Europe needs to get real about its coal problem


Antha Williams and Caio Koch-Weser


Mention the words coal and climate change, and the first thing that comes to mind might be China’s coal-fired industrialisation, pollution hanging in the air over New Delhi, or perhaps President Trump’s quixotic campaign to ‘make coal great again’, even as cheap renewable energy forces it off the US grid.

But Europe, too, has a significant coal problem. The European Union may be leading the way in taking action on climate change, with the European Commission calling [on 28 November] for the bloc to eliminate net greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. However, foot-dragging on coal in some European capitals puts this target at risk – and will do little to encourage other parts of the world to eliminate this most polluting fossil fuel. Indeed, while a step forward, the recommendations by Germany’s Coal Commission [on 26 January] to phase out coal by 2038 still fall short of meeting the objectives of the Paris Agreement.

Emissions from coal-fired power plants are one of the largest contributors to climate change. Globally, coal plants are responsible for 37 per cent of electricity generation. In Europe, around a fifth of electricity consumed is supplied by some 250 coal-fired plants. Even in Germany, a pioneer of renewable energy, coal still provides more than one-third of electricity – and ongoing heavy reliance on coal means that Germany is very likely to miss its climate targets for 2020.

However, rapid action to replace coal generation with clean, renewable energy sources offers one of the biggest opportunities to get Europe, and the world, back on track to meet the goals of the Paris climate agreement. Analysts have calculated that to comply with the Paris Agreement’s goal of keeping warming to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels, the EU needs to move beyond coal faster than any other continent – and be essentially coal-free by 2030.

Burning coal isn’t just a climate problem – it’s a major public health problem as well. According to new research from Europe Beyond Coal, 10 power companies are responsible for around two-thirds of the health damage caused by air pollution from coal plants in Europe. These companies were behind 7,600 premature deaths, 3,320 new cases of chronic bronchitis and 137,000 asthma symptom days in children. Just four German companies – RWE, EPH, Uniper and STEAG – cause €12 billion in annual health costs. And in Poland and parts of Eastern Europe, burning of coal in households and power plants means that air pollution can be as bad as in Beijing.

The good news is that momentum is building to close down Europe’s coal plants. Ten years ago, a wave of new coal-fired generation was planned across Europe. Those plans prompted a wave of activism and advocacy by the climate movement, meaning that very few of those plants ultimately got built.

Philanthropy has played a key part in building this momentum. In 2017, with the support of Bloomberg Philanthropies and the European Climate Foundation, civil society groups from across Europe came together in a major new campaign effort: the ‘Europe Beyond Coal’ campaign. It aims to take the next step of ensuring a rapid, socially just transition away from coal power over the next decade.

Already, a growing number of European countries have announced plans to phase-out coal-fired power plants. 14 EU member states – including France, Denmark, Italy, the Netherlands, Sweden, Ireland and the United Kingdom – are among 75 members of the international Powering Past Coal Alliance of nations, regions, investors and businesses launched in 2017.

Bloomberg Philanthropies and the European Climate Foundation are particularly concerned to ensure that the economic and social dislocation caused by moving away from coal is properly managed. In particular they work with partners in countries and regions heavily relying on coal generation, like Poland or Germany, to help them shift rapidly to clean energy sources, diversify their economies and attract new, sustainable industries and jobs. It is vital that philanthropy plays its share in ensuring a just transition for coal miners and power plant workers but by no means should it do this alone.

And luckily philanthropy is no longer alone. Investors and energy utilities are also waking up to the issue and giving clear signals that the time to invest in coal is over. Indeed, coal plants are increasingly presenting a risk of becoming stranded assets. For example, the Dutch government announced plans to close all coal-fired generation by 2030. The result was significant write-downs in the value of three plants that had come online as recently as 2015.

Much remains to be done but the visionary work initiated by Bloomberg Philanthropies and the European Climate Foundation ten years ago has paid off: it has helped demonstrate that the low-carbon transition presents enormous economic opportunity, especially for those countries that gain experience from building out clean energy systems. They face the prospect of creating thousands of clean energy jobs, and exporting their technology and know-how to the rest of the world as it, too, chooses climate- and clean air-friendly power generation.

Our work is by no means over but we are very proud to be helping the EU achieve its plans to decarbonise completely by 2050. As Climate Commissioner Miguel Arias Canete argued, it is imperative for Europe to lead by example. Only with leadership from the EU, will fast-growing developing countries agree to move beyond coal dependency.

Caio Koch-Weser is former Chair of European Climate Foundation

Antha Williams is Environment Team Lead at Bloomberg Philanthropies

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