Friday, March 1

The war in Ukraine makes Europe change gas for coal

Coal plant. / File, Archive

The war in Ukraine has disrupted energy and decarbonisation plans in the European Union, which is returning to fossil fuels to make up for the lack of gas

Jose A. Gonzalez

“The war in Ukraine will not stop the decarbonization of the economy.” This strong statement has the signature of the European Commissioner for the Environment, Oceans and Fisheries, Virginijus Sinkevicius. However, at the moment, the energy crisis is making a dent in the community’s green road map with the gas cuts carried out by Moscow.

The faucet of the gas pipeline that feeds Germany and other European countries is gradually closing. Prices go up, gas is reduced and winter is getting closer and closer, despite several months remaining. A framework that has caused a 180-degree turn in German energy policy: «To reduce gas consumption, less must be used to generate electricity. Instead, coal-fired power plants will have to be used more”, announced a few days ago Robert Habeck, German Vice Chancellor, Minister of Economy and Climate Protection and one of the main representatives of the Greens.

A decision that will not be isolated. Italy, Austria and the Netherlands are following the same path as their German neighbors. “It is a terrible act of going backwards,” says Fernando Valladares, a scientist and professor at the CSIC. “These countries had plans to leave coal and use natural gas and then move on to renewable energy,” said Frans Timmermans, vice president of the European Commission and head of the Green Deal, last March.

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However, “it is not necessary to rethink the European strategy”, point out the promoters of Oikos, an environmental think tank. “If it is temporary, we are calm,” adds Valladares. A valid argument for the community authorities. “If they stay longer with coal, but then immediately switch to renewables, they could still be within the parameters we set for our climate policy,” Timmermans replied.

“If they stay longer with coal, but then immediately switch to renewables, they could still be within the parameters we set for our climate policy”

Frans Timmermanns

Vice President of the European Commission

What has been questioned is the intermediate step to the irruption of renewables, natural gas is no longer an option. “The EU considered it to be a transitional energy source and it is now in question and in many countries there is no clear alternative to Russian imports,” comment Luis Quiroga and Antonio Timoner of Oikos. “Green hydrogen is an option, but much remains to be done,” they add.

“Temporary” dependence on coal

Thus, the return to burning coal represents a sudden halt to community aspirations to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 55% by 2030 compared to a 1990 base, but that “shows that it was already doing things wrong before”, warns Valladares. “The war has shown that we were using dirty energy cover,” he adds.

This was already confirmed by the International Energy Agency (IEA) in December, the United States and the European Union recorded the largest increases in the use of coal, with rises of about 20% each; followed by India, with 12%. “We are late with the Paris Agreements and compliance with the Sustainable Development Goals,” says the CSIC researcher. “The return to coal is bread for today, hunger for tomorrow,” says Mar Asunción, head of the climate and energy program at WWF Spain.

“If Germany had kept its nuclear power plants open, it wouldn’t have to burn as much coal”

Luis Quiroga and Antonio Timoner

founders of Oikos

“Germany had alternatives”, value from Oikos. The Central European country focused its decarbonization on a commitment to gas, “it denuclearized very soon and left many things undone,” Valladares adds. “It is evident that if the nuclear power plants that it is shutting down had been kept open, Germany would not have had to burn as much coal and would reduce its emissions,” add Luis Quiroga and Antonio Timoner from Oikos.

Brussels’ response to this new energy challenge has been REPowerEU “to make Europe independent of Russian fossil fuels long before 2030,” they announce. A plan based on three pillars: savings, diversification and promotion of clean energies. More than 200,000 million euros to promote the community green route, leaving gas and coal behind.

“It is delicate to find the balance,” explains Úrsula Von der Leyen, president of the European Commission. But Europe has made it clear “we must move forward in the energy transition without going back to fossil fuels,” say community officials.

This week, the European Parliament once again gave its support to the Commission’s Fit for 55 by influencing the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions in community industry and the creation of a social climate fund.

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