EU wind and solar push not enough to limit global warming as coal use remains stubborn

Renewable energy has mainly replaced gas, not coal, since 2019. Diagram showing 2021 vs 2019 change in EU27 electricity production (%)

Newly installed renewable energy in the EU mainly replaced expensive gas power rather than more polluting coal last year, according to analysis from an energy think tank, and still lacked what is needed to limit global warming.

Coal power in Europe fell just 3 percent in 2021 compared to 2019 pre-pandemic levels, far less than the drop of 29 percent recorded in 2019 compared to 2017 levels, according to Ember, the London-based non-profit organization.

The polluting fuel accounted for 15 percent of EU electricity production last year compared to 22 percent in 2017.

In the first half of 2021 – before the supply crisis pushed up the price of gas – newly installed renewable energy replaced predominantly coal and nuclear power. But from July, the new clean power almost exclusively replaced gas.

EU energy sector emissions causing climate change were to fall 6 percent a year to reach the required net zero level by 2035, but were reduced by about half, Ember estimated.

“The current gas crisis should be a huge wake-up call,” said Charles Moore, the report’s author. “Both coal and gas must be gone; and fast.”

Weaning the world from coal was a key promise made at the UN COP26 climate summit in November, and is seen as an important step in achieving global net zero emissions.

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“Action is needed to ensure that Europe’s coal phasing out stays on track,” Moore said. “Legislation is the only way to guarantee that coal plants will be closed by 2030. Unstable gas prices have made it clear that one cannot rely on market forces alone.”

Fossil fuels accounted for 37 percent of EU electricity production in 2021 against 39 percent in 2019. Renewable energy generated a further 37 percent, and nuclear power accounted for the rest.

As gas prices rose, electricity producers sought to replace fossil fuels with renewable energy as well as with coal. Prices rose so high that it was more profitable for electricity producers to switch to coal, even though it meant they had to buy more quotas at higher prices under the EU Emissions Trading Scheme.

The price of credits traded under the scheme, which allows the holder to emit one tonne of carbon for each credit, has almost tripled over the past year to around € 90 per year. tons of carbon.

The slowdown in coal phasing out meant that EU energy sector emissions were not on track to limit global warming to 1.5 C above pre-industrial levels, according to Ember’s analysis.

The International Energy Agency has estimated that it would require the electricity sector’s emissions to reach net zero in 2035 in advanced economies.

Although EU countries including Spain and Greece have closed coal power plants since 2019, this has mostly been offset by increases in coal use in Poland.

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However, the block’s wind and solar energy generated more electricity in 2021 than gas for the first time ever.

The rise in energy prices has led some politicians and energy industry analysts to question the shift to renewable energy. But climate experts have denied the link.

“I think that’s completely wrong,” said Lord Adair Turner, a senior fellow at the Institute for New Economic Thinking. “What we are facing is an inability to go fast enough… What has happened tells us how vulnerable we are to [fossil fuel system]. “

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