German ‘coal commission’ unveils plan to phase out coal by 2038

Germany’s Commission on Coal, Growth, Structural Change and Employment – often known as the ‘coal commission’ – has unveiled plans to shut each of the country’s 84 remaining coal power stations by 2038 at the latest.

Last year, 38% of Germany’s national power production came from coal burning, according to the Fraunhofer Institute, making the country one of the last in north-western Europe to be heavily reliant on the fossil fuel. 

The new target, which is still subject to approval by the German federal government, is intended to help the country get back on track with its existing climate pledges. In a draft government report issued last summer, officials admitted that the country will only be able to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 32% by the end of the decade. It had originally set itself the goal of reducing emissions by 40%, compared to 1990 levels, by 2020. 

The coal commission’s report stipulates that 12.5 GW of coal-fired generation must go offline by 2022. This is the equivalent of 24 large power stations. By 2030, just 9 GW of coal power will be permitted on the network – down from over 45 GW of capacity today.

The commission has also recommended that three regions with coal-dependent economies, North Rhine-Westphalia, Saxony and Brandenburg, receive financial help in moving away from the fossil fuel. It suggested that €1.3bn is allocated each year for 20 years to aid the transition. 

However, RWE, the utility that operates many of Germany’s coal power stations, has warned that the proposals are ‘very ambitious’. ‘The implementation of the commission's proposals would represent a structural political tour de force for the regions concerned,’ says a statement from the company. ‘The committee has presented a comprehensive catalogue of measures to cope with this task. This can be considered a good first step. However, successfully managing structural change is a task for decades.’

The coal commission report suggests that the German government deploys an additional €2bn every year to help businesses and individuals cope with the increased electricity prices that could result from coal plant closures. 

Germany currently burns plenty of conventional coal and is also the world’s largest producer and burner of lignite, or ‘brown coal’, which is, in turn, responsible for around 20% of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions. According to Reuters, renewables overtook coal as Germany’s main source of energy for the first time in 2018, with 40% of electricity coming from either wind, solar or hydropower. 

Analysis by climate website Carbon Brief has shown that even if the German government approves the coal commission’s plan, it could still breach a Paris Agreement-compatible pathway by over 1bn tonnes of carbon dioxide. This is because coal capacity would barely fall faster than a business-as-usual scenario over the next ten years, during which time many power stations will retire due to old age, the research says.

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