Dirty coal plants undermine EU climate leadership – report

Germany and the UK must crack down on their polluting coal plants to meet climate targets, say charities

(Pic: Arnold Paul)

(Pic: Arnold Paul)

By Megan Darby

Failure to cut pollution from coal plants is undermining Europe’s claims to lead on climate change action.

That is the message of a report on Europe’s 30 dirtiest coal plants published by an alliance of environmental and health charities published on Tuesday.

Burning coal for power generates 40% of energy and more than 70% of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. It also releases pollutants associated with health problems like asthma and cancer.

Although more coal plants were closed than built in Europe between 2010 and 2013, coal consumption has risen. That is the result of existing plants running more frequently, as coal has become cheap and gas expensive.

“CO2 emissions from coal in the EU are still far too high,” said Kathrin Gutmann, coal policy officer at CAN Europe. “The EU needs to tackle coal head on, if it wants to successfully meet its own long-term climate targets.”

Climate champions?

Germany and the UK, seen as climate champions globally, each have nine coal plants on the list. They are first and third in Europe respectively when it comes to the total amount of coal burned for power.

Jenny Banks, energy and climate specialist at WWF-UK, said: “Our political leaders are justifiably proud of their record on supporting tackling climate change on the global stage. But they must make sure they’re not saying one thing and doing another.”

Germany’s “Energiewende” policy is widely cited by renewables advocates as a green growth success story.

Brought in following the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011, the policy rapidly phased out nuclear power and stimulated growth of wind and solar generation.

However, from 2012 to 2013 Germany’s emissions rose by 1.5%, reflecting an increase in power from lignite, a particularly polluting variety of coal.

Lignite plants lack the flexibility to respond to variability in wind and solar output, the report said, meaning they sometimes run at a loss – an “absurd situation” showing they are “unfit for a low carbon future”.

Mona Bricke, European coordinator at Climate Alliance Germany, said: “The next phase in Germany’s Energiewende must focus on how to transition away from coal. If Germany and the EU are serious about meeting their climate targets and transform their power sector, a German coal phase-out is key.”

Carbon bubble

The report also highlighted the risk to investors in coal of assets becoming worthless as legislation to limit emissions kick in.

In 2012, coal companies invested some US$81 billion in finding and extracting new reserves, despite growing awareness that only a fraction of known reserves can be burned if the world is to avoid dangerous climate change.

Carbon Tracker, an NGO focused on the “carbon bubble” problem, estimates companies listed on the London Stock Exchange hold coal reserves equivalent to 45 billion tonnes of emissions.

This is four and a half times the amount of carbon the UK can emit between 2011 and 2050, according to the report.

Poland, which makes no secret of seeing coal as essential to its economic growth, is the second largest consumer in Europe.

It is responsible for the single most polluting plant, Belchatow, which emitted some 37 million tonnes of carbon dioxide in 2013.

UK energy secretary Ed Davey warned earlier this month that Poland’s dependence on coal could pose a challenge to EU ambition for emissions cuts.

Read more on: Energy | EU | | | |