Michele Tantussi/Bloomberg

Europe's Coal Curtain Is Complicating the Climate Fight

  • Eastern countries burn more lignite as the West cuts back
  • The industry `tends to hang on after it's time to say goodbye'

At the Bilina mine 50 miles north of Prague, excavators the size of 10-story buildings claw at the earth and scoop out 2,700 tons of brown coal a day to feed the smoke-belching power station on the horizon. After the Czech government relaxed environmental regulations this fall, they’ll be able to keep going for another 40 years.

QuickTake Confronting Coal

Some 130 miles away, in eastern Germany, Vattenfall AB’s Jaenschwalde coal pit is preparing to scale back production as the country shifts away from coal and the oldest units of the adjacent power station are scheduled to shut down by 2019.

The two mines highlight Europe’s growing divide on cutting greenhouse gases as global leaders descend on Paris for the biggest climate conference in history. While western Europeans are accelerating the exit from coal, their eastern neighbors, particularly the Czech Republic and Poland, are taking steps to keep mines -- even those with only lignite, the dirtiest variety of the fuel -- open for decades.

“This is a responsible decision that takes into account the energy security of our country,” Czech Industry and Trade Minister Jan Mladek said after the government extended Bilina’s lifespan. Despite a push from western Europe to limit coal consumption, “electricity will have to be produced somehow.”

The divide largely follows the old fault lines of the Cold War. In much of the former Communist bloc, coal is the only domestic alternative to oil and gas imported from Russia. Bulgaria still gets almost half of its electricity from coal, and in Serbia it’s about two-thirds. In six former Soviet-bloc countries now in the EU, coal accounted for roughly 39 percent of the energy consumed last year, according to the BP Statistical Review. In western Europe, it accounted for 12.5 percent.

Closing mines is particularly contentious in Poland, where the coal industry still employs some 100,000 people and helps generate over 80 percent of the country’s electricity. Prime Minister Beata Szydlo’s newly elected Law & Justice Party has vowed to negotiate exemptions from a pledge to cut carbon-dioxide emissions by 40 percent by 2030 that the 28 members of the EU -- including Poland’s previous government -- agreed to a year ago.

“We obviously want to protect the climate, but only to the point that it won’t hurt the Polish economy,” Szydlo said before traveling to Paris for the UN meeting.

And in October, the Czech government granted the Bilina mine permission to exceed limits imposed by a 1991 law that had sought to mitigate the environmental devastation wrought by decades of communist rule. The giant crater, which suffocates nearby towns with dust in the summer and turns into a pool of toxic sludge with the first rains, will grow deeper and wider for another four decades, giving state-controlled utility CEZ AS access to an additional 150 million tons of lignite. And the government didn’t rule out extending the life of another mine a few miles away.

“The mining industry tends to hang on after it’s time to say goodbye,’’ said Richard Black, the director of Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit in London. “The end of coal can be very socially disruptive.’’

The west, by contrast, is weaning itself much more quickly. In France, which gets three quarters of its electricity from nuclear power, Engie SA -- one-third owned by the state -- last month said it will pull out of coal investments around the world. Scandinavia’s sovereign wealth funds have been selling off investments in U.S. and European coal mines and other less-than-green companies. And Britain plans to shut the last of its coal-fired power stations by 2025.

Eastern Jobs

“It cannot be satisfactory for an advanced economy like the U.K. to be relying on polluting, carbon intensive 50-year-old coal-fired power stations,’’ Energy Secretary Amber Rudd said in a statement on Nov. 18.

The politics of coal is more complicated in Germany. The country is spearheading the continent’s shift to renewable sources like wind turbines and solar panels, but it still gets a quarter of its electricity from lignite-fired plants, and the industry provides about 21,000 jobs, most of them in the formerly communist east.

Germany has pledged to close the last of its eight nuclear reactors by 2022, which will likely require a longer commitment to coal. There’s no doubt, though, that Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government is trying to squeeze coal out of the mix. Last month Merkel reached an agreement with Germany’s utilities to close eight of their oldest plants by 2019.

While the plants will still be available in an emergency, Germany says the move will ultimately cut carbon dioxide emissions by 1.4 percent. Vattenfall says the pact will reduce its lignite demand by as much as 9 million tons per year, and RWE AG agreed to phase out as many as five plants by 2019, which could shrink its annual lignite consumption by some 14 million tons.

“There’s no future in coal,” said Andrzej Ancygier, an energy economist at Berlin’s Free University. “As the eastern states dig in their heels to defend their preferred energy choice, what’s at stake is the unity of the European Union’s climate policy.”

Watch Next: The Science Behind Climate Change

Meltdown: The Science Behind Climate Change