Coal, Emissions, News, O&M

How will Europe tackle its coal conundrum?

By Kelvin Ross, Power Engineering International

The biggest ‘just’ energy transition in Europe is the one that involves those countries still reliant on coal, which accounts for a fifth of the electricity production in the EU and employs 230,000 people. By Kelvin Ross.

You will have heard many times now that the economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic presents policymakers with an unprecedented opportunity to put climate measures at the forefront of any stimulus package.

Which is indeed true. However, there is already an imbalance of the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ of the energy transition, and that gap could get wider instead of closing if we’re not careful.

I’m not talking globally: we all know that there’s not a one-size-fits-all clean energy solution for the world. I’m talking about Europe, the poster child of the energy transition.

Because while many countries have significant renewables capacity and can boast ‘smart cities’, some are still having to burn coal – and a lot of it – to keep the lights on.

If the energy transition is going to be a so-called ‘just transition’, then countries like Poland and the Czech Republic need to be front and centre of stimulus packages, and not at the back of the queue. In fact, if they’re not, the European Union can forget about ever hitting its 2050 climate neutral target.

Accelerating emissions reductions in central and eastern Europe could be the biggest win of any EU recovery package, and one that in turn could signpost the road to similar progress for countries in Asia facing the similar coal-versus-climate conundrum.

Coal accounts for around a fifth of the total electricity production in the European Union and remains a significant economic driver. It provides jobs to around 230,000 people in mines and power plants across 31 regions and 11 EU countries: these people and their potential reskilling need to be factored in to a ‘just’ energy transition.

The European Commission recognises the problem: in 2017 it formed its Initiative for Coal Regions in Transition, which works as an open forum to gather local, regional and national governments, businesses and trade unions, NGOs and academia.

And this summer, Frans Timmermans, EC Vice-President in charge of climate action, delivered a speech in the Polish city of Katowice in which he vowed that “we will not forget that not everyone in Europe has the same starting point” in the energy transition.

Timmermans said countries like Poland “have been bearing the weight of past decisions, taken in different political systems, which made hard coal and lignite the cornerstones of your industrial development. But this has to be – and can be – overcome.”

He said: “We will have to roll up our sleeves to make sure that this transition is socially fair,” and also highlighted that in terms of the transition from coal, “there is no other region in Europe today where a just transition is more important than in Silesia,” the region of Central Europe covering mostly Poland and with smaller parts in the Czech Republic and Germany.

He explained some 78,000 people are employed in the coal industry in the region and “for many households here, this industry is the main source of income.”