An obscure European Commission fund seems totally incompatible with the EU’s Green Deal and climate ambitions. Riccardo Nigro explains.

Riccardo Nigro is Campaign Coordinator for Coal Combustion and Mines at the European Environmental Bureau.

When, at the end of 2019, the European Commission announced its brand new policy to make the European Union climate neutral by 2050, it looked like a crystal-clear point had been made: all available resources would be invested to boost renewables, energy efficiency and, in general, green research once and for all.

But among the folds of the EU budget a multi-million Euro relic continues to survive despite efforts to make Europe greener: the European Commission’s ‘Research Fund for Coal and Steel’ (RFCS). Born in the frame of the European Coal and Steel Community Treaty, when the treaty expired in 2002 its budget was transferred to the EU to finance research projects about coal and steel.

As the climate crisis becomes increasingly urgent, nothing has changed for the RFCS; even today this fund spends €40 million every year on projects which are sometimes hard (or impossible) to reconcile with a genuine commitment to carbon neutrality.

In many cases, it’s simply an unacceptable waste of money that is undermining the most defining policy of the present Commission: the European Green Deal.

Part of the RFCS is even being used to support a coal-propaganda project run by Euracoal, the European lobby of the coal industry. Last summer, the European Environmental Bureau exposed how this EU money was being used to pay coal lobbyist wages.

Only one month later, documents obtained by META revealed how the same EU fund has financed the German energy company RWE – also a member of Euracoal – to buy sulfur dioxide (SO2), the same toxic gas they emit by burning coal in their power plants.

Last week, Euracoal used its RFCS funding to hold a workshop on ‘coal research’ where a group of coal lobbyists and researchers were flown in from all around the world to meet, share knowledge and strategies about the future of coal.

Evidence we obtained suggests that the travel and accomodation costs of participants at this meeting were covered by EU money through the RFCS’s Coaltech2051 project.

As the only NGO in the room, the EEB got further confirmation of what Euracoal is really about: not research but pure and simple lobbying.

Among the interventions of the workshop, the most alarming and outrageous was that of Mr Lou Hrkman’s, a member of the Office of Fossil Fuels at the US Department of Energy.

Mr Hrkman’s intervention was, at times, funny; as, for instance, when he triumphantly claimed that “coal is the 100% organic fuel”. But the scary and outrageous parts of its presentation largely overcame this little piece of humour. Not only did he suggest that climate change is not happening at the pace environmentalists predicted 20 years ago, he also stated that renewables are presently taking advantage of massive amounts of public money, which he said wasn’t the case for coal.

Aside from the very meeting Mr Hrkman was speaking at, funded by the EU’s RFCS, there are many examples of subsidies for coal power at the national level all over Europe and around the world.

As reported by the Italian NGO Legambiente in its 2019 report ‘Stop subsidies to fossil fuels‘, the amount of subsidies granted each year to the sector is €18.8 billion. According to the International Energy Agency, subsidies to fossil fuels at worldwide level reach the outstanding figure of €300 billion per year, €2 billion of which supports coal.

And that’s without even mentioning the enormous externalised health and environmental costs of burning coal. In terms of air pollution alone, the largest operational 18 lignite plants cause a damage cost of €7.4 billion per year (based on 2016 emissions data). These costs, picked up by society, is a hidden subsidy that companies are not held accountable for.

Hrkman enthusiastically claimed that ‘zero-emissions’ coal is possible and that it should be deployed in Europe as well. He said: “if coal is not going away, what do you do?”.

Emissions of pollutants other than CO2 – such as neurotoxic mercury, of which coal combustion is the biggest source – were not mentioned throughout the whole workshop.

To make matters worse, immediately after the workshop Mr Hrkman went to lobby the European Parliament, as reported by Euracoal itself, in a clear and brash attempt to convince Polish MEPs to embrace so-called ‘clean coal’ technologies.

Now, industry lobbying happens all the time. But the fact that the European Commission grants budget to Euracoal to fly overseas lobbyists to Brussels, possibly including Mr. Hrkman, who promoted technologies that hamper EU efforts to become carbon neutral by 2050, is absolutely unacceptable.

Last but not least, it looks like the Commission will keep funding the RFCS over the next years. Our request for confirmation from DG Research and a Parliamentary question from German MEP Rasmus Andresen are still waiting for answers.

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