Russia’s war is a short-term win for coal
Press play to listen to this article
There’s at least one victor in Vladimir Putin’s bloody war on Ukraine — coal.
In response to the attack, the EU is scrambling to diversify away from Russian energy imports. The first fuel to be targeted is coal; member countries decided on Friday to end Russian coal purchases by August. The EU imported 49 million tons of Russian coal in 2020, and the trade is worth an estimated €8 billion per year.
That leaves the bloc relying on its own coal resources to make up for Russian imports. Countries are also extending the life of coal-fired power plants as fears rise of a cutoff of Russian natural gas shipments.
It all makes for an unexpected boost for a fuel that had been headed for the exit thanks to rising concern about climate change.
“In the short term, we will need a mix of solutions that are both brown and green,” said Simone Tagliapietra, a research fellow at Bruegel, a Brussels think tank. “If we reopen coal-fired power plants, even for one, two years, I think, overall, that’s not going to be a huge problem, if in the meantime, we scale up green solutions.”
There are examples across the bloc.
The Greek government said on Wednesday it would boost coal mining and extend the operation of its coal-fired power plants to 2028, scrapping its previous plans to shut such plants by next year. Greece generates about 10 percent of its power from lignite, the dirtiest form of coal.
None of this is supposed to upend the country’s commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 55 percent by 2030 and to achieve climate neutrality by 2050.
“It is a temporary measure,” said Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis.
That’s the same argument being used across the Continent.
“It could be necessary to reopen coal plants to cover eventual shortfalls in the immediate term,” said Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi immediately after the Russian invasion. Italy gets about 45 percent of its natural gas from Russia, and is scrambling to find new supplies, with Draghi visiting Algeria on Monday.
The shift in tone is most noticeable in Poland, which generates about 70 percent of its electricity from coal. The official plan is to end coal use by 2049, only a year before the whole EU is supposed to become climate neutral.
Now, even that distant target is being questioned.
“We want coal energy to function in Poland in a much longer perspective than until 2049,” Deputy Prime Minister Jacek Sasin said last week.
The government is reviewing the country’s energy strategy — aiming to boost renewable energy but it also includes the caveat: “The use of domestic hard coal deposits may be periodically increased in the event of a threat to the energy security of the state.”
Germany is more conflicted. The coalition agreed to end coal-fired power “ideally” by 2030, something the government insists will still happen.
But the energy emergency prompted Climate and Economy Minister Robert Habeck to announce a coal reserve to secure supply. The government is also delaying the final closure of some coal plants, keeping them on standby for longer to reduce Germany’s dependence on Russian gas imports. Coal generates about a quarter of the country’s electricity.
“The decommissioning of coal-fired power plants can be suspended until further notice,” the government said in late March.
In the Czech Republic, the idea had been to end coal mining by 2033, but the government now says that, given the situation, it must “take into account all advantages and disadvantages” of doing so.
Two of the country’s coal-fired power plants were supposed to switch to gas next year, but that timeline is now under discussion, said Martin Hájek, director of the Czech Association for District Heating. Coal generates 46 percent of the country’s power.
Prague has also decided to delay a ban on old coal-fired boilers by two years.
Romania will temporarily restart idle coal-fired power plants, said Environment Minister Barna Tánczos.
The coal message coming out of Brussels is also muted.
Countries planning to burn coal as an alternative to Russian gas could do so in line with the EU’s climate goals, Green Deal chief Frans Timmermans said last month. “There are no taboos in this situation.”
That shift is understandable in light of the rush to get away from Russian energy, said Tagliapietra, but he cautioned that shouldn’t undermine the bloc’s longer-term climate goals.
“We need to make sure that — if these short-term energy security solutions are necessary — at least that we have, at the very same time, increased green energy investments,” he said.
For the coal crowd celebrating the fuel’s revival, there are warnings that any recovery will be short-lived.
“Clean power by 2035 is a climate imperative for the EU. That means any growth in coal generation must be temporary,” said Harriet Fox, an analyst with Ember, a green think tank. “Cutting off Russian gas in the next few years and a Paris-compliant coal phaseout aren’t mutually exclusive. Now is the moment for a massive effort on renewables to create a cleaner, cheaper and more reliable energy mix as quickly as possible.”
Zia Weise contributed reporting.
This article is part of POLITICO Pro
The one-stop-shop solution for policy professionals fusing the depth of POLITICO journalism with the power of technology
Exclusive, breaking scoops and insights
Customized policy intelligence platform
A high-level public affairs network