New coal law will be ‘canary in a coal mine’ moment for German presidency


As Germany takes the helm of the EU, its problematic coal law risks sending out the wrong signals, writes Riccardo Nigro.

Riccardo Nigro is the campaign coordinator for Coal Combustion and Mines at the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), a green campaign group.

The German presidency of the EU could not have started at more crucial times. While Europe gears up to recover from the corona crisis, the climate emergency has become increasingly pressing – May 2020 was the hottest month on record – and according to the IEA the world has six months left to change its course.

Leading the EU towards the post-COVID world will require the German presidency to be pragmatic and imaginative; bold policies to protect people’s health, relaunch the economy and boost employment must be coupled with a green transition that will make our ecosystems and societies more resilient.

However, when it comes to coal, premises are not encouraging. At the very same time as Germany takes the helm of the EU, the Bundestag could approve the law shaping the German coal phase-out by 2039.

This law is outdated and unambitious and risks setting a bad example for other member states which are delaying a necessary and overdue coal exit.

First, the 2039 deadline is too late. Coal is a major contributor to climate breakdown and must be phased out by 2030 at the latest for the world to have a chance to keep the rise in global temperatures below 1,5°C.

Last spring, Members of the European Parliament overwhelmingly called on governments to stop burning coal by 2030. The same date was set as a benchmark by the OECD.

The German model is already inspiring other countries to postpone their coal exit; Polish operator PGE is considering to withdraw its “entire hard fleet in 20-25 years” – that is, 10 to 15 years too late.

Moreover, the recent opening of a new plant by German operator Uniper in Datteln has further spread the message that coal has still a role to play in Europe’s future.

At the same time, the law provides that Berlin pays €4,35 billion to compensate coal utilities for lost revenues. However, German utilities already benefit from massive direct and indirect subsidies, quantified in €5,6 billion per year in terms of health and other air pollution-related costs.

Germany could save up to €5.4 billion per year in air pollution damage cost by just enforcing the strictest air pollution limits for large combustion plants laid down by EU regulation (LCP BREF).

This would also trigger anticipated shutdowns of the most polluting utilities as soon as 2021, with additional benefits for the climate. On the contrary, the German Ministry for the Environment has been defending the interests of the coal industry by applying the absolute minimum level of protection allowed by EU rules.

Indirect subsidies also include the exemptions from repairing the damages caused by coal mining and burning to water bodies. This is the case of the Frankfurt-Oder region, where LEAG’s mining operations in the Lausitz area are forcing the local public water provider to invest €10 million to desulphurise drinking water, which LEAG does not intend to pay back.

According to ClientEarth, not only could the law be rejected by the European Commission for providing state aids to coal giants, it will also recklessly allow LEAG’s coal plants to extend their life-span, as well as to continue its operations thanks to taxpayers’ money.

This would not be the first time the German coal sector is bailed out by public money: national coal has been used in German power plants for decades only because its price was kept artificially low by the state.

Now Germany is about to grant billions euro to coal operators for sticking to business as usual scenarios, and even delaying the already planned closure of certain facilities. We could call this a ‘polluter gets paid’ twist: instead of holding polluters accountable for the burden they inflict on citizens, Germany is using state aid to keep their outdated business alive.

Eurativ, 2 July 2020