Coal phase-out in germany: unhealthy use of coal

According to the EU Commission, Germany must quickly curb its nitrogen oxides. That would be expensive for industry, so it’s not being implemented.

Beautiful is different Photo: dpa

Because the air is polluted with nitrogen oxides, 6,000 people die prematurely in Germany every year, the Federal Environment Agency states. When it comes to nitrogen oxides, many people first think of stuffy cities and the diesel emissions scandal, but there is a second major source in Germany besides traffic: coal-fired power plants. After all, a third of the nitrogen oxide pollution in this country comes from fossil combustion. The frontrunners are lignite-fired power plants.

According to the European Environmental Bureau – an umbrella organization of numerous environmental associations in Europe – 20,000 people die earlier across Europe because coal-fired power plants pollute the environment with nitrogen oxides, but also with sulfur dioxide, particulate matter and heavy metals. This was reason enough for the EU to introduce stricter limits for large combustion plants such as coal-fired power plants exactly one year ago. Accordingly, lignite-fired power plants will be allowed to emit a maximum of 175 milligrams of nitrogen oxides per cubic meter from 2021. German law currently continues to allow 200 milligrams – because the German government has not yet implemented the EU regulation accordingly.

The EU also wants companies to retrofit their combustion plants with the best technology to further reduce the exhaust gas load. Months before they became valid, the coal lobby, federal government and states in Germany were already running up a storm against the new EU limits.

In mid-July 2017, there was finally a crisis meeting at the Federal Chancellery with Peter Altmaier, the head of the Chancellor’s Office at the time. The aim was to get the EU to approve a limit value of 190 milligrams for lignite, at least for nitrogen oxides. The EU value, complained coal associations and lignite states such as Saxony and Brandenburg, had been arrived at "incorrectly," was "unlawful" and "disproportionate" because the installation of the necessary cleaning technology was far too expensive.

Keeping feet still for now

Up to now, the German government had been able to prevent unwelcome regulations from Brussels, such as CO2 limits for cars or glyphosate, but failed in the case of lignite. One reason for this is that lignite, which now accounts for less than 10 percent of electricity generation in Europe, is considered to be a discontinued model. In the decisive vote, 20 of the 28 EU member states spoke out in favor of stricter limits.

The main conclusion drawn by the German government from its defeat so far has been not to transpose the new EU rules into national law. The Federal Immission Control Act actually provides for a deadline of one year for this. This deadline expired in mid-August 2018.

The responsible Ministry of the Environment is not very concerned about this and does not want to set a date for implementation: This will take place at a "later point in time," yet the changes will still be implemented "on time," it says. Climate Alliance Germany, on the other hand, criticizes: "As with traffic, the federal government is putting the interests of industry, in this case the coal industry, above the health of citizens."

Companies hope for exemptions

The Federal Ministry of Economics, now headed by then-Chancellor’s Office chief Altmaier, believes to this day that the EU "incorrectly derived" the emissions targets for nitrogen oxides. However, unlike Poland and Bulgaria, the German government has so far not appealed the new limits to the European Court of Justice (ECJ). Only Saxony joined a lawsuit filed by coal umbrella associations and German power plant operators against the new EU emission limits for the large combustion plants in early 2018. The court has not yet ruled on whether the lawsuit is admissible.

Meanwhile, companies and politicians are counting on getting around the limits without expensive retrofits, but with exemptions. The background to this is that if Germany were to take all its reactors off the grid by 2030, most operators would hardly have to worry about the new limits. The decisive ball is currently in the court of the Coal Commission.