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Debates

Energy & Environment

Exposing the role of coal in Europe

Kathrin Gutmann / Sep 2015

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

In the European Union, around 280 coal power plants are operating in 22 different EU member states. The majority of these plants is more than 30 years old, meaning they are inefficient, polluting and outdated. Burning coal is one of the biggest sources of CO2 and causes around 23,000 Europeans a year to die prematurely. Germany, Poland and also the UK are the biggest users of coal and responsible for the lions’ share of emissions. Meanwhile governments continue to invest tens of billions into the ailing industry.

These are some of the most impressive facts on the effects of the coal industry in Europe that Climate Action Network Europe has now visualised in an online interactive Coal Map. For the first time, Europeans have a comprehensive and solid overview what role coal power plants play on the European continent.

The low hanging fruit in the fight against climate change

Getting the story on coal out now is crucial, because we are just three months before ‘Paris’. In December, countries from around the world will hopefully close a deal in the fight against climate change in the context of major UN-led negotiations. Coal should be high on the agenda for governments as it is one of the low hanging fruits in the fight against climate change.

European countries can quickly phase out coal, which will lead to a drastic reduction of CO2 emissions. They can do this without endangering their energy security, because in many countries there is a huge oversupply of electricity, demand is going down and renewables are on the rise – fast. But to date only a few governments in Europe have any pro-active measures in place to make this coal phase out happen. If we want to show leadership in the international climate negotiations, coal needs to go.

Local resistance against coal

Because many of the policy choices around the coal industry are nationally based, many citizens and civil society organizations have begun campaigning on coal, on the negative impacts on clean air, the devastation from mining or how it is fueling climate change. And this is where the developments get very exciting. The Coal Map also introduces fifteen stories of local and national fights against coal power plants and mines. From Scotland to Turkey, citizens and NGOs have been struggling for years to get rid of coal. And not without success: in recent years, the majority of new coal projects have been canceled.

In Italy an operating power plant was shut down on court orders in March 2014, on the basis of manslaughter. Legal experts in the Czech Republic managed to link the fate of the islands of Micronesia to upgrading a power plant in the country. In Germany, the debate on phasing out coal is no longer about if, but about when and how. Norway’s parliament decided that the Norwegian Sovereign Wealth fund is to divest from several coal businesses across the world, after months of international protests. A large number of civil society struggles are now about phasing out coal.

Wrongly thinking coal is ‘cheap’ energy

While in Europe most of the countries are sitting on a rapidly ageing coal fleet, a few countries are locked in the past and (unwisely) planning new coal projects. This is especially the case in Southeastern Europe and Turkey. These governments are looking for ‘cheap’ energy while forgetting the real cost of burning coal. They have not caught on to the fact that thanks to renewables and decreasing energy demand there are much healthier, climate-friendlier and cost-effective alternatives at hand.

In 2013 in the EU alone, health costs directly related to coal power stations are in the range between 21 and 60 billion euros per year. Coal plants emit pollutants such as nitrogen oxide, sulphur dioxide, dust and mercury, which can be extremely harmful to humans. Exposure to these pollutants may cause heart and respiratory diseases.

Too few countries are becoming coal power free at the speed needed or planning to do so. To protect our health and transition to renewables, pro-active plans and measures are needed to phase out coal power. The road to ‘Paris’ is an excellent opportunity to put coal high on Europe’s agenda. Both in Brussels and in the capitals of the member states.

Kathrin Gutmann

Kathrin Gutmann

September 2015

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