A German court on Friday temporarily blocked mining company RWE from razing further sections of an ancient forest near Cologne in what environmental campaigners have hailed as rare good news.
RWE runs an open-pit coal mine near the 12,000-year-old Hambach Forest in the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia.
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Environmental activists had occupied tree houses there for years in an attempt to stop what remains of the woodland being cleared. But in recent weeks police were brought in to clear blockades erected by the activists and order them out of their treetop dwellings.
The forest, which is owned by RWE, has shrunk to less than 10% of its original size since the company began razing sections of it four decades ago, according to estimates by RWE and environmental activists.
In Friday's emergency ruling, judges in the higher administrative court in Muenster said they needed more time to consider the complaint brought by BUND, the German branch of environmental campaign group Friends of the Earth, which argues that the forest contains protected species such as Bechstein's bat.
RWE argued last month that the next phase of clearing must begin soon to ensure that coal mining could continue as planned.
"This year's clearing measures are necessary to maintain opencast mining operations and coal extraction over the next two years," RWE said in a statement, adding that the company has compensated for its logging activities by planting more than 10 million trees in the Rhineland mining district.
Environmental group Greenpeace, which sent an open letter to German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Friday appealing for her immediate intervention to save the forest, welcomed the court ruling as "good news."
Police have banned a mass protest called by environmental groups for Saturday against the coal mine's expansion, Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth said.
Every year since 1978, RWE has been allowed to fell a section of Hambach Forest to access the lignite, or brown coal, beneath.
The open-pit mine run by RWE currently covers 33 square miles and produces 40 million metric tons of coal annually.
While Germany has invested billions in renewable energy and hoped to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40% by 2020, the country remains dependent on coal.
The number of coal-fired power plants in the country has more than doubled in the past three decades, jumping from 35 to 76, according to the Climate Action Network Europe. Many of them are in North Rhine-Westphalia, where the Hambach mine is located.
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