The recent decision of an Italian chief prosecutor to order the closure of two power stations at Vado Ligure is probably the first legal case for manslaughter and environmental damage opening against the coal-fired energy industry. On another case, the Court of Rovigo sentenced two former CEOs of ENEL to a two-year prison term for the severe pollution derived by the operations of the Porto Tolle Power Plant. Environmental groups WWF Italy, Greenpeace and Legambiente have expressed hope that this judgment will signal the end of coal conversion projects in Porto Tolle. However, the impact of these important legal developments on the energy policies of EU member states is yet to be seen.
According to Greenpeace, 50 coal plants in Europe have been recorded as heavier climate and air polluters and are suspected of greater health impacts than the ones in Italy. In the same time, member states seem to be flirting with a revival of coal, on the flimsy argument that the current economic downturn calls for cheap energy.
In Germany, the Federal Environment Agency (UBA) reported a 1.2% rise in greenhouse gas emissions during 2013. This was due to increased power generation from coal, also covering the high energy demand in a very cold winter. As reported by Vattenfall Europe Mining AG in August 2013, its lignite output increased to 62.4 million tonnes, from 60 million in 2011. This is the highest output since 1993. According to the UBA’s Vice President Thomas Holzmann, this trend raises concerns as it might jeopardise the achievement of Germany’s 40% emissions reduction target by 2020. In the same time, new brown coal is about to be dug out, in some cases consuming medieval towns, such as Proschim and Atterwasch.
In the Czech Republic, the 750 year-old village of Horní Jiřetín of North Bohemia is also threatened with devastation, despite the overwhelming 95% “no” vote in a 2005 referendum on the future of coal mining in the area.
In Greece, the Public Power Corporation recently reinforced its plans for the construction of the Ptolemaida V 660 MW lignite-fired power plant, by acquiring vital 50% financing through the KfW Banking Group. According to WWF Greece, “[t]he country’s abundant sun and wind seems to be sinking out of the financial picture. The Public Power Corporation recently mothballed its plans for Europe’s largest photovoltaic park of 200 MW, which would cost EUR 600 million and would cover abandoned lignite fields in Ptolemaida, also including a solar panel construction unit. This solar park would offer 550 jobs. Plans for a smaller, 50MW, solar park, in the energy centre of Megalopoli, have also been stored in Greece’s energy policy freezer”.
In Poland, two new coal-fired power units of 900 MW, costing approximately EUR 2.7 billion, have been described by PM Donald Tusk as the country’s biggest investment since the Communist era. Concerns that the new coal plans violate EU legislation on Carbon Capture and Storage have resulted in the Commission investigating possible infringement.
In quest for cheap energy and succumbing to pressures by Europe’s largest energy utilities, many European governments have slashed support schemes to renewables and return to the energy-as-usual model of dependence on fossil fuels. However, as revealed by three independent reports, the high carbon exposure of financial markets threatens the global economy with a “carbon bubble”, whose burst would have a detrimental impact on national economies, investor portfolios and ultimately people’s savings.
Bloomberg Businessweek: In Europe, Dirty Coal Makes a Comeback
Greenpeace-Energy Desk: Back to black: How Germany, Poland and a Swedish state-owned firm are turning towards brown coal
Greenpeace-Energy Desk: Why is Europe burning more coal?
Spiegel Online: Green Revolution? German Brown Coal Power Output Hits New High
WWF Greece: Say no to Ptolemaida V!
WWF EU: Poland, there is life after coal