Companies from every EU nation except Poland and Greece sign up to initiative in bid to meet Paris pledges and limit effects of climate change
Europe’s energy utilities have rung a death knell for coal, with a historic pledge that no new coal-fired plants will be built in the EU after 2020.
The surprise announcement was made at a press conference in Brussels on Wednesday (5 April), 442 years after the continent’s first pit was sunk by Sir George Bruce of Carnock, in Scotland.
National energy companies from every EU nation – except Poland and Greece – have signed up to the initiative, which will overhaul the bloc’s energy-generating future.
A press release from Eurelectric, which represents 3,500 utilities with a combined value of over €200bn, reaffirmed a pledge to deliver on the Paris climate agreement and vowed a moratorium on new investments in coal plants after 2020.
“26 of 28 member states have stated that they will not invest in new coal plants after 2020,” said Kristian Ruby, Eurelectric’s secretary-general. “History will judge this message we are bringing here today. It is a clear message that speaks for itself, and should be seen in close relation to the Paris agreement and our commitment to provide 100% carbon-neutral electricity by 2050.”
“Europe’s energy companies are putting their money where their mouths are,” he added.
Coal has been central to Europe’s development, powering the industrial revolution, trades union history, and even the EU’s precursor, the European coal and steel community.
But it also emits more carbon dioxide than any other fossil fuel, plus deadly toxins such as sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, and particulate matter, which are responsible for more than 20,000 deaths each year.
Wendel Trio, the director of Climate Action Network Europe, hailed the new move as “the beginning of the end for coal”.
“It is now clear that there is no future for coal in the EU,” he said. “The question is: what is the date for its phase out in the EU, and how hard will the coal industry fight to keep plants open, even if they are no longer economically viable?”
The coal industry though was sceptical about the utilities’ announcement. Brian Ricketts, the secretary-general of the Euracoal trade group said: “Steam engines were replaced by something better, cheaper and more productive – electric motors and diesel engines. When we see a new energy system – with lots of energy storage – that works at an affordable price, then coal, oil and gas will not be needed. In the meantime, we still rely on conventional sources.”
Renewable industry sources also welcomed the news, albeit with the caveat that it would allow continued new investments in the industry for another three years.
“The debate about coal is over,” one industry insider told The Guardian. “This is the only way that we can go forward with decarbonisation. But it would be good to see a phase-out of existing coal plants.”
The energy utilities’ initiative faced initial resistance in Germany which is relying on coal to bridge a move away from nuclear energy to renewables under the Energiewende transition.
In the end, though, only Poland which depends on coal for around 90% of its electricity and Greece, which still plans new coal plants, bucked what is becoming a global trend.
New coal plant constructions fell by almost two thirds across the world in 2016, with the EU and US leading the way in retiring in existing coal capacity.
The move is also in line with a pathway for meeting the 2°C target laid out by climate scientists last month, as a way of limiting future stranded asset risks.
Europe will have to phase out all of its coal plants by 2030 or else “vastly overshoot” its Paris climate pledges, climate experts say.
António Mexia, the CEO of Portuguese energy giant EDP and president of the Eurelectric trade association, said: “The power sector is determined to lead the energy transition and back our commitment to the low-carbon economy with concrete action.”
“With power supply becoming increasingly clean, electric technologies are an obvious choice for replacing fossil fuel based systems, for instance in the transport sector to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”
“The challenge for policy makers in the next two years will be to target the political instruments, ensure that they are complementary and advance decarbonisation and electrification at the same time,” said Ruby.
Ruby called for a ratcheting up of the cap on CO2 emissions under the EU’s emissions trading system, to speed the transition to a low carbon economy.
Arthur Neslen is the Europe environment correspondent at the Guardian. He has previously worked for the BBC, the Economist, Al Jazeera, and EurActiv, where his journalism won environmental awards. He has written two books about Israeli and Palestinian identity