Coal use undermining German, UK climate efforts, warns WWF

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In a week in which the U.K. pledged to retain its 80% carbon emissions cap and Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) reported that Germany accounted for 20% of all clean energy investment in Europe in 2013, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) has published a timely study showing how these two self-styled climate champions of Europe are among the continent’s biggest coal consumers.

The WWF’s report, titled Europe’s Dirty 30: How the EU’s Coal-Fired Power Plants are Undermining its Climate Efforts, analyzed the impacts the 30 largest coal-fired power plants in Europe have on climate change efforts, finding that despite Germany’s and the U.K.’s impressive progress on green issues, the two giants are – alongside Poland – the continent’s main polluters of carbon.

Cheap coal prices have pushed many of the EU’s coal-fired power plants to near full capacity, supplanting gas as the chief source of fossil fuel energy consumed. The study suggests that for the EU to meet its climate targets for 2030, the heavy use of coal in key Member states must decline rapidly.

Germany, despite accounting for 20% of all clean energy investment in Europe in 2013 according to BNEF, is Europe’s worst offender, consuming more coal than any other nation and boasting four of the five dirtiest coal plants.

Poland’s PGE SA Belchatow Lignite plant is the dirtiest coal plant in Europe, pumping out 37.2 metric tons of C02 last year, says the WWF. However, the next four are all located in Germany, with RWE AG’s Neurath lignite plant emitting 33.3 million metric tons of C02 in 2013, followed by the Niederaussem plant with 29.6 million tons. Vattenfall’s Jaenschwalde and Boxberg plants in eastern Germany make up the remainder of the top five, billowing out 25.4 million and 21.9 million tons respectively.

The report’s authors said that Germany’s reputation as the EU’s "self-declared climate champions" was misleading, with the country using more coal to generate electricity than any other Member State. Poland is the second-largest absolute consumer of coal, with the U.K. in third place, finds the report.

"While this report focuses on Germany and the U.K. due to their apparent climate ambitions, it is important to note that Poland has four power plants in the Dirty 30," said the report. "However, the Polish government does not make it a secret that it wants to continue to rely on coal, as evidenced by the Polish government’s recent call for a fossil fuel-dependent ‘Energy Union’ for the EU."

Scorn for Germany and U.K.

Instead, the WWF report directs its ire firmly at Germany and the U.K. Noting that Germany’s "Energiewende" (EEG) is, essentially, working, the study shows that Germany has been successful in increasing its share of electricity produced from renewables from 7% in 1990 to more than 25% last year. Germany is becoming less dependent on fossil fuels and should be on course to meet its goal of 35% renewable energy generation by 2020.

However, the WWF reveal that nine of the Dirty 30 coal-fired power plants are located in Germany, with 2013 the highest year yet for domestic production of electricity from lignite coal – peaking at 162 Twh. Last year, C02 emissions rose by 1.5%, and the country is "running the risk of not meeting its 40% GHG reduction target for 2020," said the report.

Germany’s Energiewende renewable energy program is undermined and contradicted by its reliance on lignite combustion, said the WWF, which criticized the German practice of running lignite plants at a loss because they are challenging to shut down or to run at less than 40% maximum output. The WWF report follows just days after a study by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) ranked Germany as the world’s most energy efficient economy.

For the U.K., there was praise again for its "world-leading" Climate Change Act, which received a timely boost this week when legally binding targets survived a challenge from the country’s chancellor, George Osborne.

However, the WWF writes that a crucial part of meeting its climate targets is achieving a reduction of carbon emission by as much as 155 million metric tons per year between now and 2030. The WWF criticized the U.K.’s poor record on energy efficiency, calling for a longer-term strategy to dealing with climate change and fewer knee-jerk policy reactions, echoing the calls of the Solar Trade Association (STA) and the Renewable Energy Association (REA) – organizations that have long been exasperated by the U.K. government’s inconsistent stance on environmental matters.

"To match its own domestic ambition, and to lead the way in Europe, the U.K. should become a leading advocate of renewable energy and energy efficiency targets that are binding on individual Member States," said the WWF report.

In contrast, last week’s clean energy study by BNEF found that of the $14 billion invested in clean energy in Europe in 2013, the U.K. accounted for 30% of that figure, with solar playing an influential role. However, next year’s earlier-than-planned subsidy cut for large-scale solar PV plants may have helped to create an artificial rush to complete before the April 2015 deadline, with industry experts waiting with baited breath to see how the sector performs after that cut-off date.