Europe urged to begin mass-decommissioning of fossil fuel plants in new EEA report

If the European Union (EU) is to meet the terms laid out in the Paris Agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80-95% compared to 1990 levels by 2050, Member States have to act fast, and act now, in beginning the process of decarbonizing, says a report published today by the European Environment Agency (EEA).

The EEA report stresses that EU Member States require a well-planned transition away from carbon-intensive power generation and towards a tighter embrace of renewable energy technologies, and urges for the commencement of widespread decommissioning of fossil fuel plants across the continent.

The report, titled Transforming the EU power sector: avoiding a carbon lock-in, specifically examines who there can be no time to waste if the EU is to play its part in helping limit global temperature increases to below 2C by 2050.

Across much of the EU, a great number of fossil fuel power plants are nearing their end of life, and calculates that replacing like-for-like would be incompatible with the EU’s climate goals. Instead, polluting power plants should be slowly and systematically replaced with cleaner sources of energy, such as solar and wind.

Power generation is the largest contributor to the EU’s greenhouse gas emissions, accounting for one-third of all energy-related emissions and more than half of the verified emissions under the EU Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS).

But despite recent stride in wind and solar deployment, the EU still requires a more coordinated and forward-looking approach towards decarbonizing its power economy in order to avoid a ‘carbon lock-in’ – a spiral of power plant replacement that clash with the EU’s best-case decarbonization scenario and make the EU’s emissions damage all-but irreversible.

European Commission VP in charge of Energy Union, Maroš Šef?ovi?, welcomed the report, stating that it is "imperative that new investments that will be done in the next few years go rather towards clean energies such as renewables, and don’t result in a carbon lock-in from fossil fuels we cannot have on our future energy system".

Šef?ovi? spoke last week at SolarPower Europe’s 100 GW celebration about the need to lower the administrative burdens of the ETS to allow greater uptake of renewable energy across the EU. "The COP21 agreement, negotiated in Paris last year, has been ratified by enough countries to enter into force and give Europe a chance to set an example and become the global leader for energy efficiency," he added.

The EEA executive director Hans Bruyninckx said that Europe now generates four times more wind power and 70 times more solar power than in 2005, but stressed that renewable growth alone will not be enough to usher in the transition required.

"A clear, forward-looking investment strategy is necessary across the fossil fuel power sector to meet our long-term challenges to cut CO2 emissions," said Bruyninckx. "Europe is committed to decarbonize its economy, so we cannot afford to tie up our investments in emission-intensive technologies. Investing in renewables and energy efficiency provides the best return on our money."

The slow shift towards decarbonization has begun in earnest in most EU member states, but the largest emitters are still heavily reliant on coal.

However, the UK recently saw solar outstrip coal output for the six months between April and September, and has pledged to decommission all of its coal plants by the middle of the next decade.

Steps to take

The EEA report explains the trend among fossil fuel plant operators in Europe to prolong the lifetime of inflexible and carbon-intensive plants above 200 MWe. If this behavior continues while new fossil fuel capacity is added, the EEA argues, all fossil fuel power plants would need to curtail their activity completely by 2030 if the EU is to stick by its commitments.

Although a hypothetical situation, the EEA is confident of the veracity of these projections, based on a unit-by-unit analysis of the continent’s current fossil fuel capacity and potential evolution up to 2030.

The report calls for "a coherent and integrated tacking of progress towards EU climate and energy targets", which would include "regular sharing of information on the evolution of fossil fuel capacity and information on expected carbon intensity levels over the short and medium term" in order to improve the consistency of national and European efforts to lower the carbon footprint.

An increased alignment of energy, climate and environmental policies across the EU would also expedite the transition, the report concludes.