This weekend I joined a unique European protest, not the usual gathering in front of Commission buildings in Brussels. Almost 8,000 people from all over Europe gathered at the Polish-German border to form an eight-kilometre long human chain joining two villages, Grabice and Kerkwitz, both endangered by massive lignite mining projects.
Dozens of villages are at risk of being wiped out by bulldozers. Some 6,000 people risk losing their homes and livelihoods to make way for new mines. Local people, supported by environmental organisations including Greenpeace, formed a human chain to protest against the mining and coal plants in the region.
Coal should already belong to the past. Unfortunately, many EU coal-fired plants are still running at near full capacity, due to the relatively low price of coal compared to gas, but also because of weak EU climate targets and a dysfunctional carbon market. This has led to an increase in CO2 emissions from EU coal power plants, despite the rapid expansion of renewables and the overall decrease in total EU greenhouse gas emissions.
The opening of new lignite - also known as brown coal - mines would mean that this dirty energy source will be used in Europe well beyond 2050. If this is the case, we can forget about reaching the long-term EU commitment of cutting greenhouse gas emissions between 80 to 95 percent by 2050.
Over the next months, EU governments and the European Parliament will make two important decisions that could stop destructive coal investments across Europe:
- The European Commission has proposed to reform the EU’s carbon market from 2021 onwards. The European Parliament and EU governments should speed up the reform so that it becomes operational in 2017 and make the system much stricter, so that energy companies are discouraged from using coal for electricity production.
- In October, EU leaders will agree on new climate and energy targets for 2030. These will define the long-term future of the energy sector. The European Commission’s proposals should be strengthened. Leaders should aim for 55 per cent domestic greenhouse gas emission reductions by 2030, against 1990 levels, and include dedicated binding targets for renewable energy (a share of 45 per cent renewables by 2030) and energy savings (40 per cent energy savings by 2030). If any exemptions for Poland - where the government is generally opposed to climate and energy targets - are to be included in the EU’s 2030 deal, these should not include any financial aid for coal or lignite.
German chancellor Angela Merkel and Polish prime minister Donald Tusk now have to address the concerns of the thousands of citizens who gathered at their border on Saturday. In many ways the leaders of Germany and Poland personally hold the political key for an independent, competitive and sustainable European energy economy. EU leaders: it's time to make coal history.
Joris den Blanken
Greenpeace EU climate policy director