Coal phase-out in Germany and the UK has started?

Citizens movements and public debate are putting pressure on governments.

Citizens’ movements against the building of new coal power plants and in favour of the closure of old ones have grown in the last few years. In Germany and the UK, governments have in recent months taken the first decision to close some coal power stations. But governments were under strong pressure from the fossil fuel industry and labour unions that represent coal workers, and unfortunately in Germany those lobby groups stopped the adoption of a law to phase-out coal. For example, one of the largest German environmental groups, BUND, proposed in 2014 such a phase-out law for German coal power stations. The details of the proposal are explained in the article on page 12-15 of this Acid News issue. Instead, the German government decided on 1 July 2015 that only 2.7 gigawatts of coal power stations in Rhineland and eastern Germany must be closed by 2020 to reduce CO₂ emissions by 12.5 million tonnes annually. The power stations will be put on standby as reserve capacity between 2016 and 2020, and BUND has criticised this decision strongly (see article on page 16-17 for details).

One of the power stations to be closed is Buschhaus near Helmstedt, a lignite power station which in the 1980s was a symbol of the German environmental movement. At that time climate change was not yet a major public issue, but instead forest death due to air pollution was very much in the public eye. The Buschhaus lignite power station, rated at 302 MW, was built in the late 1970s with a 307-metre-high chimney and was designed to burn high-sulphur coal. Environmentalists campaigned for several years to install desulphurisation equipment, which the regional government initially refused to do. Buschhaus therefore became a symbol for the German environmental movement, and eventually the plant was modernised. But despite a strong climate change debate since the early 1990s it has produced around 2.2 million tonnes of CO₂ emissions annually since then, and is among the 30 dirtiest coal power plants in Germany with the highest CO₂ emissions.

Germany has commissioned several new coal power stations in the last few years, which are equipped with modern air pollution control technology but emit very large amounts of CO₂, including the Moorburg plant in Hamburg which began operating in 2015 and will produce 8,5 million tonnes of CO₂ emissions annually.

One of the countries in Europe with the strongest public debates on manmade climate change is the UK, and here the government has gone one step further than in Germany. On 18 November 2015, the UK energy minister, Amber Rudd, announced that the UK’s remaining coal-fired power stations must be shut down by 2025 at the latest. Ms Rudd said according to UK press sources that it is “perverse” that coal, the “dirtiest fossil fuel”, is still such a major part of the UK’s energy system – providing 29 per cent of the UK’s electricity last year. “It cannot be satisfactory for an advanced economy like the UK to be relying on polluting, carbon-intensive, 50-year-old coal-fired power stations. Let me be clear: this is not the future,” said Ms Rudd in her speech. She added that ageing coal plants are also becoming increasingly unreliable, highlighting breakdowns that forced the National Grid to impose emergency measures earlier this month.

The government said that the UK would have to build new gas-fired power stations. Environmental groups welcomed the decision to close all older and newer coal power stations, but criticised plans to focus on gas instead of renewables. “Switching from coal to gas is like an alcoholic switching from two bottles of whisky a day to two bottles of port,” commented Friends of the Earth, according to the same UK press sources.
Another piece of good news about a possible start to phasing out coal is that rich countries will phase out export credits for coal power technology, after the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) reached a deal in November 2015.

Reinhold Pape

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