February 3, 2013 4:18 pm

Unhappy consequences of coal’s revival

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Europe’s revived affair with coal has had some unhappy environmental consequences in a continent which trumpets its green policies.

There was a sharp increase in the level of the greenhouse gases blamed for global warming emitted by the European Union’s coal-fired power stations in 2012, analysts say, as plant owners rushed to take advantage of high profits ahead of looming environmental restrictions.

The rise was as high as 17 per cent according to Brian Potskowski of the Bloomberg New Energy Finance research group, while Europe’s total power plant emissions rose 3 per cent over the same period.

“I would say that the increase in power emissions is due in large part to the increased attractiveness of burning coal relative to gas in 2012,” he said.

Forecasts vary for what this meant for the EU’s overall 2012 emission figures, which will not be published for some time. But even if they stayed flat, which some think likely because of weak economic conditions, there are other reasons to worry about increasing coal-fired power generation.

“At the moment we are burning coal in old power stations that are not part of the new generation of ‘clean-coal’ stations,” said Prof Kevin Anderson, co-author of a report last year that showed how the US shale gas boom was driving more coal exports to Europe and elsewhere, and therefore not reducing greenhouse gas emissions as much as some have claimed.

This would potentially be a serious problem in developing countries that lack the more rigorous air pollution standards found in Europe.

But existing regulations, which are about to be toughened further, mean the increased burning of coal in the EU should not be a major health concern, say some experts.

“The health impact of coal-fired power plants is now quite limited compared with 20 years ago,” said Dr Kornelis Blok of the Ecofys consultancy. “You can never say that there is no risk at all, but it is very, very small.”

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