The Green Brief – Coal is back in the spotlight

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Welcome to EURACTIV’s Green Brief. Below you’ll find the latest roundup of news covering energy & environment from across Europe. You can subscribe to the weekly newsletter here.

All of Europe is anxiously checking the storage levels of its gas depots these days as Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine threatens to upend the continent’s main gas supply. However, what most fail to consider are the vital train wagons full of an old-timey fuel that keeps Europe running: coal.

Coal is tied to the history of industrialisation. It played a significant role in manufacturing arms for the most horrific wars in human history, but it was also at the centre of the European peace project.

“The pooling of coal and steel production” would be the foundation of a European federation and peace on the continent, said Robert Schuman.

As Europe progressed, coal became a dirty mineral and polluter that climate policies aimed to consign to the past. Coal mines shut by the droves, and Europe sought to rid itself of its dirty coal habit by expanding nuclear power capacities, gas power and all-important renewables.

But we are far from done with coal, it seems.

While Europe has been making enormous strides in shedding coal from its energy system, with countries like Belgium, Austria, and Sweden already coal-power-free, the recent energy crisis and the war in Ukraine have put coal back in the spotlight.

Europe imports 55% of its coal from Russia. Now the EU’s attempted divorce from the Kremlin jeopardises that supply.

In Germany, France, Belgium, Spain, Poland, and the Netherlands, the dependence on Russian coal is especially pronounced, ranging from 87% in the case of Poland to Spain’s 44%.

Uncomfortable times make for uncomfortable realisations, and politicians are often forced to recognise that dark times could be just around the corner.

Take Germany. To this day, houses in Berlin, the capital of the world’s fourth-largest economy, often considered a climate forerunner, are, for a large part, heated with coal.

Thus, it fell to green Vice-Chancellor Robert Habeck to solve this. Last week, he announced his intention to go against his party’s grain and establish national strategic stockpiles for coal and gas.

It is perhaps one of the more uncomfortable awakenings of the divorce from Russia currently underway.

Of course, leaders both in Germany and the EU will point to a long term future of renewables saving the day. In fact, many have begun to talk about the EU Green Deal as a security policy to reduce Europe’s reliance on Russia.

“[Investing in renewables] is a strategic investment because … less dependency on Russian gas and other fossil fuel sources also means less money for the Kremlin’s war chest,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said on Tuesday.

The Green Deal is not a new policy. Europe committed to going climate neutral by mid-century in 2021, but renewable energy expansion has become much more urgent.

“Renewable energies are now the key to a strong, independent Europe beyond climate change,” Simon Müller, head of the German office at the think-tank Agora Energiewende said.

Energy autarky may be the next step needed to ensure lasting peace in Europe at a time when it is more threatened than ever before. And the only way to achieve that will be to finally leave coal behind and take a bold step into a brave new world of fully renewable energy.

– Nikolaus J. Kurmayer


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News from the capitals

MADRID. Spain’s Ribera: Room for extra measures to mitigate war impact on energy markets. “There is room” to take new measures at the EU level to mitigate the impact of war in Ukraine on energy supply and prices, Spanish Ecological Transition Minister Teresa Ribera, said Monday, adding that this can also be done at the national level in Europe, EURACTIV’s partner EFE reported. Read more.

WESTERN BALKANS. Green transition on agenda at EBRD Balkan summit. Transition to green energy was at the centre of discussion between six Western Balkan leaders at the EBRD’s fifth Western Balkan Investment Summit, particularly wind and solar power. Read more.

SOFIA | ATHENS. Bulgaria starts talks with Greece over joint nuclear project. Bulgaria has begun talks with Athens on building a new nuclear power plant on Bulgarian territory to be used by Greece under a long-term 20-year contract, Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Asen Vassilev announced on Sunday. Read more.

HELSINKI. Finland does not need Russian gas. If the list of Russian sanctions were to include the country’s energy sector, Finland would still have enough energy to satisfy its demand for natural gas. Read more.

MADRID. Inflation, gas supply two major concerns for Spain. The “flagrant violation” of international law by Russia “must not go unpunished”, warned Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez on Thursday, noting that Russia’s actions and their impact on the Spanish and EU economies are also a major concern for Madrid. Read more.

LISBON. Portugal to spend €5 million to combat drought. The Portuguese government will allocate €5 million from the Environmental Fund for awareness campaigns and contingency solutions to fight the severe drought that has spread across the country, Environment and Climate Action Minister João Matos Fernandes announced on Wednesday. Read more.

SOFIA. Bulgaria does not expect suspension of Russian gas supplies. The Bulgarian government will stop the export of electricity should Russian gas stop flowing into the country, according to Prime Minister Kiril Petkov on Wednesday. Read more.

BUCHAREST | ATHENS. Romania and Greece to continue cooperation on energy. Romania and Greece will continue to cooperate in the energy sector, also in a trilateral format – with Bulgaria to find joint solutions to current challenges in energy security. The plan was discussed on Wednesday by Romanian President Klaus Iohannis and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who was on an official visit to Bucharest. Read more.

LJUBLJANA. Slovenia opts for cash aid to mitigate energy price hikes. Hundreds of thousands of individuals and tens of thousands of companies will benefit from direct cash aid designed to offset the impact of soaring energy prices under a package of laws adopted by the Slovenian parliament that is valued at around €200 million and has been likened to the handout of candy right before the election. Read more.


News in brief

Creating a circular economy will reduce reliance on Russia, says EU Green Deal chief. Investing in a circular economy is also an investment in collective security, EU Vice-President Frans Timmermans said on Tuesday. A circular economy would also reduce Europe’s consumption of primary materials and minerals, some of which the EU imports from Russia, and lower the reliance on Russian energy to make products, he added.

Climate change is also a driver behind Russia’s hostilities, said Timmermans, explaining: “Russia’s insecurity is also fed by the disappearance of permafrost, which cripples part of its industry, by failed harvest, by wildfires.”

He also referenced a damning IPCC report that was published this week, warning that, among other things, Europe will need to adapt to a future with an altered climate. “The climate and biodiversity crises are getting worse by the day and already affect hundreds of millions of people and what we saw yesterday in the IPCC report means that we have no time to waste,” he said.

He went on to detail the circular economy legislation that the European Commission is expected to bring out this year, including for the sustainable design of products, packaging reduction and reuse and circularity in the textiles industry. Read the full speech here. (Kira Taylor | EURACTIV.com)

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Eastbound gas flows to Poland resume via Yamal-Europe pipeline. A section of the Russian Yamal-Europe pipeline resumed eastbound gas delivery to Poland from Germany on Tuesday following normal, westbound supplies overnight, data from German network operator Gascade showed. The data showed that supplies to Poland from Germany via the Mallnow metering point have been at over 5 million kilowatt-hours per hour. The pipeline shipped gas to the west for around six hours last night before halting in the morning. (EURACTIV.com with Reuters)

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Poland-Lithuania gas pipeline to open 1 May, ahead of schedule – operator. A natural gas pipeline linking Poland and Lithuania will open on 1 May, earlier than the scheduled mid-2022 start, Polish grid operator Gaz System said on Monday. The pipeline’s first volume auctions will be held in April for capacity available in either direction from May to September, Gaz System said. (EURACTIV.com with Reuters)

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BP quits Russia in up to $25 billion hit. BP is abandoning its stake in Russian oil giant Rosneft in an abrupt and costly end to three decades of operating in the energy-rich country, marking the most significant move yet by a Western company in response to Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.

Rosneft accounts for around half of BP’s oil and gas reserves and a third of its production and divesting the 19.75% stake will result in charges of up to $25 billion, the British company said, without saying how it plans to extricate itself.

“I have been deeply shocked and saddened by the situation unfolding in Ukraine and my heart goes out to everyone affected. It has caused us to fundamentally rethink bp’s position with Rosneft,” BP Chief Executive Bernard Looney said.

It was the first of the fossil fuel giants in Russia to jump ship. Shell followed on Monday, saying it would exit its joint ventures with Russia’s Gazprom. Total has said it will not explore any new funding in Russia, but will keep existing projects. (EURACTIV.com with Reuters)

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Europe’s bank to help fund renovation wave. The European Investment Bank (EIB) committed €30 million to the new EU-focused Solas Sustainable Energy Fund ICAV. This fund currently totals €140 million and will fund energy-saving business models focused on renovating existing public and private infrastructure in Europe, particularly buildings.

“Investing into energy efficiency, renewable energy generation and building renovation is at the core of the European Green Deal and key to bringing down energy bills,” said EU energy commissioner Kadri Simson.


Opinions


Upcoming events

15 MARCH. Circularity of bottles: contributing to the Green Deal. Join this EURACTIV Virtual Conference to discuss what’s the best recipe for meeting circular economy and climate objectives and whether deposit return schemes are an efficient way to meet collection and recycling targets for EU natural mineral and spring water producers. Speakers include Renew lawmaker Martin Hojsík and more tbc. Programme and registration here. (Supported by Natural Mineral Waters Europe)

16 MARCH. Efficient district heating systems: How to achieve cost-effective decarbonisation? Join this EURACTIV Virtual Conference to discuss the new definition of efficient district heating systems in the energy efficiency directive proposal, and how stakeholders can best cooperate to achieve cost-effective decarbonisation. Speakers tbc. Programme and registration here. (Supported by PGE)

30 MARCH. How to develop the heating sector to ensure better air quality? Join this EURACTIV Virtual Conference to discuss the link between pollution and district heating systems, and the impact that the proposal for the recast energy efficiency directive plays in this regard. Speakers tbc. Programme and registration here. (Supported by PKEE)


On our radar

8 MARCH. Communication on energy.

17 MARCH. Environment Council.

23 MARCH. Nature protection package: Revision of rules around sustainable use of pesticides and nature restoration targets.

30 MARCH. Circular economy package 1:

  • Sustainable products policy initiative, including a revision of the Ecodesign Directive
  • Review of the Construction Product Regulation
  • Proposal for a Regulation on substantiating environmental claims using the Product/ Organisation Environmental Footprint methods (green claims)
  • Strategy on sustainable textiles
  • Empowering consumers for the green transition 

5 APRIL. Emissions and pollutants package:

  • Revision of the Industrial Emissions Directive and update of the European Pollutant Release and Transfer Register (E-PRTR)
  • Review of EU rules on fluorinated greenhouse gases
  • Regulation on substances that deplete the ozone layer
  • Development of post-Euro 6/VI emission standards for cars, vans, lorries and buses 

3 MAY. International partnerships and energy package:

  • New strategy on international energy engagement
  • Joint Communication on a partnership with the Gulf

25-27 MAY. G7 meeting of climate and energy ministers.

7 JUNE. Joint Communication on international ocean governance

27 JUNE. Energy Council.

28 JUNE. Environment Council.

20 JULY. Circular Economy Package 2:

  • Policy framework for bio-based, biodegradable and compostable plastics
  • Review of the Packaging and packaging waste directive to reinforce the essential requirements for packaging and establish EU level packaging waste prevention measures and targets
  • Review of the Urban Wastewater Treatment directive 

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