Coal Threatens a Comeback as the EU Pulls Away From Russian Oil

But experts believe the short term will be more complicated and could spark a resurgence of fossil fuels. In the first week of March, power plants in Europe burned 51 percent more coal than a year earlier, according to data from research institute Fraunhofer ISE. The world’s biggest private coal producer, Peabody Energy, posted record results in February, reaching net earnings of $513 million in the final three months of 2021, up from a loss of $129 million a year before. In Europe last year, coal power registered its first increase in almost a decade, up 18 percent.

But analysts like Zachmann argue that any new reliance on coal is simply a short-lived way to leverage existing infrastructure until renewables can pick up the slack. “The benefit of [burning more coal] is we have existing coal-fired power plants that can do that, that do not require new investments, and therefore we do not lock in new dependencies,” he adds.

Others believe a short-term spike in emissions would be negated by the boost renewables will receive as Europe cuts ties to Russian gas. “We’ve got to get through a difficult winter and beyond by looking at resilience, and that may take us back to burning more fossil fuels if they’re available,” says Michael Bradshaw, professor of global energy at the UK’s Warwick University. “But at the same time, we lay the foundations … so that we can actually make greater progress [toward the green transition] at a faster pace.”

Václav Bartuška, ambassador at large for energy security in Czechia, echoes that idea. “There is a temporary role for coal, which we had hoped would be out of the energy mix by the end of this decade. But it will stay longer,” he told news website Seznam Zprávy last week. “We will need it until we find alternative sources. Until that time, even the greenest government will not phase out coal.”

How long the use of coal could continue is unclear.“[The European Commission is] talking about 1,000 gigawatts of renewable capacity on the system by 2030, which is roughly three times what is installed today,” says Richard Howard, research director at consultancy Aurora Energy, describing this number as “hard to believe.” “But in terms of direction, it’s actually encouraging that there’s such momentum to really accelerate the green transition as a result of this,” he says.

The idea of ​​even a short-term spike in coal use does not sit well with everyone. “We can’t afford it, not even as a temporary solution,” says Chiara Martinelli, director of Climate Action Network Europe, adding that the dependency on fossil fuels needs to stop. “I think what we need to look into more in terms of short-term measures is reducing energy demands.”

Greenpeace Germany has also advocated for reducing energy consumption for the duration of the war, suggesting a driving ban on Sundays; encouraging people to lower their heating by 1 or 2 degrees; and advocating for new speed limits of 100 km/h on motorways, 80 km/h on country roads, and 30 km/h in cities. “The introduction of a speed limit of 100 km/h on motorways alone would reduce fuel consumption by 2 million tons per year,” the group said.

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