Next German government must not fight for right to pollute

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Current German Chancellor Angela Merkel [360b/ Shutterstock]

The next German government must embrace EU protections rather than fight for the right to pollute, insists Christian Schaible.

Christian Schaible is industrial policy manager at the European Environmental Bureau. He takes part in the European Commission’s ‘Sevilla Process’ that drafts new environmental standards for industry.

There has already been much speculation about whether the collapse of talks to form a new coalition government will impact the speed at which Germany can move its energy system beyond coal. Yet while flashy national phase-out dates are to be welcomed, the real work begins when inevitable transitions away from coal are actually planned.

Fortunately for whoever forms the next government in Berlin, stricter EU environmental standards for large combustion plants provide the perfect opportunity to deliver a fair and managed coal phase out.

By progressively tightening the limits on harmful air pollution from coal plants, and increasing the minimum requirements for their boilers’ energy efficiency, the worst-performing and most harmful installations can be closed in the next few years, while other plants reduce their operation, coming online for limited periods to provide additional capacity if required.

It’s just a matter of time until the last European coal plant closes. But if we’re serious about protecting the climate from carbon emissions, protecting our health from harmful air pollution and protecting vulnerable communities from sudden deindustrialisation, this day can’t come soon enough.

Self-professed climate leaders like Germany must resist the anti-history arguments of the coal industry: even the UK government agrees that if Paris commitments are to be met, all OECD countries must phase out coal by 2030 at the latest.

Unfortunately, rather than seeing the new EU standards for what they are – essential health protections that can also provide a legal framework for a managed coal phase out – the German government had until recently been threatening to join Poland and the brown coal industry in their petulant objection to life-saving measures to reduce pollution from Europe’s dirtiest plants.

The standards, which have been developed under the framework of the Industrial Emissions Directive, and must now be implemented at national level, could significantly cut emissions of sulphur and nitrous oxides, harmful particulate matter and mercury. Yet at the end of last month German Energy Minister Zypries wrote to the EEB revealing that she was still examining legal options to oppose them.

The basis for the objection, and the reason Germany voted against the new rules back in April, was a single line in the 976-page document that set a stricter maximum limit for nitrous oxide (NOx) pollution from brown coal plants.

In clinging to an interpretation of the law that was rejected by the majority of experts during the six-year drafting process, the German government played a dangerous game that undermined the stakeholder consultation process that provided technical input to the new rules and ultimately opened the door to a spurious legal challenge now being pursued by Poland.

Germany’s position in opposing the new limits, and the minister’s defensive tone, was telling; the German government saw these measures as a threat to the German brown coal industry and its biggest operators, the major polluters RWE and LEAG, and not as an opportunity to ensure safer, cleaner air for all Europeans. This perspective must now change.

The scale of Germany’s problem with coal should not be underestimated. In 2015, 42% of Germany’s electricity was generated in coal-fired power plants and the German brown coal industry claims to employs around 20,000 people.

However, experience in the UK, which has seen coal use collapse over the past decade, has taught us that a relatively sudden reduction in coal use – or a national ‘carbon detox’ – is entirely possible without any problems in meeting the demand for energy.

And just last week the German ministry of industry and national grid agency actually announced that a coal phase out could increase the security of supply across the country.

And to put the size of the industry into context, employment in the booming German economy rose by an average of 36,000 jobs per month last year. So enough new jobs to replace those currently linked to German brown coal are produced about every two weeks.

The figures that should really concern the German government are the 29% of the country’s total greenhouse gas emissions that came from coal-fired power plants in 2015 and the fact that coal is responsible for over €10billion of associated annual health costs, like lost working days and the treatment of coal-related illnesses including bronchitis, asthma and other respiratory conditions. This is clearly unacceptable.

But this is not just a simple question about the huge costs and questionable benefits of coal. This is about catastrophic climate change and a health crisis caused by irresponsible power generation, all defended in the name of jobs with a certain-yet-unknown expiry.

That’s why Michael Bloomberg came to the COP climate conference in Bonn to explain his reasons for backing our new Europe Beyond Coal alliance and told German citizens that cared about their health and the climate to “pick up the phone and call Merkel” to demand that Germany stop burning coal.

Setting an ultimate phase-out date for coal is in everyone’s best interests. It provides certainty to business and workers and guides investment towards training and renewables.

The impact of inevitable job losses is only exacerbated by the unpredictability of exactly when they will come. Lawmakers in the UK, the Netherlands, Italy, France and elsewhere know this and have responded appropriately.

Whether German parties are able to deliver such an announcement remains to be seen. Luckily, headline phase-out date or not, the EU has provided the answer for a safe, managed transition away from coal – for the sake of our planet, our communities and our health, let’s hope that someone is listening.