Returning to coal-fired power generation in some parts of Europe has not prevented strong progress on cutting greenhouse gas emissions, data shows.
Emissions for November for the EU were at their lowest in at least 30 years, as were gas consumption, carbon from the power sector, and power generation from fossil fuels, according to the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air.
This month’s freeze may result in more coal and gas being burned in December, after an unusually mild November. Germany missed its targets on cutting consumption of gas under the cold conditions, the German grid agency said.
But only a small proportion of last month’s drop in fossil fuel use should be attributed to the weather, according to the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air analysis. The mild temperatures contributed a 6% reduction in gas demand outside the power sector – mostly for heating – while actual demand fell 26%. Within the power sector, milder temperatures can account for two percentage points of the 12% drop in demand, the analysts found.
Lauri Myllyvirta, a lead analyst and author of the report, said the data showed that accusations against the EU of falling back on climate commitments were wrong. “There has been a very widespread perception that Europe is going backwards on climate change, because of the Ukraine war,” he said. “There were frequent remarks to that effect at Cop27, saying Europe was going back to coal. We are showing that has not been the case – there was a misreading of coal consumption.”
Some member states, including Germany and Poland, have sought a limited return to burning coal for power generation in the face of soaring gas prices and supply constraints in after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The UK has also put coal-fired power plants on standby.
In November, the EU as a whole used less coal than in the same month last year, and than in the same month for the past three decades. Germany and Poland both used less coal than a year ago, though Finland slightly increased its coal use.
There were dramatic reductions in output from nuclear reactors in Germany and France. In Germany that was made up for by an increase in wind and solar generation, while France reduced its power demand substantially.
However, this month’s cold spell, with temperatures about 5C lower than usual for the time of year, and snow and icy conditions across much of northern Europe, could stall progress on cutting fossil fuel use this winter.
Myllyvirta said: “Everything is conditional on the weather. If we have a big cold spell, we will see more gas burning.”
He said early signs for December were that the trend for lower emissions was holding up. The first half of December had colder weather than the year before, he added, but total emissions remained well below 2021 levels, showing that the reduction in gas and electricity use was not mainly because of the weather.
However, power sector emissions started increasing again in December. Myllyvirta said the sector continued to be plagued by the poor performance of nuclear, and wind conditions were also poor, but reduced gas use outside the power sector kept emissions falling overall.
He added that the transformation of Europe’s energy this year showed that the underlying trend was strongly away from fossil fuels. “If anyone had said a year ago that Europe could nearly eliminate reliance on Russian fossil fuels in 10 months, they would have been taken for a complete lunatic,” he said. “But we have come quite close to doing so, and that is quite remarkable.”
He added that governments should seek to protect their most vulnerable citizens from the dangerous effects of the energy price rises that have forced such a sudden change. Europe could go further in weaning itself off Russian energy, and fossil fuels in general, but that should be managed equitably, he said.
“It’s unfortunate that so much of this reduction [in fossil fuel use] has happened through high prices, which is having major social and economic impacts,” Myllyvirta said.