9 Jan 2023

Why is Germany turning back to coal for energy?

As climate activists in Germany occupy the village of Lützerath to protest the expansion of a coal mine, politicians and the public are posed a question by the dirtiest fossil fuel: is it OK to use more coal now, if it means you can more quickly decarbonise later? 

Around one fifth of electricity produced in Germany comes from coal, and it’s been increasing.

The German government says that between July and September last year over a third came from coal, up 13.3% on the same period in 2021.

Coal is the most climate-damaging source of energy. Scientists and campaigners say the world needs to rapidly move away from coal-use to meet global climate targets.

Most politicians agree in principle, but Russia’s war in Ukraine led to a drop in availability of natural gas. Some lawmakers have argued that a return to coal is a necessary short-term step to fill the energy gap.

Germany says it will phase out coal by 2030 — part of an improved deal of climate measures that brings forward the previous deadline of 2038.

But to achieve it whilst getting away from Russian gas, it says short-term production of coal will need to be extended in some mines that were previously marked for closure.

Is this a global trend?

In 2022 coal use globally hit a record as the world burnt over 8 billion tonnes in a single year for the first time, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA).

But it only grew by 1.2% from 2021, with demand broadly meeting the IEA’s previous forecasts.

This decade, declining coal use in Europe and the US is expected to be offset by its continued growth in emerging economies — largely in Asia.

But against the long-term trend, the IEA said that 2022 saw an upsurge in Europe which Germany was primarily responsible for.

The decisions Germany has taken in response to the Russian gas crisis, and which activists are protesting this week, are likely to impact Europe’s coal use for some time — but aren’t predicted to reverse the continent’s efforts to decarbonise.

“Redoubled efforts to improve energy efficiency and expand renewables will see EU coal generation and demand return to a downward trajectory as soon as 2024 in our forecast,” the IEA said.

Phasing out coal has been the centrepiece of recent UN climate summits, and is seen as the lowest hanging fruit for any country trying to decarbonise. But progress varies enormously between countries.

Whereas coal still provides around one fifth of electricity generation in both the United States and in Germany, the UK only used coal to produce 1.5% of its electricity last year, according to the National Grid. That figure was 43% in 2012.

The UK has moved away from coal-fired power generation, but the government came under fire recently for approving a new mine in Cumbria — the intended use being for steel manufacturing, rather than electricity.

Does a temporary return to coal in Germany matter?

Experts still expect figures to show German greenhouse gas emissions from electricity production to have dropped in 2022, despite the increased use of coal.

That’s partly because Germany has more renewables, and less overall energy use after the government launched a successful campaign to encourage energy efficiency.

Some environmentalists have accepted the short-term increase in coal use, as long as robust plans to phase it out are realised. Whether countries can actually meet the targets they’ve set themselves to stop using coal is now the focus.

There are rippling, often symbolic effects to consider too. Decisions by rich countries like Germany to maintain or increase their use of coal could hamper international efforts to decarbonise.

Experts fear that poorer nations, reliant on cheap coal, might be less willing to make concessions on decarbonising in the face of what they see as hypocrisy from their richer counterparts.