Environmental study highlights health effects from pollution, with Germany coming top, and the UK third in total coal consumption.
The UK and Germany lead a list of the EU’s most polluting coal-fired power stations compiled by environmental campaigners, who say coal emissions are undermining efforts to combat climate change. Both countries have nine of the so-called “dirty 30” and the campaigners say coal burning is increasing due to the relatively low price of the fuel compared to gas.
“Germany and the UK are the self-declared climate champions of the EU,” says the new report. “However, Germany uses more coal to generate electricity than any other EU country, while the UK comes third in absolute coal consumption for power after Poland.” The report argues current EU policy on climate, energy and air pollution in the power sector is not strong enough to achieve the switch from coal to renewable energy and energy efficiency.
Germany’s increase in coal burning has been criticised by supporters of nuclear energy because Germany opted to phase out all nuclear power after the Fukushima disaster. The report shows that the electricity generation lost from the closed nuclear plants (43 TWh from 2010-2013) was more than compensated for by the increase in renewable electricity (47 TWh 2010-2103). The increase in the proportion of electricity generated from coal (3.6 percentage points between 2010 and 2013) was the same as the reduction of electricity from gas burning. Germany also exported a record amount of electricity in 2013 (33 TWh).
The total emissions from the EU energy sector fell modestly in 2013 but the campaigners say the rising use of cheap coal puts the EU in danger of not meeting future climate targets. The price of pollution permits in the EU’s emission trading scheme remains far below the level which would make it more economic to use gas, which produces about half as much carbon emissions. According the International Energy Agency, the share of coal in EU electricity generation must be below 4% by 2035 but is currently about 25%.
The report also highlights the negative health impacts of coal burning, stating that air pollution in the form of nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide, particulates and mercury is estimated to cause 1,600 deaths a year in the UK.
“Our political leaders are justifiably proud of their record on supporting tackling climate change on the global stage,” said Jenny Banks at WWF-UK, one of the groups that produced the report. “But they must make sure they’re not saying one thing and doing another. Coal is by far the most polluting source of electricity. Tackling climate change means making sure that emissions from coal power are phased out over the next decade.”
“Each of the largest coal power stations in Europe is responsible for hundreds of millions of external health costs,” said Julia Huscher, at the Health and Environment Alliance, another group behind the report.”The phase-out of coal in Europe will be a win-win, because it will help to achieve clean air for more people, and avoid further health damage from climate change.”
The report said rising emissions from coal plants were due to increasing use of existing facilities, rather than new ones opening. It warned policymakers against allowing extensions to the lifetimes of coal plants, most of which were built in the 1960s and 1970s.