Who’s got coal for Christmas?

As 2019 comes to an end, Roberta Arbinolo shares her christmas list of who’s been on their best – and worst – behaviour when it comes to coal this year.

All across Europe and the western world, a lump of coal for Christmas is a traditional punishment for children who have misbehaved. Be it Santa Claus, Sinterklaas, Saint Nicholas, the Three Kings or the Italian Befana – a benevolent witch flying around on a broom on the Epiphany night – whoever is in charge of delivering presents under our Christmas tree can also be expected to leave some coal in our socks or shoes, if we haven’t been nice.

In our festive narrative, coal is perceived as something bad, and as something coming from the past. And the narrative matches reality: coal was once the fuel of choice for much of Europe, and getting it out of the ground and into our homes and power plants was a dirty and dangerous job.

Burning coal is responsible for enormous amounts of greenhouse gas emissions, as well as a toxic mix of harmful air pollutants. In Europe, coal burning is the single biggest source of poisonous mercury entering the air, and plays an enormous role in accelerating climate breakdown.

Thanks to an increasing international awareness, and to the decreasing profitability of the industry, the age of coal is coming to an end. Several governments have already recognised the double climate and air pollution benefits of moving beyond coal, and fifteen European countries have committed to a phase-out. Just transition plans are being developed to protect local work forces and at least one plant has already announced it will close without the loss of any jobs.

Yet too many countries and institutions are still clinging to coal, reluctant to let it go. 

Saving the best for last, let’s start with the top three instances of bad behaviour this year.

Coal for Christmas

1. Germany: planning to do too little, too late

Leaving coal-fired power generation behind and transitioning to cleaner energy is vital and urgent for Europe’s biggest economy to deliver on the Paris Agreement.

Last spring, Members of the European Parliament overwhelmingly backed a motion calling for EU countries to stop burning coal for energy by 2030, and the same date was set as a coal exit benchmark by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). But Germany, whose coal use makes it the worst greenhouse gas polluter in Europe, doesn’t seem to be ready to speed up such a necessary transition just yet, and it is only planning a coal exit for 2038 – almost 10 years later.

Besides the climate impact of its coal fleet, Germany hosts on its territory some of the most toxic coal-fired power plants, and the irrational expansion of German lignite mines has put entire villages under siege.

2. The ‘no plan at all’ gang

If Germany’s phase out plan fails to reflect the urgency of what has become a social, environmental and climate crisis, a bunch of EU countries have no coal exit plan at all.

What’s worse, while Spain and Czechia are at least in the process of discussing a coal free future, Bulgaria, Croatia, Poland, Romania and Slovenia haven’t even initiated a national debate.

The status and evolution of national phase out plans can be monitored via the Coal Exit Tracker, an interactive map and a chart maker powered by the international campaign Europe Beyond Coal. Besides tracking coal exits and new coal projects currently under development, the tool also offers data on the technical specifications, contributions to CO2 emissions and modelled health impacts of all coal plants in Europe.

3. The EU

The naughty list is not only about governments: while European leaders debated to find an agreement for a climate neutral EU by 2050 and this year agreed a Green Deal for climate and nature, EU money is being used to finance coal lobbyists and promote coal use in developing countries like India and China.

The money comes from the Research Fund for Coal and Steel, originally set up by the EU’s predecessor, the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), and now controlled by the European Commission.

Last summer, documents obtained under access to information laws as part of a META investigation revealed how the fund has been used to pay the wages of staff at Euracoal, the European coal industry’s lobbying group in Brussels, as well as to support dubious cooperation with groups from outside the EU.

Commenting on the scandal, Christian Schaible, Policy Manager for Industrial Emissions at the European Environmental Bureau, told META: “If you read the proposal it’s clear that this project is just a vehicle to spend EU money on promoting coal, which is astonishing given all we know about how incompatible coal is with avoiding climate breakdown.”

A good year for

On the other hand, not everybody has misbehaved this year, and there are countries and institutions out there which deserve some praise and candies. 

1. Greece

It is the case of Greece, which rose to the occasion of the United Nations climate summit last September to announce its commitment to stop burning coal for electricity by 2028. The Greek statement was welcomed by climate and environmental campaigners as a historic milestone in Europe’s path to become coal-free by 2030.

2. Montenegro

Another good example is the one of Montenegro: by abandoning the construction of the second unit of the Pljevlja coal power plant, in the light of renewable energy advancements and environmental concerns, the country became the first one in the Western Balkans to officially cancel a new coal project, as well as the first one in the region not planning to build any new coal-fired power plant.

3. AXA

If governments’ commitments are key to take Europe beyond coal, financial institutions too have a huge role to play, as they have the power to redirect financial flows away from coal projects. At the end of November, the French global insurer AXA announced a plan to phase out its insurance and investment exposure to coal by 2030 in the EU and OECD countries, and by 2040 everywhere else. AXA’s move is part of a wave of coal investment restrictions announced by banks, insurers and lenders, showing the vanishing appetite from financial institutions towards an obsolete sector destined to disappear.

Looking ahead

All these stories are yet another proof of the unstoppable momentum for a rapid coal phase-out in Europe and beyond. The transition towards a safer and cleaner future is already happening – yet it must be faster, and it must be just, as no impacted community can be left behind.

Therefore, as Santa Claus, Sinterklaas and Saint Nicholas have just distributed their gifts, while the Three Kings and the Befana are gearing up for their delivery night, our wish for next year is that badly behaved governments, businesses and other institutions all improve their behaviour so that nobody ends up getting coal for Christmas.