targeted radio programs and the dissemination of thousands of pamphlets, Ramesh educates local citizens on the harmful effects of coal. Families living near coal mines can be particularly devastated by airborne particulate matter (“fly ash”) and the disposal of industrial effluent into nearby waterways.

A testament to Ramesh’s skills as an organizer and activist, in October 2019, more than 3,000 villagers protested at a public hearing for a proposed coal mine. This huge gathering came on the heels of a favorable court ruling to postpone a separate coal mine in the area. While these events may seem to portend a victory, many villages in India continue to face uphill battles—proposed coal mines are often brought back to life after delay or postponement by court decisions. Despite these challenges, Ramesh and the communities in Chhattisgarh continue to fight against coal and in support of their land and livelihood.

Residents from 56 villages in Chhattisgarh engage in a “Coal Satyagraha” in October 2019, a peaceful demonstration in opposition to proposed coal mines.

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