A new wave of coal plant shutdowns is taking the European Union one step closer to a coal-free future. Roberta Arbinolo highlights three things the EU can do to speed up a transition that leaves no one behind.

Seven Spanish plants, as well as plants and units in Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Greece are expected to close or face a much more challenging future after exemptions from EU limits on pollution standards expired on 30 June 2020.

Coal is a major driver of pollution and climate change, and phasing it out by 2030 is essential to deliver on the zero pollution and climate targets included in the European Green Deal.

As Europe’s move away from coal appears increasingly inevitable and unstoppable, governments and operators must set out plans to ensure a just transition that protects impacted communities and regions, and creates new opportunities for workers. Here are three steps the EU can take to make it smoother and faster.

Enforce EU water laws

Coal-fired electricity impacts water at every stage of its production: coal mining and washing, combustion and waste management, all come at a high cost in terms of reducing water quantity and worsening its quality.

A typical coal plant withdraws enough water to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool in less than four minutes, and massive amounts of groundwater are pumped up to keep mines dry. In many countries, the coal industry is among the major drivers of freshwater demand. At the same time, coal mining, washing and burning activities release dangerous pollutants such as toxic chemicals and heavy metals into the air, soil and water.

The EU flagship water law – the Water Framework Directive – is designed to protect Europe’s water bodies and have already been used to prevent the negative impacts of coal. However, too many governments are not implementing it correctly.

An iconic case is the Turów water grab. Located at the Polish border with Germany and the Czech Republic, the Turów lignite mine is draining water from two countries and leaving entire villages dry, in breach of the Water Framework Directive.

“Water is one of our most precious resources, we cannot afford coal to continue polluting it and wasting it,” said Sergiy Moroz, Senior Policy Officer for Water and Biodiversity at the European Environmental Bureau. “The Commission must make sure this powerful law is implemented and enforced everywhere in the EU.”

Stop subsidising coal

Coal’s profitability is shrinking: the coronavirus pandemic has dealt a heavy blow to a sector that was already collapsing before the crisis, and nearly half the world’s coal power plants are currently running at a loss. However, too many countries are still funnelling public money to the coal industry and artificially keeping it alive with direct and indirect subsidies.

As the EU launches its Recovery Plan to help member states overcome the social and economic impacts of Covid-19, it is essential that funding is directed towards those sectors that will help Europe build back better, make Europe a world leader in climate and environmental action, as well as protect people’s health and create millions of sustainable jobs.

Fossil fuel companies must be excluded from the scope of the fund. Earlier this week, the United Nations’ Secretary General Antonio Guterres stressed that there is no reason why countries should keep throwing public money at polluting coal.

As a new clean energy scenario elaborated by civil society demonstrates that an energy system relying entirely on renewables is within Europe’s reach, it is time for EU and national policymakers to shift investments away from fossil fuels and towards clean energy infrastructure, energy and resource efficiency, and sustainable business practices.

Promote a just transition

As Europe inevitably moves beyond coal, policymakers have a responsibility to help workers and communities in coal-heavy regions transition to a healthier, more sustainable future away from carbon extractive industries.

The Spanish and Greek plants closure show how clear just transition plans put in place by governments alert to coal’s rapid decline can minimise the coal exit impacts and foster a successful economic transformation.

Embedded in the EU Green Deal, the Just Transition Fund is a powerful tool to help make the coal phase out smooth, rapid, and fair to everyone, and support the creation of new, secure jobs to replace those tied to coal. The EU must ensure the Fund is used to help impacted communities, and to promote truly renewable alternatives, and not to subsidise just another fossil source such as gas.

Investing in fossil gas comes with huge cost to the climate, Europe’s competitiveness and European societies. At the same time, renewable energy investments will create up to three times more jobs than fossil fuels investments – and jobs that are more likely to benefit local communities.

With the Just Transition Fund up for a vote at the European Parliament’s Committee on Regional Development next week, over 60 civil society groups called on policymakers to exclude fossil fuels, including natural gas, from its scope, and support a just transition for all.

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