Photo by Greg McNevin, Europe Beyond Coal

‘Ten years too late’ – most toxic company promises to quit coal

After a week of unprecedented climate mobilisation worldwide, German energy giant RWE has pledged to go carbon neutral by 2040.

Currently running some of the largest and dirtiest coal power stations on the continent, RWE is Europe’s biggest emitter of carbon-dioxide (CO2), as well as Europe’s most toxic coal company because of the impact of its lignite (brown coal) fleet on human health.

The 2040 target is meant to respond to the increasing public pressure to move beyond coal, and to the German government’s commitment to phase it out by 2038. However, leaving coal-fired power generation behind and transitioning to cleaner energy is vital for Europe’s biggest economy to deliver on the Paris Agreement, and climate experts warned that a 2038 target is already too late.

Last spring, Members of the European Parliament overwhelmingly backed a motion calling for EU countries to stop burning coal for energy by 2030. The same date was set as a coal exit benchmark by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

Speaking at a press conference last week, the company’s Chief Executive Officer Rolf Martin Schmitz admitted the 2040 date was chosen because it “sounds better” than 2038.

According to Christian Schaible, a policy manager at the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), “it is clear that RWE cares more about looking good than doing good.”:

“They know that the time of coal is long over. Yet they choose to run down the clock and cling to the dirtiest and most toxic of energy sources, instead of speeding up an overdue transition. Any phase out later than 2030 is pointless, and 2040 is a decade too late”.

Campaigners also denounce how RWE, as well as the second worst coal polluter EPH, are demanding millions of euros from the German government in compensation to retire their assets – a bumper package, considering that their lignite business is already unprofitable. A report published by climate think tank Sandbag shows the gross profits of the company’s German lignite fleet collapsed by 54% in the first half of 2019, causing the sector a loss of €664 million.

“Public funds should support coal regions’ transition to low-carbon economies, not bailout coal companies that are undermining Germany’s ability to meet the goals set out in the Paris Agreement,” said Kathrin Gutmann, Europe Beyond Coal Campaign Director.

“RWE dares to ask for state aid compensation for earlier closures of its underperforming and highly-polluting coal plants which already benefit from weak regulation. Instead, it should pay back for the health damage it causes. None of the German lignite plants meet the stricter EU standards on NOx and mercury due for mid 2021”  added Schaible.

“Rather than handing taxpayers’ money to polluters, the German government should legislate a coal exit by latest 2030, in line with climate science, and use a regulatory approach to speed up the transition.”

Not only emissions

If RWE coal powered plants represent a climate and health hazard, the impacts of the company’s coal mining and burning activities on neighbouring communities go far beyond emissions.

Notably, the ongoing extension of German lignite mines despite phase out plans is putting entire villages under siege. It is the case of Immerath, Keyenberg, and a cluster of little towns located on the edge of RWE’s Garzweiler open pit mine. Last year, Immerath cathedral was torn down to make way for Garzweiler expansion.

As the mine grows and starts eating into the town limits, villagers refusing to sell their properties to the company are being evicted, but some of them are now refusing the expropriation. Acting under the name Menschenrecht vor Bergrecht (Human Rights Before Mining Rights), they are mounting a joint legal challenge to save their homes.

According to Europe Beyond Coal, the plan to destroy the village is made even more absurd by the fact that the coal beneath them needs to stay in the ground if Germany is to respect its climate commitments.

“RWE is pointlessly destroying villages and pushing people out of their homes for coal it cannot burn. At the same time, it pretends that it has changed its ways with greenwashing propaganda”, said Gutmann.

“These pledges can only be taken seriously if RWE announces a 2030 coal phase out, ends mine expansion, allows people to reclaim the property it has forced them off, and outlines a clear plan for how it will move beyond coal and help coal communities transition to a better future.”