The EU countries are deeply divided over the future of coal powered electricity. This divide is strongly geographic, pitting Western Europe against the Eastern bloc.
The rich West wants to stop using coal while the poor East depends on it. Germany is caught in the middle. The future of the EU may turn on this issue, because East-West tensions are already great.
The European war on coal became official during the recent Bonn climate summit, when a number of countries announced plans to quickly phase out the coal-fired generation of electricity. The global group calls itself the Powering Past Coal Alliance, with the impossible green goal of ending coal use by 2030. It has a number of Western European member countries, none of which uses very much coal.
Notably absent is Germany, for good reason. Following the disastrous September elections, the so-called “climate chancellor” Angela Markel failed to form a new coalition government. The specific reason was a dispute among the coalition partners over phasing out coal.
Unlike the Powering Past people, Germany gets over 40% of its juice from coal, so phasing out is a big economic issue. What Germany will do about coal will be up to the new government, when one is finally formed. The present caretaker government under Merkel is not allowed to take such big steps.
No matter what happens, Germany will fail to meet its Paris Climate Agreement target for CO2 emission reductions for 2020, by a wide margin, mostly due to its massive coal burning. But coal has tremendous economic benefits, so this is a nasty political issue indeed for the new government.
One of the leaders of the anti-coal movement is a new group called Europe Beyond Coal, which has a lot of interesting online maps. One, labeled Coal Phaseout Plans, shows which countries have or are considering coal phase out plans and which are not considering a phase out.
The geographic differences are stark. With the exception of Spain, all of the countries that are not considering a phase out are in Eastern Europe. In fact it is almost that entire bloc. In contrast, almost all of the Western countries are in the phase out group. Some have already done so or are planning to do so in the next few years.
The Eastern countries depend heavily on coal and they simply cannot afford to switch to more expensive alternatives. In addition, they get a lot of their natural gas from Russia, which makes switching to gas-fired electric power pretty unpalatable. Tensions with Russia over gas supplies have been very high in the past. It is no wonder they are not interested in phasing out coal, or even in reducing their consumption very much.
The point is that what happened to the proposed German coalition, splitting up over coal, could also happen to the European Union. Eastern Europe was not part of the original EU and they often complain about being treated as second-class members. If the EU tries to shove expensive coal cuts down their throats they might well rebel. In any case it seems certain that coal is not about to be phased out EU-wide, far from it.
The leader of the pro-coal countries is probably Poland, which gets most of its electricity from coal. By coincidence, Poland is hosting the next global climate summit, where the rules for the Paris Climate Agreement are supposed to be finalized. This is bound to focus sharp attention on the coal issue. Fireworks are possible.
When it comes to the role of coal in Europe there is a lot to watch in the coming New Year, especially what Germany, Poland and the European Union do about it. Eurogreen mania may be about to hit a wall of coal in Eastern Europe. That would be good news indeed.