Within the last two years, governments across Europe have pledged to rid their power sectors of coal. In January 2018, Britain announced it would phase out coal entirely by 2025. Not to be outdone, the French government announced in November 2018 a similar intent by 2022. Italy pledged to quit coal by 2022 one year earlier than France, in November 2017. Seemingly compelled to not look too bad, Germany proclaimed in January 2019 that it would do so by 2038.
Nothing like a little competition to catalyze governments to rein in the dirtiest monarch in the energy kingdom. There can be no question that cutting coal is the most consequential way we can fight climate change and its effects.
But are these pledges realistic and, more importantly, will they actually be implemented? Such climate-related promises, as we have seen time and time again, are easy for politicians to utter but just as easy to desert when economic pressures accumulate. Nevertheless, there are fundamental reasons, both historical and contemporary and unrelated to climate, to believe that this time will indeed be different in Western European countries pledging to quit coal.
The most economic reason for Europeans to quit coal is that they can no longer produce it domestically.
It is easy to forget, but Europe has historically produced more coal than any other continent, by far. From 1900 to 1990, Europe produced 34,663 million tons of oil equivalent (Mtoe) of coal. The runner-up during that same period was North America at 30,917 Mtoe. During the nineteenth century, Britain far surpassed every other nation in coal production, followed by France, Germany and Belgium as well as a surging United States after the 1880s.
It is a different story from 1991 to 2014. Asia and Oceania have produced a staggering 36,082 Mtoe of coal, more than making up for their “lost” decades. North America produced 13,238 Mtoe and Europe a mere 5,186 Mtoe.
Annual Coal Production by Region, 1900-2014
Source: The Shift Project Data Portal.
What the graph and figures tell us is that Europe’s domestic coal production is spent, which means that, if Europe wanted to burn coal, it would have to import it. As much as fighting climate change is a popular political stance, the simple calculus of avoiding energy imports tells us that Europe, as a region, should leave it behind.
This is straightforward when they no longer produce it. Mine closures in major European countries support this view. France closed its last coal mine in 2004; Britain in 2015; and Germany and Spain in 2018.
The closure of mines means that there is no longer a critical mass of people working in the coal industry, whose votes and power to demonstrate in the street matter in a democracy. Marx and Engels recognized the connection between the coal industry, democracy and capitalism in the nineteenth century.
During the twentieth century, coal mining was a battleground on which labor won greater concessions from capital. Now, labor simply no longer has the political power that it did during coal’s halcyon years.
Coal, it must be remembered, was the dominant energy source until the 1970s, a run that lasted well over 150 years, before oil eclipsed it. And, despite oil’s rise, coal remains a mainstay. In 2017, oil accounted for 34% of world energy consumption, coal 28%, and natural gas 23%. It isn’t going away.
Coal’s steady decline in Britain, France and Germany in the second half of the twentieth century closely mirrored the decline in labor’s political power. British labor strikes of the 1980s were, in retrospect, the last pangs of a dying national industry.
The two most compelling reasons for certain European governments to “leave” coal are, therefore, its lack of availability, which leads to import dependency, and the declining power of labor movements on the continent. This is especially relevant for Western Europe – Britain, France, Spain, and Italy – and northern Europe – Norway, Sweden and Finland. The latter has already mostly left coal, and the former will do so. We can take that to the climate bank.
But there are some very important outliers: Germany, Poland and countries in eastern Europe. Germany’s mines may be long gone, along with its coal-driven labor movement, but its grand strategy depends on manufacturing-driven exports that demand cheap power supplies. This is why Berlin is forging ahead with Nord Stream II despite continent-wide opposition, and why its target for leaving coal is set for a comparatively distant 2038. It is also why its coal imports have risen in recent years. If Germany can switch to gas, it can meet its goal to quit coal, but Berlin’s more likely future is continued reliance on Russian and American coal imports.
Poland is also inherently problematic because it has both a robust coal industry and the accompanying pressure to keep coal mining jobs. It does not, like Germany, portend to rely on coal imports and is unsurprisingly forging ahead with building new coal-fired power plants, including its largest-ever. Other Eastern European countries that produce coal will follow suit in order to pursue energy security and support their domestic economies.
Cleaner than coal
Countries, European or otherwise, that can produce coal domestically will continue to look to it for the coming decades. China, for instance, despite having reached its peak of coal consumption in 2013 and having real concerns about pollution, fits this paradigm. Its domestic reserves assure that coal will remain a major part of its energy mix for decades. In 2017, Chinese coal production rose 2.1%.
The United States is the exception that proves the rule. Like in Britain, coal production in America has declined steadily, but it received a boost in the 1970s as an alternative to high-priced oil. This second boom peaked in 2009, not because of a decline in coal supplies but due to the U.S. shale revolution, which made gas cheaper than coal. Trump may champion coal miners, but markets want gas. No doubt the United States would have produced a lot more coal in the last ten years without the shale revolution.
Announcing that we will quit coal is not enough. We must champion carbon capture or some other new technology that removes greenhouse gas emissions from the air, or put a price on carbon. There are other solutions as well, and we must adopt a multifaceted approach.
What we cannot do is hope that renewables and goodwill on climate change will convince countries with coal supplies to stop producing them. The largest economies of Europe are quitting coal out of necessity.