There are plenty of solutions to prevent the earth from warming by more than 1.5 degrees, but they must be used immediately and on a large scale. If not, the 1.5-degree target will be permanently out of sight, UN climate panel IPCC warns. But in the meantime, with the disappearance of Russian gas, several European countries are turning to the most polluting fuel there is: coal.
The recovery from the corona crisis and high gas prices already led to considerably more use of coal in the generation of electricity in the European Union last year. Growth is also expected for 2022, especially in view of the war in Ukraine.
And that while the phasing out of coal was precisely a European climate success story. Where countries such as China and India in their hunger for energy only used more coal year after year, coal use in the European Union fell by about 40 percent between 2010 and 2020.
But now the taboo on coal seems to be off for European countries such as Germany, Poland and Italy. “Coal-fired power stations may have to be reopened to immediately fill any shortages,” Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi said shortly after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Until last week, the Netherlands thought it was well on its way. The Onyx coal-fired power station on the Maasvlakte would close its doors early in exchange for more than 200 million euros in subsidy from the government. But that deal is gone: high gas prices make it more lucrative to stay open. “I think that is a really regrettable decision and also a decision that is bad for the climate,” says climate minister Rob Jetten.
In addition, the owner, an American investment fund, will still receive a subsidy from the government. This is because the power station is not allowed to run at full power, because the Netherlands then emits too much CO2. According to NRC Handelsblad, the owner will earn as much as 400 million euros. Twice as much as a possible closure would yield.
Speeding up is easier said than done, say energy experts. “In essence, you have to combine the energy crisis and the climate crisis, and it is therefore also crisis management. And you cannot manage with friendly requests to turn the heating down a bit,” says Frans Rooijers of environmental consultancy CE Delft. Paulien Herder, Energy Systems researcher at TU Delft, also agrees that it will be difficult. “I think it’s a fantastic plan to try to speed things up. And at the same time I think: what a huge task that will be, because it will not be easy.”
The European Commission maintains that the push for coal is temporary and that the 2030 climate targets are not at risk. That means that greenhouse gas emissions must have decreased by 55 percent in that year compared to 1990. That will become more difficult if coal makes a long-term comeback, experts think. “Coal emits about twice as much CO2 than gas for the same amount of energy. So that means more emissions. If you want to achieve the same climate goal, then you will have to compensate for the next 10 or 15 years by adding some extra will do,” says climate expert Detlef van Vuuren of the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency.
The European Commission is therefore focusing on temporarily using more ‘dirty’ coal, but then making it more sustainable in order to achieve the climate goals. But how realistic is that? “You make it more difficult if you now have extra CO2 emissions by keeping the coal-fired power stations open, so you want to keep that as short as possible. The more you can take other measures to get rid of Russian gas. , the better it is. That choice in itself is to possibly use coal-fired power stations, so not a convenient choice,” concludes Van Vuuren.