At long last, Belgium has shed the yoke of coal. On 30 March the last tonnes of the dirty energy source were burned in the Langerlo power plant, ushering in the long overdue end of a carbon intensive era.

Climate Action with 4000 Windmills at E.ON Site.

After Cyprus, Luxemburg, Malta and the Baltic countries, Belgium is the seventh EU country to go coal free. Almost simultaneously, Scotland closed its last coal-fired power plant for good and others are following suit. This is great news as last year’s Paris climate agreement commits countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and phase out coal and other fossil fuels. The UK and Austria announced that they will quit coal by 2025 – and have already started to reduce their coal capacity – while Portugal aims to be coal free by 2020.

Done with coal

As is the case in many European countries, coal has a long history in Belgium. Already in Roman times, coal was being mined in the southern part of the country, but it wasn’t until the introduction of the steam engine in the 1830s that coal mining really took off. A long decline of the industry led to the closure of the last Belgian mine in 1992 and the power plants boarded up one after the other – until only Langerlo was left.

Things could have turned out otherwise though. In 2009 – just months before the Copenhagen climate summit – E.ON planned a new coal-fired plant in the port of Antwerp. Thanks to Greenpeace protests and formal complaints from hundreds of concerned citizens, the government refused to deliver the necessary permits, thus avoiding a climate and health disaster. Since then the days of coal in Belgium were numbered.

Large-scale biomass: making the same mistake again?

Langerlo may have burned through its last coal, but the plant is not yet done for. At the beginning of 2016, E.ON sold the plant to German Pellets, with the aim of converting it to biomass – and collecting large amounts of subsidies: up to 2 billion euro over  ten years, even though the choice for North American wood pellets for an old coal plant is a far cry from sustainable energy production. Some forms of biomass electricity production lead to even higher lifetime CO2-emissions than coal.

With that in mind, Greenpeace asks the European Commission to make sure the revised Renewable energy directive coming out later this year will only allow support for sustainable and efficient biomass energy production.

Meanwhile, solar and wind energy are readily available at ever decreasing costs, providing better investment opportunities than large-scale biomass projects that are doomed to go bust the minute subsidies stop flowing.

But all is not lost. Persistent financial troubles at German Pellets mean the Langerlo conversion to biomass is looking less certain by the day – forcing the government to consider other, more sustainable options to reach its renewable energy target. We may thus see a choice for a better source of renewable energy, but for now, let’s celebrate yet another country going coal free.

Mathieu Soete is Greenpeace Belgium energy campaigner.