This opinion piece was originally published in Die Zeit.
This year’s United Nations climate-change conference (COP24) opened this week in Katowice, the European capital of coal. Over the next days, the international delegates who have converged on the Polish city to negotiate a rule-book to make the Paris Agreement work will frequently experience the thick blanket of smog characterising the city: a material reminder of the urgency to move towards a clean-energy world.
Given the most recent trends in global CO2 emissions, even such a reminder is particularly welcomed. In fact, the world is currently well short of the trajectory agreed in Paris to tackle climate change. Last year, global energy-related CO2 emissions reached a historic high of 32.5 gigatonnes and preliminary data from the International Energy Agency suggest this trend will just get worse this year. And energy-related air pollution, such as heavily affects Katowice, continues to result in millions of premature deaths each year across the globe.
Accounting for about a quarter of global energy-related CO2 emissions, coal is the main single contributor to this problem. The top three consumers of coal are: China (50%), India (11%) and – surprise, surprise – the European Union (6%).
Notwithstanding its firm climate-change mitigation policies and its strong support for renewable energy sources, the EU has 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 Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Germany and Greece. Even the gas-exporting Netherlands produces 35% of its electricity from coal. So far, only a few EU countries – such as France, Italy, the Netherlands and the UK – have pledged to shut down their coal-fired power plants altogether. 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. 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-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.
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.
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.
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. But well-designed public financial support could help to mitigate these impacts, ensuring a ‘just transition’ that leaves nobody behind.
For instance, we calculated that the EU could put in place a sensible scheme to help coal miners who will lose their jobs with just €150 million per year: a mere 0.1% of the total EU budget. This small investment would have an important leverage, reducing the political damage and incentivising coal-reliant countries to start or accelerate their phase-out plans.
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. By doing so, the EU could also provide a blueprint that might then be followed by others around the globe. This would certainly represent a tangible and important contribution to the implementation of the Paris Agreement.