In a surprise announcement, the Finnish Minister Jyri Häkämies, in charge of revising the country’s Climate and Energy Strategy, announced an ambition to completely phase out coal-fired energy production by 2025, outdoing Denmark’s existing commitment by five years.  The new strategy would eliminate the use of coal by increasing taxes on fossil fuels, and shifting that investment to renewable energy. This announcement is made all the more exiting by the fact that his surname means “carbon monoxide man” in Finnish, referring to one of the numerous toxic pollutants emitted by coal-fired power plants.

The economic rationale for the phase-out is solid: it would slash the fuel import bill, save the taxpayers’ money currently spent on subsidizing domestic dirty energy production, and create secure, domestic jobs in the renewable energy sector. Above all, coal is the dirtiest fossil fuel, causing hundreds of thousands of deaths globally through air pollution, and driving record growth in global warming pollution in recent years.

Countries and states phasing out coal

If the Finnish conservative minister’s ambition is translated into a solid energy strategy, Finland will join a growing group of countries that are moving away from coal in their energy production. The U.S. has seen a dramatic change in the country’s power generation mix, with the share of coal in power generation dropping from 49% in 2007 to a projected 37% this year – a decline of one quarter in just five years. The share of coal in Europe’s electricity generation has dropped from 39% in 1990 to 26% in 2009. Out of the bloc’s 27 countries, 18 have no plans to build new dirty coal power stations.

The U.S., Canada and the UK have created CO2 emission standards that constitute a de facto ban on new coal, and will ensure that coal is phased out as old power stations retire. The governments that have made a clear political commitment to phase out coal include the state of Washington in the U.S. (by 2020), the state of Ontario, Canada (by 2014) and Denmark (by 2030). Washington’s neighboring state of Oregon is retiring its last coal-fired power plant by 2020.

Lauri Myllyvirta is an energy campaigner at Greenpeace International