Energy crisis: EU heads to COP27 as countries switch from gas to coal

Leaders from across the European Union are gearing up for the COP27, the UN Climate Change Conference that aims to put the brakes on climate change and limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, a theoretical aspiration that has become increasingly detached from the reality on the ground.

There is "no credible pathway to 1.5°C in place," a UN environmental report concluded last month.

The EU has long been considered a reliable advocate for the green transition, adopting far-reaching policies and enshrining its 2050 climate neutrality goal in law. The bloc has become a sort of experimental laboratory for climate legislation, with other countries looking to see what works and what does not.

At last year's conference, the EU led efforts to slash methane emissions, protect tropical forests and support South Africa's decarbonisation. But things have changed since Glasgow.

European leaders are heading to Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, in the midst of a severe energy crisis that threatens to bring industry to a standstill and households under financial stress.

Faced with the prospect of widespread blackouts and rationing, countries have made security of supplies their top priority, even if it comes with a high economic and environmental price tag.

As cheap Russian gas vanished overnight, some member states have been forced to resort back to coal, the most polluting fossil fuel.

Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Greece and Hungary have all announced plans to extend the lifetime of coal plants, re-open those that have been closed or lift the cap on coal-burning hours.

Austria, which celebrated the closure of its last coal plant in 2020, also proposed to re-activate its system to cope with emergency shortages. The idea was blocked in the summer by the opposition.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates the EU's coal consumption rose by 10% in the first six months of 2022, driven mostly by electricity demand, and will continue to increase as winter nears.

"We expect coal consumption to also rise in the second half of the year, pushed up by the need to save gas for winter amid uncertainty over Russian flows," the agency said in its July market update, released before the indefinite shutdown of the Nord Stream 1 pipeline.

"Germany will account for the largest additional consumption," it noted.

Globally, the IEA predicts coal consumption to reach 8 billion tonnes, reversing a downward trend and matching the all-time high set in 2013. Europe will account for about 5% of this burning.

'We need to catch up'

This unexpected rise in coal burning appears to contradict the EU's stated priorities for COP27, which include urging other countries around the world to "close the book on unabated coal through a phasedown and ending inefficient fossil fuel subsidies."

Developing nations often accuse the West of hypocrisy and selfishness when it comes to green action, arguing wealthy countries have a larger role to play given their historical responsibility in releasing greenhouse gas emissions and warming up the planet during past industrial revolutions.

The hot-button issue of climate reparations, the financial compensations for the irreversible damage caused by climate change, is rooted in this very disparity.

The European Commission, which has spearheaded world-class climate laws, blames the situation on Russia's "weaponisation" of energy supplies and estimates the gas-to-coal switch might last for up to three winters.

This will lead to an increase in greenhouse gas emissions in the short term but that will be offset by an accelerated deployment of homegrown green energy, such as solar panels and wind farms, the executive says.

The bloc is still legally bound to slash emissions by at least 55% by the end of the decade.

"What that will mean is that we need to catch up in the second half of the decade for any impact that the next couple of winters have on our emissions, if there are any, through that extra coal use we need on a short-term basis," said a European Commission spokesperson on Thursday, in response to a Euronews question.

"But I think that’s a situation which the majority of our international partners understand, they appreciate the situation we're put in at the moment, and they understand that Europe will remain a global leader in terms of phasing out coal around the world and in terms of raising ambitions."

The European Commission has unveiled a new plan, dubbed REPower EU, that aims to mobilise up to €300 billion in loans and grants to achieve total independence from Russian fossil fuels before the end of the decade.

The plans also intend to cut down the notorious red tape of green technology and expand the EU's targets for renewable energy for 2030, from 40% to 45% of all total energy produced.

REPower EU is still under discussion and no money has yet been released.