New industrial air pollution ruling puts EU coal plants on ‘life support’

Large industrial plants have been given a four-year timeframe to adhere to new standards on air pollutants across the European Union (EU), a decision that places "the immediate future of coal plants into doubt", according to environmental lawyers ClientEarth.

After a five-year consultation period, the European Commission agreed on Monday (31 July) to introduce new principles on industrial plants larger than 50MW to lower air pollutants.

Ove the next four years, large coal-fired power stations, peat, oil, gas, district heating plants and offshore rigs will have to implement “Best Available Techniques” (BAT) that offer high levels of environmental protection through the utilisation of economically-viable technology.

Under the Commission’s Industrial Emissions Directive (IED), Member States are obliged to ensure that large industrial facilities operate in accordance with permits issues by Competent Authorities. The new principles will apply BATs to the permits to improve air pollution levels from the plants.

Developed using a transparent and thorough evidence-based process with environmental NGOs and industry players, it is hoped that the new principles will reduce the impact on the 30% of EU citizens that are exposed to air levels above Union standards. Research suggests that air pollution is a large contributing factor to 430,000 premature deaths in Europe annually.

Coal on ‘life support’

It is believed that BATs will impact installations at around 3,500 coal plants within the EU, although plants can review permits to ensure that they are compliant by mid-2021. The Commission is basing the cost-effective approach to emissions reduction on the fact that industry is the largest sectoral emitter in the EU.

However, as the European Environmental Bureau (EBB) notes, not all plants will have the financing to implement changes. Instead, plants that commit to close rather than invest in this time period, should be given “short-term” exemptions.

“These new requirements will help speed up the energy transition, but not all plants will have the will, the financing, or even the access to the equipment needed to reduce pollution levels,” EEB’s industrial production manager, Christian Schaible said.

“Investments in plants that are already essentially on life support in order to meet climate commitments simply doesn’t make sense. Plants that commit to close could, under strict conditions and in exchange for reduced operation, be granted exceptions in the short-term, but Europe will have to have phased out coal completely by 2030.”

ClientEarth is already involved in a legal battle with the UK Government over illegal breaches to air pollution levels. The firm claimed it “will not hesitate” to take legal action if facilities fail to comply with the new outlines.

“Coal plants remain the top industrial polluters in Europe and most will need to update their permits to adhere to the new, cleaner standards,” ClientEarth’s energy lawyer Dominique Doyle said. For the oldest and dirtiest plants, this will mean radical change at significant cost. This throws the immediate future of coal plants into doubt – especially in countries that have promised a coal phaseout, like the UK. Is it really practical to shell out millions to update a plant that may shut down almost as soon as it’s refurbished?

“ClientEarth will be watching carefully to see how Europe’s plants comply. By 2021, all operators in Europe must update their permits to reflect the new rules – and for many the deadline is sooner. We will not hesitate to take action if they try to shirk their legal responsibility to protect our health.”

A report has suggested that the EU must phase-out coal plants by 2030 in order to meet its commitment to the Paris Agreement, and the new outlines could act as a crucial step on that journey.

Despite the UK’s plan to phase-out coal plants before the 2030 deadline, research has found that the UK is providing £356m annually in coal subsidies, despite the UK Government denying that it provides financial support for fossil fuels.

Matt Mace

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