Roberta Arbinolo – EU coal: a race to the bottom where polluters win

While Europe’s athletes pushed the limits of sport this summer, coal corporations and governments have been playing way less healthy games, writes Roberta Arbinolo.

Roberta Arbinolo is a contributor to META. She works as a Communications Officer at the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), mostly covering coal, industrial production and air quality

Cross-posted from Meta of the EEB

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Photo by David Shirreff

When it comes to protect our health, environment and climate from harmful emissions, our governments have engaged in a race to the bottom, letting coal corporations dodge EU laws at the expenses of people and nature. Back in August, the European Environmental Bureau revealed how four years of inaction and complacency by national authorities all across the EU have left citizens exposed to four years of avoidable pollution.

August 17th was the deadline for EU member states to comply with EU pollution limits for large combustion plants – the so called LCP BREF. Coal-fired power plants are among the worst health and environmental offenders, responsible for over 16,150 premature deaths, about 7,600 cases of chronic bronchitis and over 4.8 million lost working days each year in the EU and Western Balkans.

Countries had four years to bring national industry in line with the standards they agreed to set in 2017 on the basis of the current best available techniques to prevent pollution, yet one month after the deadline too many of them are still far from achieving what is required by EU laws. On the contrary, authorities have too often put coal corporations before people’s health and environmental protection, and performed acrobatics and downstrokes to let them prolong a polluting business. Here is our ranking, by sports discipline, of the worst performances at this summer’s dirtiest games: the Coalympics.

Permitting large incereases

The LCP BREF foresees emission ranges for the most toxic pollutants, including NOx, SO2, particulate matter and mercury, that need to be reflected in the permit limits set for the industry. Whereas the lowest and less dangerous levels have been considered economically and technically viable by the industry over 4 years ago, EEB research shows that permitting authorities and operators have, most of the time, set the bar to the highest legally permissible levels, allowing the release of tons of avoidable pollutants into the air, water and soil.

In some cases, complacent authorities have not yet updated the permits, allowing plants to jump over EU pollution limits, and have systematically granted derogations to allow installations to emit more than allowed. Derogations are foreseen in the Industrial Emissions Directive as exceptions, but in many countries they have become the norm.

The Czech Republic is the undisputed champion of permitting high jump, with exceptionally high permit limits and up to 85% of Czech power benefiting from derogations. Bulgaria is a runner up, with a sound 82% of its power produced under derogation, while Malta follows with a 75%. Bulgarian public authorities also shine for granting the least ambitious permits in Europe.

A special mention goes to Slovenia thanks to the Sostanj 6 lignite plant, a textbook example of permitting high jump. The plant it is the only lignite boiler in the EU to be equipped with a state-of-the-art pollution abatement technique for NOx which would allow to at least halve NOx emissions. Yet, the operator TEŠ is not using the technique in order to save money, thus shifting the cost to citizens, while permitting authorities turn a blind eye.

Mercury limits hurdling

Across Europe, coal burning is the biggest source of mercury pollution entering the air and contaminating water and soil. Mercury is a dangerous neurotoxin which damages human health and can destroy lives. The LCP BREF requires public authorities to set mercury emissions levels between 1 and 7 μg/m3, with the 1 μg/m3 limit being achievable and viable already in 2017.

Yet EEB data show that countries burning lignite have systematically allowed operators to jump mercury limits hurdles and keep pumping poisonous emissions into Europe’s air and water.

Of the ten worst plants in Europe in terms of toxic mercury emissions, four are concentrated in the Czech Republic only, three are in Germany and two are in Greece.

Transparency slalom

The access to information such as industrial emissions data is a key environmental right granted to people and NGOs in the EU and beyond by the Aarhus Convention. Yet governments and operators slalom through transparency obligations with agility: most countries fail to disclose crucial information about the real environmental performance of large combustion plants, while many do not even meet minimum transparency requirements, nor they respect reporting deadlines.

For its part, the EU has so far failed to provide adequate access to data generated by the industry, and to hold national authorities and companies accountable. To help fill the transparency gap, the EEB launched last year an interactive tool which shows which facilities are playing by the rules.

The European champion of this untransparent course through muddy waters is Germany, which qualifies as the worst country in the EU for reporting on dangerous industrial emissions. German authorities fail to provide data for the last three years, in breach of the Industrial Emissions Directive. The datasets provided by Germany to the EEA Industrial Emissions Portal contain several broken links leading to nowhere. German authorities also apply lengthy procedures and unjustified fees to obtain basic information. In the regions of Hessen and Sachsen, such fees are so high that they constitute a disguised barrier to data transparency.

Poland is the runner up, with no national portal to enhance transparency and compliance, and a proliferation of responsible authorities which makes it hard to effectively track industrial pollution information.

Austria, Hungary and the Netherlands share the third place on the transparency slalom podium: the Austrian and Hungarian centralised reporting portals fail to provide information, while Dutch authorities refuse to share industrial pollution data by classifying them as confidential.

Health cost increasing

Coal is the most toxic of fossil fuels: back in 2016, a report by Europe Beyond Coal estimated that the worst ten coal companies in Europe were responsible for 7,600 premature deaths, 3,320 new cases of chronic bronchitis and 137,000 asthma symptom days in children, leading to 5,820 hospital admissions and over two million lost working days. The report also found that the ten companies making Europe sick were concentrated in three countries only: Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic.

Not surprisingly, these is the same trio to get on the podium for the coalympic discipline of health cost lifting, scoring the highest avoidable health cost since the agreement of the LCP BREF. By systematically aligning to the highest legally permissible levels of emissions, and by delaying the enforcement of EU standards as much as possible, Germany wasted four years, and accumulated a € 12.4 billion public health cost that could have been prevented if the lower emission levels had been applied.

In Poland, 11 lignite plants alone were responsible for € 10.8 billion in unnecessary health costs, while the Czech Republic scored € 8.2 billion – almost the double of the next country in the line, Romania.


If irresponsible governments are the stars of the Coalympics, the outstanding performances of coal corporations in the unhealthiest of games cannot be ignored.

Profiting from the complacent attitude of public authorities, unathletic operators have engaged in their own race to the bottom: from climate-wrecking CO2 to toxic SOx, NOx, PM and mercury, Polish PGE, German RWE and Spanish ENDESA have distinguished themselves for spewing an exceptional amount of harmful emissions into Europe’s air, water and soil, as shown by the EEB’s Industrial Plant Data Viewer.

Towards a cleaner environment

If the Olympic and Paralympic games reminded us how driven and committed humans can push the limits of their field and achieve excellence, the Coalympics demonstrate the exact opposite: be it at the regional, national or EU level, public authorities must be bold enough to set a limit to polluting activities – or citizens will end up footing the bill for their coal medal in terms of public health, environmental degradation and climate breakdown.

It is time for the European Commission to strengthen the Industrial Emissions Directive, enforce it all across the EU, and ensure that industrial pollution data are disclosed; for national and regional authorities to enforce the most ambitious EU standards, disclose industrial emissions data and hold polluters accountable; for toxic and climate-wrecking plants to comply or close.

It is time to put public health, environmental protection and climate action before coal corporations’ greed, and play a cleaner game.

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