The environmental group Greenpeace is famous for direct actions that disrupt fossil fuel activities–it has confronted big ships on kayaks, scaled offshore drill rigs, and climbed up smokestacks in its quest.
But in Europe, Greenpeace wants to take a very different type of direct action: buying one of the continent’s largest coal mines and gradually shutting it down. If successful, Greenpeace would actually be in the strange position of operating coal facilities until as long as 2030, the deadline it would set for shutting down operations and phasing in renewable sources of power.
The unusual situation is a result of the decision of Vattenfall–a Swedish government-owned energy conglomerate–to sell its lignite coal mining operations and two coal power plants in Germany. In line with Sweden’s own goal to become the world’s first fossil fuel-free nation, Vattenfall is pushing to transform its energy portfolio to lower CO2-emitting sources and increase renewables. In September, it invited statements of interest from potential bidders.
But in Greenpeace Nordic’s view, Vattenfall selling off a coal mine to a bidder that will keep milking its resources is no better than rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Climate scientists say 80% of current coal reserves need to remain in the ground in order to limit global warming to the internationally recognized safe threshold of 2 degrees Celsius. With the global coal market plummeting, the sale is a crucial test case for coal’s future in Europe, with two climate policy-leading nations–Germany and Sweden–involved.
“When coal is declining anyway, what do you do? Do you try to save as much as you can? Or do you really aggressively invest in what you want instead?” asks Greenpeace Nordic program director Martina Krüger. “This region can transform from a problem to the shining light of the future, and we want to be a part of that.”
There’s a long road ahead for Greenpeace to convince Vattenfall of that view. Late on Friday last week, the group received a flat-out rejection of its statement of interest from Citigroup, which is managing the sale. Citigroup said that Greenpeace won’t be allowed to bid and that it owed no further explanation, according to Krüger. Neither Citigroup nor Vattenfall would comment to AFP.
“The Swedish government promised that no new mines would be opened, which is the first step to the gradual phase-out of coal. We are fearing that with the sale, they are now trying to get away from that promise–unless they have very clear environmental and social criteria attached,” she says. “We’ve seen that, in this first letter, that they are only interested in the highest bid.”
If Citigroup doesn’t budge, Greenpeace will be challenging its decision directly to the Swedish government. One big sticking point is what the assets are worth. Some analysts have put the value at 2 to 3 billion Euros. While that value is much less than it was just a year ago, Greenpeace says it should still be far less–closer to 0.5 billion Euros, taking into account the declining value of coal and future environmental regulations, according to Krüger.
What’s more, a gradual transition to renewables that preserves the thousands of jobs that are now involved in the coal sector will require a large investment. If that’s considered, Greenpeace contends, the operations could be a liability, not an asset. Krüger says Greenpeace has “no doubt” it could finance its bid from donations, crowdfunding, grants, and other sources. Its plan is to create a separate foundation that would run Vattenfall’s shut-down and develop plans to transition to a new renewable economy.
Greenpeace says its bid is serious, and it hopes to win. But even if it does not, it wants to pressure Vattenfall to put strong environmental and social stipulations to the sale.
For a group averse to working within the system, Greenpeace Nordic’s strategy took a lot of discussion. Says Krüger: “We know that we are solutions-oriented, but that’s not people’s perceptions of us. We want to be telling people about our dreams, not just about our nightmares.”