This opinion piece is based on the policy brief "Beyond coal: facilitating the transition in Europe" and was also published in:
Global warming can seem an overwhelming challenge. To have any hope of limiting catastrophic temperature increases, humans must take drastic and coordinated action around the world. Progress is slow, but there are some green spots of good news. Here in Europe, the energy sector is being transformed by advances in renewable energy and firm policies on carbon emissions. Since 2000, the EU energy system has modernised at a rate that few expected.
But Europe still has a dirty secret. Many EU countries have still not switched off the most polluting part of the energy mix: coal.
Coal continues to play a major role in the electricity generation for several EU countries: 80% in Poland, and over 40% in the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Greece, and Germany. Even the gas-exporting Netherlands produces 35% of its electricity from coal. So far only a few EU countries have pledged to shut down their coal-fired power plants altogether: the UK, France, Italy and the Netherlands.
This needs to change, because coal’s lingering place in the EU energy system is disastrous for the climate, for the environment, and for human health.
From a climate perspective, coal is the worst way to generate electricity – even compared to other fossil fuels.
From a climate perspective, coal is the worst way to generate electricity – even compared to other fossil fuels. A coal-fired power plant emits 40% more carbon dioxide than a gas-fired plant producing the same amount of electricity, and 20% more than an oil-fired plant. To look at it another way, coal is responsible for 75% of carbon emissions in the European electricity sector, but only produces 25% of our electricity. Electricity generation produces a quarter of Europe’s total carbon emissions, and is vital in plans to green other sectors. Decarbonising electricity is vital. After all, a shift to electric cars will mean little if we power them with electricity from coal.
Coal is also bad for the environment and human health. Coal-fired power plants across Europe are responsible for the largest amounts of sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and particulate matter released into the air. These pollutants can enter the human body and cause various health problems, from lung cancer to heart attacks. Air pollution causes 400,000 premature deaths in the EU every year.
And yet, several countries in Europe continue to support coal-fired electricity production. They justify this stance with arguments about energy security and worries about job losses in the coal mining industry. At first glance these concerns are understandable, but with a little EU support, neither should delay the phase out of coal power.
Energy security is a valid concern. A country highly reliant on coal cannot switch overnight to cleaner sources of electricity. However, the transition is feasible. Several countries have already successfully phased out coal without compromising energy security and competitiveness. It is a question of good planning, and that needs to start now.
Coal mining employment in Europe is no longer a major issue. The country with the highest number of coal mining jobs is Poland, with 100,000 people employed.
The socio-economic argument about job losses is also unconvincing. Coal mining employment in Europe is no longer a major issue. The country with the highest number of coal mining jobs is Poland, with 100,000 people employed. This represents a mere 0.7% of Poland’s total employment. In all other countries coal mining employment stands below 30,000 units, always representing less than 0.6% of total employment.
Of course the closure of mines will be painful for those few workers and communities who still depend on them. The EU should step in and offer its support. Concretely, the EU should put in place a scheme to help coal miners who will lose their jobs. This would reduce the political damage and incentivise coal-reliant countries to start or accelerate their phase-out plans.
The EU does not even need to establish a new fund to support the transition of coal mining regions to other industries. It just needs to make a better use of the already existing European Globalisation Adjustment Fund (EGF), which supports workers in displaced industries with their job hunt, offering retraining or underwriting attempts at entrepreneurship. The scope of the EGF could be broadened to cover coal mining regions immediately with a minor amendment to the current 2014-2020 budget.
Looking to the future, the globalisation fund’s focus on coal mining regions could be further strengthened, transforming it into a ‘European Globalisation and Climate Adjustment Fund’. €150 million per year should be devoted to support coal mining regions: a mere 0.1% of the total EU budget.
€150 million per year should be devoted to support coal mining regions: a mere 0.1% of the total EU budget.
Climate change is a complex global problem that needs international solutions. But it is clear that coal needs to go. By compensating regions that still depend on coal mining, the EU can show solidarity with those who have something to lose from the phase out. It can also speed up the transition, generating substantial benefits for all Europeans in terms of climate, environment and health. Meaningful support for countries and workers facing global challenges; targeted support for changes that benefit all Europeans – is this not exactly what we expect the EU to do?