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Soaring gas prices test Europe’s resolve to gut emissions

This November, the United Kingdom will host the United Nations Climate Change Conferences in Glasgow to review countries’ commitments to cut carbon emissions but after gas prices soared, it fired up an old coal power plant, a move that questions the country’s resolve to end use of fossil fuel.

The National Grid ESO which is responsible for balancing the UK’s electricity supply – said coal was providing 3 percent of national power and asked energy company EDF to fire up West Burton A coal plant which had been on standby according to a BBC report.

A National Grid ESO spokesman said there had been a three-day coal-free run in mid-August. However, the country had relied on coal power every day since then.

European countries led by the United Kingdom have announced commitments to cut back emissions to deal with the impact of climate change. But when push comes to shove, Europe turns to coal – the dirtiest of fossil fuels.

The use of coal jumped 15 percent this year after freezing temperatures in the winter left gas storage sites depleted. As economies reopen and people go back to the office, countries like Germany, the Netherlands and Poland ramped up coal usage to generate power.

Europe has long championed the cause of lowering carbon emission. It has the world’s largest carbon market, charging the utilities, steel producers and cement makers for polluting the environment. But Europe’s low gas reserves leave it sometimes dependent on burning coal.

In July, the European Union said it was planning a rash of new laws to phase out coal as an electric source and wean European economies off fossil fuels as well as imposing tariffs on polluting imports.

Read also: Sylva mulls bank for oil, gas investment for Africa

The European Commission’s package of around a dozen legislative proposals, was designed to cut the emissions of planet-warming gases and meet an ambitious climate goal, of cutting its emissions of greenhouse gases by 55 percent by 2030, compared to 1990 levels.

The proposals, known as “Fit for 55,” will take many months to negotiate among the 27 member countries and the European Parliament before becoming law.

The most contentious element is something called a border carbon adjustment tax. It would impose tariffs on the greenhouse gas emissions associated with products imported from outside the European Union and, in effect, would protect European companies from goods made in countries with less-stringent climate policies.

This carbon border tax could not only shake up global trade and invite a dispute over protectionism in the World Trade Organization, it could also create new diplomatic fault lines ahead of international climate talks taking place in Glasgow in November.

This return to coal questions the continent’s commitment and provides justification for energy experts in Africa who argue that Africa accounting for some of the lowest emissions should not be browbeaten into giving up its 125 billion barrels of oil reserve.

Nj Ayuk, executive chairman, African Energy Chamber, an energy think tank that serves as the voice of the African energy sector, has said that while Net-Zero is a great concept from an environmental standpoint, in real-world Africa, this goal is neither feasible nor advisable.

“We cannot expect African nations, which together emitted seven times less CO2 than China last year and four times less than the US, according to the Global Carbon Atlas, to undermine their best opportunities for economic development by simply aligning with the Western view of how to tackle carbon emissions,” argued Ayuk.

The vigour at which this argument will be made will draw life from Europe’s return to burning coal regardless of the justification provided.

This return to coal in Europe is largely driven by gas prices hitting record highs this summer in Europe and elsewhere. The U.S. benchmark price for natural gas has nearly doubled over the last year, with front-month Henry Hub prices reaching $4.690/MMBtu as of September 6.

For Europe, which is coming off pandemic restrictions, the increased demand for natural gas and electricity as people return for work is triggering higher prices, and therefore inflation. This is complicated by shortages and rising demand from Asia.

The higher gas prices come at a time when demand is typically low, indicating that the continent is looking at a difficult winter, with natural gas inventories at painfully low levels.

Across Europe, shortages and increased demand from Asia have seen the cost of gas increase to the highest level on record, according to Reuters.

“We need a reliable mix generation, especially as we are increasing demand. Wind and sun are not reliable enough and returning to traditional coal generation is not an option,” said Carlos Bernal, an energy and sustainability expert based in the UK in reaction to the news.

The return to coal when it is not even the coldest time of the year in the country is fueling concerns in a country that has announced the phasing out of coal power by 2024.

Coal contributed 1.67 percent to the United Kingdom’s electricity mix down from 25 percent five years ago. Coal production has been steadily declining in the European Union.

This latest recourse to coal, pushes the issue of energy security to the front burner providing an opportunity to weigh climate concerns with the practical reality of running an economy.

“The green push turns around with a sting in the tail,” said Adrian Kemp, a drilling engineer based in the UK.

“Coal to the rescue! 2024 Coal fired power station phase out in UK seems foolhardy in the Covid inflated LNG transport market and the absence of sufficient gas storage reservoirs,” said Kemp in a post on LinkedIn.

The Conference of Parties (COP26) in Glasgow is an important moment for big emitter-nations to show what they will do to address the emissions of greenhouse gases that have set the world on a path to dangerous warming.

Scientists have said the world as a whole needs to halve emissions by 2030, which would require history’s biggest polluters, namely the United States and Europe, to make the sharpest, swiftest cuts.

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