Time for Paris-compatible coal phase-out plans in Central and Eastern Europe

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Belchatow power station in Poland is the European Union's "single largest greenhouse gas emitter", according to the EU [Iwona Olczyk / Pixabay]

Central and Eastern European countries need to set national coal phase-out dates by 2030 at the latest in order to fall in line with the climate goals of the Paris Agreement, environmental campaigners write.

Authors: Elif Gündüzyeli, CAN Europe ; Tomas Jungwirth, Centre for Transport and Energy, Czechia ; Wojciech Szymalski, Institute for Sustainable Development, Poland, and ; Taj Zavodnik, Focus, Slovenia.

While coal phaseout debates intensify in Czechia, Slovenia, and Poland, breaking free from coal is no longer an ‘if’, but a question of ‘when’ and ‘how’ for these Central Eastern European states. The development and revision of National Long Term Strategies in these countries is intensifying political pressure to set and integrate an early coal phaseout date into the strategies.

What is a Paris-compatible plan for coal in the European Union? The prerequisite is to set national phaseout dates by 2030 at the latest, followed by timely, inclusive and adequate just transition (JT) plans. In Slovenia and Poland, governments are preparing national Long Term Strategies (LTS), and in Czechia there are plans to revise its outdated LTS – soon! Setting early dates, within a vision for 100% renewables would allow smooth modelling of long term plans, and show concrete steps to reach climate neutrality well before 2050.

There is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for these governments to tap into unprecedented levels of EU financial support. Sincere political will for a 2030 coal phaseout will reap greater and faster benefits. The new EU budget and recovery funds offer significant amounts of financial support (see Table 1) to trigger investments and supporting measures, both for investing in renewable energy, energy efficiency and the electrification of transport, as well as initiating reforms to make this transition just and fair, providing for decent jobs, new skills and a societal welfare. In addition, some of the revenues achieved through the Emissions Trading Scheme’s Modernisation and Innovation Funds, are readily available to help boost a rapid and just transition of energy infrastructures.

Table 1: European Commission individual assessment and summaries of National Energy and Climate Plans (NECPs).

Moreover, coal’s fire is dimming out as ETS prices hit historic-high levels. Operators of coal plants and mines are in line to get rid of their assets sooner rather than later. If the governments are early enough in setting a realistic coal phaseout date and inclusive JT plans, local communities will be given a chance to make the transition fair with the available funds.

In Slovenia, the public consultation on the National Strategy for Coal Exit finalised last month with a proposal to end coal by 2033. The proposal was met with calls by some Ministers, trade unions and local authorities from the concerned region to continue the use of coal until 2042 on one side, and warnings by the environmental activists that even 2030 is too late. As the final decision will be political, it could overlook the devastating financial aspects and health impacts of running Šoštanj Power Plant beyond 2030.

In Czechia, a government decision has been postponed as a result of a deep internal clash between the years 2033 or 2038, as proposed dates for coal phaseout. Chances are it will not be taken prior to the upcoming general election in October. Nevertheless, it appears that the market is leading the way, and that economics will phase out coal earlier than any regulation. The government should reflect on these new realities when revising and updating its outdated and, to a large degree, poorly implemented national long term climate strategy next year.

Furthermore, Poland is struggling with high demands from coal mining interest groups, treated as privileged for many years. In mid-April 2021 the government reached an agreement with hard coal trade unions to cease operation of coal mines by 2049. This agreement requires substantial state aid in order to keep the mines operational, due to years of heavy financial downfall, and ever-increasing current levels of carbon credits that will not pay off.

So far, the path towards 2049 is unforeseeable and it is very likely that market conditions will cause much earlier closures for most of the mines. In the meantime, for some, the end of lignite is becoming a reality. In Eastern Grater Poland ZE PAK is planning to phase out coal by 2030 and has announced dropping new lignite mines projects. This is quite a turnaround from just two years ago when new lignite coal mines were planned. The Polish LTS should ride this wave and speed up the overall coal phase-out.

The Paris compliant coal phaseout timeline would also help many coal dependent regions, halted by the Territorial Just Transition Plan processes, because it would give clear policy guidance. National commitments for 2030 coal phaseout and transition to climate neutral economies would accelerate drafting of the TJT Plans and unlock grants and loans for the local communities via the Just Transition Mechanism. The mechanism enables fundamental investments in coal regions to jump-frog to clean futures, while providing a bottom-up governance mechanism.

Fundamentally, CEE countries must ensure that their Long Term Strategies entail realistic just transformation visions that will compass economies to become climate neutral. In order to do so, they need to be ambitious, timely and realistic – and include national coal phaseout dates, by 2030 the latest – in line with the Paris Agreement goals.

A tale of three countries: how Czechia, Germany, and Poland plan to ditch coal

For decades, Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic have been at the heart of Europe’s so-called “lignite triangle” which produces most of the continent’s coal-based electricity. But with climate change now a top political priority, the priority is shifting to renewables.

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