Bloomberg recently posted a rather alarming story into the sharp increase in EU coal use in recent periods. The key and most worrying sentence was:
Burning coal has contributed to a 10 percent increase in EU carbon-dioxide output this year through September
A single year increase of 10% in EU carbon emissions would be a massive setback to the EU’s 2020 emissions, but is it actually true? Bloomberg do not give a source, so no help there. The EU, as far as I know, do not report carbon emissions any more recently than the previous year. The UK, on the other hand has fairly up to date reporting, so let’s look at that first.
Let’s begin with coal use. The UK reports monthly data on electricity by fuel type, which paints a fairly clear picture: coal is booming. The first 7 months of 2012 saw 38% higher coal use than the period in the year before, with gas use being down 34%. In one year we have gone from a position where gas produced slightly more electricity than coal to one where coal produces double what gas produces. Bad news.
How has this impacted the UK’s emissions? Well, fortunately instead of seeing a large increase in UK emissions this year, they have been close to identical in the first half of 2012 to the first half of 2011. So, unless these figures are revised the UK is probably not contributing to Bloomberg’s 10%.
What about other countries? Other than the UK the two biggest emitters are Germany and France. France’s electricity grid is dominated by nuclear power, and any fuel switching from gas to coal is likely to be negligible, so I’ll assume France is irrelevant. Statistics on Germany’s electricity production are available, but pretty much only on a day by day view unless you want to pay a few hundred euros. Comparing gas production in Germany in equivalent days in October 2011 and October 2012 indicates a significant drop in gas production, maybe something like 50%. The decrease in Germany’s gas, unlike in the UK, may not purely be due to fuel switching from gas to coal. Germany saw a much larger increases in renewables than the UK, in particular solar, which is probably pushing gas off the market and leaving coal alone. However, the fact that Germany’s fossil fuel market is dominated by coal, combined with the increase in renewables indicate that gas to coal switching likely did not have a big effect. The shutdown of 8 of Germany’s nuclear power stations in early 2011 will likely add a small increase in emissions, but the shutdowns were probably too early in 2011 to have a big impact in 2011-2012 changes.
So, it looks as if the switch from gas to coal is significant, but unlikely to be pushing up EU emissions by 10% as Bloomberg says.
A final point. The emissions increases due to the UK’s switch from gas to coal outweigh the emissions saved due to all of its wind farms. While it is right to make sure our new capacity is low carbon, we must make sure we don’t lose sight of the existing high carbon market.
There is a simple lever for reversing the gas to coal shift, and it is carbon pricing. It is time to raise that lever.