Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis used this week’s climate summit to announce his country would no longer burn coal for electricity by 2028. A similar announcement from Hungary has led to mounting pressure on Germany.
The Greek announcement has been greeted by climate and environmental campaigners as a huge statement demonstrating the unstoppable momentum for a rapid coal phase-out in Europe and beyond.
Coal burning plays an enormous role in accelerating climate breakdown: in 2017, coal power plants across the EU pumped 659 million tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere, equal to 66% of the whole power sector’s CO2 emissions.
Phasing out coal from the electricity sector is the single most important step to get in line with the 1.5°C target set by the Paris Agreement, according to report released at the Climate Summit by Climate Analytics. Notably, the report indicates that OECD nations – which includes Germany – should end coal use entirely by 2030, while all coal-fired power stations worldwide must be shut by 2040 at the latest.
Mahi Sideridou, Managing Director at Europe Beyond Coal, welcomed the Greek announcement as “a historic milestone in Europe’s path to become coal-free by 2030″. She said: “Coal has been bleeding the Greek economy and damaging health and communities for decades, despite the country’s significant renewable energy potential that remains largely underexploited.”
However, campaigners are now worried that Greece might just aim at replacing coal with other climate-harming fossil alternatives, such as fossil gas and oil. Sideridou said:
“Now the Greek government needs to make detailed plans for a managed just transition away from coal, without falling into the dangerous trap of other fossil fuels like gas and oil. They also need to support the affected workers, communities and regions”
Europe Beyond Coal is an international campaign to combat the worsening impacts of climate change and air pollution by accelerating the move away from coal and towards clean, renewable energy. Last week, its members WWF Greece, Greenpeace Greece and ClientEarth reported a legal victory, when the Greek Council of State ruled against the renewal of the environmental permits of the lignite (brown coal) stations Megalopoli A and Megalopoli B. The revoked permits allowed the two coal plants to emit higher levels of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides than the ones prescribed in EU legislation.
According to Christian Schaible, a policy manager at the EEB, Greece could take a step further, highlighting a ‘derogation’, a legal exception to the normal rules, that Greek plants enjoy:
“The whole Greek lignite fleet is benefiting from derogation from stricter air pollution standards coming to an end in latest July 2020. This is an opportunity for the Greek government to lead by example and ensure those plants reduce operation as soon as the derogation is over, as from mid 2020”.
Too little, too slow
Ahead of the Climate Action Summit, designed to highlight countries that are stepping up their commitments to avert climate breakdown, UN Secretary-General António Guterres had called on governments to stop the approval of new coal power plants entirely by 2020, and take action to make the world carbon neutral by 2050.
Several governments have already recognised the double climate and air pollution benefits of moving beyond coal, and thirteen European countries have committed to a phase-out, although only Finland has enshrined its plans into national legislation so far.
At the Summit, Slovakia reconfirmed its commitment from earlier this year to move beyond coal by 2023, while the prime ministers of Italy and Ireland recommitted to their 2025 phase out dates. A phase-out debate is also starting in the Czech Republic, where a multi-stakeholder ‘coal commission’ started work last month.
Germany, whose coal use makes it the worst greenhouse gas polluter in Europe, is set to miss its 2020 climate objectives. The country is edging closer to legislating its proposed 2038 phase-out target but climate experts say this date is far too late.
Schaible told META:
“A 2038 coal exit too little, too late and too slow. Germany’s lignite plants are not only contributing to climate breakdown – they are also operating above the limits set by EU standards, and pumping dangerous pollutants in the air we breath.”
According to Schaible, the German Environmental Ministry has been defending the interests of the lignite industry by planning to only offer the absolute minimum level of protection allowed by updated EU pollution rules.
“This is outrageous. Allowing this level of harmful air pollution is an indirect subsidy of the dirtiest form of energy generation, while citizens pay the price with impacts on their health. Instead of protecting the status quo and bailing out their polluters, the German government should start a just transition today, and speed it up with regulatory options such as stricter air pollution limits”.