Solar and wind power are on the increase across Europe, but most of its power still comes from burning coal. Coal generates a quarter of the EU’s power, and around 20% of its greenhouse gases. So if the EU want to meet its Paris climate agreement pledges, it will all have to shut down all its coal plants by 2030, says a new report.
The report, from Climate Analytics, shows both how far the EU has come in phasing out coal, as well as the surprising amount it still uses. “The EU has achieved significant reductions in coal use for other purposes in the last decades,” says the report, but its use in power plants only dropped 11% between 2000 and 2014. And while seven member states use no coal for power, Germany and Poland between them burn 50% of all the EU’s coal, and produce over half the coal-fired-power emissions. Even here there are big differences. Poland (like Greece) is building new coal plants, whereas Germany is all-in on renewables, especially wind.
The Paris Agreement says that temperature increases should be kept “well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels.” To manage that, a quarter of coal power plants need to be shut down by 2020, and another 47% by 2025. If member states fail to manage this, and keep rolling along as they are right now, CO2 emissions will be exceeded by 85% by 2050.
There are some good signs, though. Throughout the last year we’ve seen more and more countries run entirely on renewables. Portugal managed a four-day streak without firing up a regular power plant, and Germany made so much renewable energy on one afternoon that it had to pay people to use it. Meanwhile, France and the U.K. have both committed to shutting down all their coal-fire plants: France by 2023, and the U.K. by 2025. And Finland plans to go one better, banning coal-powered electricity altogether by 2030.
The longer countries dither about their coal power, the harder the changes will be. The report recommends a predictable transition to renewables, which means long-term planning and regulation. Business also likes predictability, and long-term plans will help it to “decrease the economic, social and environmental costs of the energy transition,” says the report.
There’s little excuse not to phase out coal, unless you have political reasons to keep it around, like Poland’s coal-friendly right-wing government. Renewables are getting cheaper all the time, and they will never run out. Barring disastrous climate change, a wind or solar plant will never shut down because it runs dry, unlike a coal mine, so it will never leave whole communities without employment.
If they’re to keep to their pledges, then, EU member states need to act pretty fast. Or they might just do what the U.S is doing: renege on the Paris Agreement and try to revive the dying coal industry.