In the post-COP21 world, most would agree that climate change is a clear threat that needs to be urgently addressed. Faced with American scepticism prompted by the election of Donald Trump, Europe has emerged as the world’s leading advocate for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But simply airing fluffy statements is not enough: the hard part comes in designing policies that are appropriate for multiple sectors and industries. And the EU’s current energy policies are falling dreadfully short of that objective, writes Martin Banks.
The European Commission says it wants the EU to lead the clean energy transition instead of just adapting to it. For this reason, the bloc has committed to cut CO2 emissions by at least 40% by 2030 while modernising the EU’s economy and delivering on jobs and growth. Its recently unveiled Emissions Trading System (ETS) proposals have three main goals: putting energy efficiency first, achieving global leadership in renewable energies and providing a fair deal for consumers. The catch? It turns out that the EU’s preferred renewable fuel, biomass, is not that clean after all.
A recent policy paper by the respected Chatham House in London contradicts the EU’s assessment that wood burning is carbon neutral – instead, biomass is actually more harmful to the environment than any other fossil fuel. Burning the fuel produces more carbon, nitrogen oxide and methane emissions per unit of energy produced than coal. At best, burning bone-dry woody biomass emits 213 pounds of CO2/mmbtu, compared to 205.3 for coal. However, in most cases, wood is never that dry, which increases the amount of energy used to convert it into energy, thereby further increasing its emissions.
What’s more, when forests are cut down to be transformed into the type of wood pellets needed to power biomass plants, their soil release supplementary quantities of carbon for up to 20 more years. The Chatham House report casts serious doubt on the decision to retrofit (with EU help and British government subsidies no more) the UK’s Drax power plant to use wood pellets instead of coal, a move which was hailed by environmentalists.
Although renewable energies have made giant strides over the past two decades, it is still generally agreed that their reliance on, say, the wind blowing and the sun shining to generate electricity, is a major technological hurdle. While renewables have occupied much of the policy space, the stark reality is that technologies that seek to minimize fossil fuel emissions – such as carbon capture and utilization (CCU) and high energy, low emissions (HELE) technology – shouldn’t be swept under the rug. Not only can they drive down CO2 levels within the threshold required by the EU’s energy policy, they are also economically feasible.
The question for governments, environmentalists and others is figuring out what is the least costly path to reducing energy emissions while also maintaining energy security. Perhaps they should listen to the International Energy Agency, following the Paris Agreement in December 2015, which said that the ability of CCS to reduce emissions from fossil fuel use in power generation and industrial processes – including from existing facilities – will be “crucial” to limiting future temperature increases to “well below 2°C”.
A source in the environment directorate at the European Parliament told this website, “The cost of ignoring this technology could be huge for the climate in the long run.” CCS/CCU technology could close the gap between maintaining energy security and reducing carbon emissions. Echoing a similar sentiment, Scottish MEP Ian Duncan, UK Conservative energy and climate change spokesman, who told this website: “Technologies like CCS and CCU could make an important contribution to reducing emissions and driving clean growth, but, as we know, initial investment costs can be high.”
The debate about the place these new technologies should have in national energy mixes is also raging in India, the world’s fastest growing large economy which is desperately trying to limit its carbon emissions. In the past, HELE technology has been seen as too expensive for developing countries to afford—but that may now be changing. India’s energy minister, Piyush Goyal, said that upgrading all existing over 25-year old plants with modern, efficient super-critical plants will bring down pollution levels more than the “thrust that’s been given to renewable energy”. For example, upgrading 40GW of such plants will generate “saving[s] [that] will be far greater than possibly the 100,000 MW of solar power that we will be generating. And that should be the national priority.”
It isn’t just India where coal is undergoing an unexpected renaissance and proving to be a cleaner and more efficient energy source than previously thought. According to experts in Australia, the availability and affordability of coal means that it will remain integral to the country’s energy mix for up to at least 2040. The rise of wind and solar power in Australia was predicted to be the death knell for coal use in what is the world’s biggest exporter of the fossil fuel. But coal has undergone something of a re-birth and the Australian government is even now considering helping fund construction of new HELE power plants.
These countries make a good case why outfitting existing coal plants in the EU with new technology is more advantageous than switching to biomass or, worse, closing them down. Not only would these plants reduce CO2 emissions but also nitrogen oxide, sulphur dioxide and particulate matter emissions. Offering HELE clean-energy subsidies (as has been the case for solar and wind for years) would send a clear signal of the EU’s commitment to such technologies.
With renewable energy unlikely to prove sufficient to stabilize the climate, coal executives, together with energy experts, are urging the EU to follow the example set by India, Australia and others and reconsider the role coal can play in maintaining the Old Continent’s competitiveness.