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25th Sep 2022

Can back-to-coal still mean forward to renewables?

  • Coal is one of the biggest contributors to climate change and air pollution (Photo: Bert Kaufmann)
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With the EU pledging to cut reliance on Russian fossil fuels as a result of the war in Ukraine, carbon-intensive coal is getting a new lease on life.

But for how long? And how much damage will be caused?

Read and decide

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The full picture still is emerging, as some of the biggest coal power producers in Europe get ready to prolong their use of this most climate-unfriendly of the fossil fuels.

The backing for burning more coal — which amounts to giant somersault in energy policy amid a dramatically changed geopolitical reality — is coming from a variety of sources including steadfast advocates of green energy.

Earlier this month, the International Energy Agency said a temporary shift from gas — to coal — would be a viable way to reduce EU reliance on Russian gas relatively quickly.

Even the chief of Europe's Green Deal, commission vice president Frans Timmermans, has factored in a return to coal. EU member states can "remain a bit longer with nuclear or coal," Timmermans told a press conference last week.

"There are all options on the table," said an EU diplomat, referring to the ambitious targets the EU has set to diminish use of Russian oil and slash the use of Russian gas by two-thirds by the end of this year.

What's clear is that delaying the phase-out of coal in Europe is likely to increase carbon emissions in the short term.

"Coal burn in the EU power sector will remain at the high levels we have seen in [the] last year, maybe rising slightly year on year too," said Qin Yan, a carbon analyst at Refinitiv, a financial data company. Delaying some coal closures to ensure energy supply "will result in more emissions too."

Coal is one of the biggest contributors to climate change and air pollution. But there's another complication: the EU is also very dependent on Russian coal imports.

And there's yet another wrinkle: coal prices have hit record highs after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, with global demand expected to reach a record high this year.

The fact that coal is so carbon-intensive, that its price is rising fast too, and that much coal still needs to be imported are factors that, at least for now, are helping diminish concerns about coal making a long-term comeback.

For Yan, at Refinitiv, the high fossil fuel prices will prompt policymakers to speed up decarbonisation and renewables deployment. And others agree that the end result could actually accelerate the roll-out of renewables despite the bump in coal generation in the near term.

That view is shared shared by some environmental organisations, which see a temporary turning back to coal as unlikely to change EU countries' decisions to phase out coal power in the longer term.

"Coal power plants' economic viability is declining rapidly and this trend will not change due to the current crisis," the advocacy group Powering Past Coal Alliance told EUobserver.

Coal phase-out?

But what is for sure is that — with the EU aiming to decouple its energy system from Russian oil and gas — delays in phasing out coal now are locked in.

The state secretary at the German climate ministry, Patrick Graichen, said this week that Russian aggression on Ukraine has broken the narrative of gas as "a bridging technology," which means that more coal could be burned in the short term.

In fact, coal is still the second-largest source of electricity in Germany, and the war has opened a window for fossil fuel giants to continue doing business as usual.

German energy giant RWE said it could provide as much as 3.5GW of coal-power capacity if requested. That would lead to an increase of 12 megatons emissions this year, according to Refinitiv modelling.

Either way, the country's plan to phase out coal by 2038, and if possible as soon as 2035, has now been called into question.

Poland, which is also one of the main coal producers in Europe, has said that as many coal units as possible must be operating in the country to support both Ukraine and the EU's energy system.

"The Russian invasion of Ukraine has shaken the foundations of EU energy and climate policy," said a Polish diplomat this week. "We must first of all guarantee the EU's energy and geopolitical security," the diplomat said.

Likewise, Bulgaria will continue to use coal to ensure the stability of the country's energy system.

Bulgaria, one of the main coal consumers in Europe, also is one of the few EU countries which has not yet set a coal phase-out deadline.

Western Balkan coal plants causing thousands of deaths

Air pollution from coal-powered plants in the western Balkans has caused 19,000 deaths over the past three years, according to a new report. Coal-fired power plants in the region have breached emission legal limits for years.

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