Energy 29 July, 2020 8:42 am   
COMMENTS: Urszula Kuczyńska

European Green Deal needs to be remodeled

The media like catchy slogans. No wonder then, that they took up the comparison between the European Green Deal and the Marshall Plan that was coined in some office in Brussels. The problem is that while the logic behind the Marshall Plan is reminiscent of the reconstruction process of Warsaw’s old town – save what is left after the war to create something from scratch; the logic behind the European Green Deal reminds a general redecoration plan where bearing walls have to be torn down – writes Urszula Kuczyńska*.

The idea is good, but the implementation is questionable

The idea itself – to create a program on climate – is worth praising and comparing it to the Marshall Plan clearly shows that the governing elites understand the necessity to go back to coordinated actions that are focused on achieving an overarching goal. For the European Green Deal that goal is to adapt to and fight against climate change.

In the EU the biggest source of CO2 emissions into the atmosphere is fossil fuel combustion. According to Eurostat’s 2018 data, the energy and transport sectors (including aviation), which are running on fossil fuels, generate over 78 percent of EU emissions. If we consider the fact that transport may and should run on electricity to a large degree, e.g. by relying more on freight trains than trucks, popularizing electric cars and moving people onto public railway transport, it becomes clear that an effective decarbonization of the energy sector will be the key to a successful climate policy.

This is even confirmed if one takes a peak at the decarbonization scenarios drafted by the IPCC: they put huge emphasis on energy transition as well.

The energy sector is different in every EU state, which is why every one of them has a different starting point. In case of Poland “decarbonization” has two facets: it means not only decreasing CO2 emissions, but also breaking with the addiction to coal, which according to 2018 data from Statistics Poland, generated as much as 76 percent of the country’s energy.

Other countries from our region have more diversified fuel mixes. In 2017 in Slovakia, 58percent of energy was produced by zero-emissions nuclear power plants, and in Romania fossil fuels generated 42percent of power, while hydroelectric power plants as much as 27 percent.

These numbers – and the emissions generated by those countries’ economies as their consequence – are, obviously, a result of many political and economic decisions made in the past. Our approach to these decisions – and my piece is very critical of them – will not change our starting point. Which, paradoxically, is easiest to compare to… Germany.

Despite the energy transition Germany has been pursuing for the last 9 years – Energiewende – the country still depends on coal, including lignite. Energiewende has already cost our neighbors hundreds of billions of euros (according to IAEE the transition has cost 0.8 percent of Germany’s GDP every year for the last 9 years), causing an increase in energy prices for end users and energy poverty.

So? Not much. Despite this sacrifice, Germany still has one of the most emissions-generating energy sectors in the EU: according to an analysis by Environmental Progress, in 2016 the level of CO2 emissions generated by the German energy sector was even 10 times higher than France’s, which relies on nuclear energy at 71 percent.

How is this possible? It is possible, but not rational. Germany’s major goals are to shut down nuclear energy and develop renewable energy sources, not to phase out coal. This is best illustrated by the fact that at the end of 2019 it shut down a working reactor in Phillipsburg and… a few months later opened a huge coal-fired power plant Datteln 4.

And here lies the basic problem with Brussels’ European Green Deal. At a closer look, the goal of deep decarbonization – just like in Germany’s case – turns out to be nothing more, but a declaratory aim. This is because the Deal’s goal is to actively increase the participation of renewable energy sources in energy mixes of member states.

There is actually no other reason why France would support the European Green Deal in the energy sector. Paris is a nuclear and water power-house and with other states that produce loads of energy from hydropower is the continent’s champion when it comes to emissions in the energy sector. Whereas Emmanual Macron’s administration announced it would reduce the participation of nuclear energy in the country’s mix and replace it with renewables.

France’s decision is surprising, but it is not completely irrational. To develop renewables, France will receive grants from the European Union and will become part of the European green revolution, despite the fact that the level of emissions generated by its energy sector will actually increase in result of this decision. Nuclear energy ensures the stability and is the foundation of the French energy sector, which was designed in a way that allows it to follow the growing load on the electricity network. According to the government’s National Low Carbon Strategy Project, the increase in renewables will mean Paris will need to rely on natural gas more. This is the price Emmanuel Macron’s administration is willing to pay for being one of the EU leaders and participating in EU’s flagship project.

The majority of decarbonization scenarios included in the 2019 IPCC report assume that nuclear energy will not only be maintained, but also developed across the world. The general conclusion from the scenarios is that if zero-emissions nuclear energy is included in the mix, energy transition will be quicker and… cheaper (Jenkins et al., 2018).

Whereas, the European Green Deal disregards this obvious fact despite hard scientific data, clear statements made by scientists from around the world, including a leading climatologist from the US – James Hansen, and calls by the executive of the International Energy Agency Fatih Birol. This is all the more striking, considering the fact that nuclear energy generates almost 50 percent of low-emission power in the EU.

However, the European conflicts over nuclear energy are a topic for an entirely different discussion. They are genuinly ensnared in absurdity, so suffice it to say that because of them, the European taxonomy drafted for the European Green Deal classified nuclear energy as “transition fuel”, together with… natural gas.

This begs two questions. First, why do we need natural gas?

The answer is very simple. Despite dreams about hydrogen, thermonuclear fusion and super batteries, the humanity does not yet have a reliable, large-scale technology that allows for an inter-seasonal energy storage. The sun always shines somewhere and the wind always blows somewhere – these are just clichés that sound nice only in theory. However, in real life this optimistic utopia needs to be confronted with such down-to-earth issues as transmission losses and the necessity to continuously develop the grid. So, gas is indispensable as backup generation capacity for the unstable renewable energy sources. Nothing proves that such reserve capacity is crucial, than the fact that Tesla’s gigantic factory that is being constructed near Berlin will have its own gas power plant.

Therefore, it is clear that if we care about increasing the participation of RES in Europe’s energy sectors we will need as much gas as possible. And it will soon flow in huge amounts to Germany via Nord Stream 2. Where it will go from Germany remains an open question.

From the point of view of Poland, a country that depends on coal, the situation is pretty simple: the European Green Deal does not offer any real proposition on replacing it.

The German example shows that coal cannot be replaced with renewables regardless of how much money one spends. A readily available source can only be replaced with a readily available source. The miners are fully aware of this – those in Australia who successfully lobbied for a legal ban on nuclear energy development, as well as those in Poland who recently protested in Bełchatów using the slogan “Why nuclear? We have coal”.

Therefore, the question Poland is facing is simple: do we want to base our energy security on a single energy source the second time, or maybe it would be wiser to choose a more diversified approach this time.

There is no doubt that we will need natural gas as we start phasing out coal, and even though replacing coal with gas is not an ideal solution from a climate perspective, it is still a step forward. However, one thing is certain: American shale gas is far away and the LNG terminal in Świnoujście cannot provide enough of it to replace coal in commercial power generation. The gas tap needed to fully implement the European Green Deal will always be in Moscow. And this is one of the reasons why basing our energy security on this resource may turn out to be risky. Our raison d’etat is not to depend on it as we are dependant on Polish coal today – even though coal’s advantage is that it was at least Polish, which allowed us to keep our energy independence.

And this is where the second question about gas and the European Green Deal lies. Both gas and nuclear energy were classified by the EU as “transition fuels”. Whereas nuclear power plants – if a short-term public interest does not decide differently – operate for 40-60 years, but in the US the agency responsible for the supervision of nuclear safety agreed to extend the lifespan of a nuclear power plant to 80 years for the second time. If so, how can gas be a transition fuel? No politician, including the Greens who are very engaged in promoting Nord Stream 2, has declared or proposed any time frame. There are many promises about the upcoming technological breakthroughs, but binding information on phasing out gas in Europe is nowhere to be heard. This is actually fine because the life of societies cannot be planned on the basis of solutions that we are all hoping for, but which are not available yet.

The European Green Deal is an ideological document

The European Green Deal should be praised for its broad and ambitious vision. However, it should not be praised for turning the fight for a better climate into a battle between technologies. This makes it an ideological document, designed to reap economic and political benefits for those who had the biggest impact on its final content. Most definitely it should be openly criticized for the fact that the aversion to nuclear energy in Brussels means there is only one alternative to the coal-dependant Poland, which is the implied dependence on gas imports.

Reportedly this is what is done in psychiatry – you replace one addiction with a different one, which is relatively harmless. But Poland is not a patient, it’s a big country on the eastern border of the European Union. Over 38 million people live here, and when a reckless architect declares they want to demolish a bearing wall in our house, then it is worth taking a long look at where this visionary idea will actually take us.

*Urszula Kuczyńska – co-author of the energy program for Lewica Razem, for many years has worked in the energy sector and has been a trade union member, as well as a member of the FOTA4Climate initiative.