Brown Coal Power Plant in Germany.  ©Siegfried Libutzki/Greenpeace

It’s time for the EU to make some decisions about its own future and the future of its citizens.

There are two things at stake; the fiscal impetus of recovering a carbon emissions trading scheme which is perilously close to imploding, and the physical impetus of protecting the health of the millions of EU citizens who are threatened by coal plants belching particulates into their air.

With one, it is working towards restoring credibility to a plan which turns CO2 into a tradeable commodity while encouraging the reduction of emissions. With the other, it is respecting the basic right of people to breathe air which is not clogged with mercury, lead or arsenic.

Making the right choice means finding a way of making carbon trading relevant again. It’s simple supply and demand: Industrial optimism and geo-political interests created a situation where too many tradeable allowances were pumped into a new and untested market – the largest of its kind. The economic crisis slowed factory production, meaning there were less emissions, meaning the allowances they had for emissions gradually became worthless. And if allowances come cheap, why worry about blowing more pollutants into the air? Along this line, the International Energy Agency released a report earlier this week which, although having a global outlook, made it clear that the EU, as the third largest CO2 emitter in the world, needs to pull up its socks. As the IEA puts it, the current emissions trading scheme (ETS) “is a key instrument to deliver the European Union’s 20% emissions reduction target in 2020.”

In the EU, there is no doubt what a key emission culprit is. With approximately 300 plants in operation, and about 50 more in development, coal accounts for a quarter of the EU’s C02 emissions. It also accounts for 70% of sulphur dioxide emissions – a dangerous pollutant. This means that making the right choice also means acknowledging that, not only is coal so antiquated it’s laughable — it’s been used as a source of energy since Marco Polo — but it’s simply too unhealthy to be considered an option. Especially here, in Europe, where 70% of new electrical capacity took the form of predominantly wind and solar energy in 2012, according to the REN21's Renewables Global Status Report (GSR).

The two choices are not mutually exclusive. Curbing carbon emissions, through controlled allowances and an effective ETS, means turning more to clean sources of power in an economically advantageous way. Yes, predicting carbon market behaviour may be tricky, but understanding the health threats of pollution is not. Clean energy will add years of life to EU citizens which, in and of itself, is a no-brainer. If you remove the emotional aspect from the equation, in the long run, it also makes us more productive to drive the Union forward and make us a proven example of a sustainable, healthy energy environment.

Arin de Hoog is a Media Relations Specialist at Greenpeace International