European big polluters

European big polluters

This is Belchatow, the enormous coal-fired power plant in Poland that is the highest emitter of CO2 in the EU

Twenty companies produce a third of Europe’s greenhouse gas emissions.

The European Union’s most polluting power station lies around 170km from Warsaw, in the centre of Poland. Owned by Polska Grupa Energetyczna (PGE), the coal-fired Belchatow power plant generates some 33 million tonnes of CO2 each year, almost equivalent to the emissions of some entire countries such as Denmark. When approaching this vast plant, one’s attention is immediately drawn to its two enormous chimneys, measuring 300m in height, and its seven large cooling towers. Once in the enclosure, one is struck by the mountains of coal that arrive at the plant via long conveyor belts from two open-pit mines nearby; one of the mines is about to run out of coal and the other still has enough to produce energy for another seventeen years. “We rely on a licence that allows us to mine coal until 2038” explains Sandra Apanasionek, spokesperson for the plant at Belchatow, who says that this is the year that they believe that Poland will finally promise an end to coal, though there is still no fixed deadline.

A total of twenty large companies are responsible for a third (33%) of greenhouse gas emissions in Europe. This is shown in data for 2019- the last year that businesses functioned at full tilt- and it allows the researcher to see data from each industry in the European Union. The German energy giant RWE, the Swedish company Vattenfall and PGE- the company that owns Belchatow- are at the top of the pollutant rankings, alongside the steel company ArcelorMittal, Endesa in Spainand its Italian parent company, Enel.

The EU’s Emissions Trading System (ETS) requires businesses that operate in Europe to declare the greenhouse gases that they generate each year. Each company is required to fulfil emissions quotas and reduce these same emissions. If they need to emit more, they can buy emission allowances. Thanks to data published by the European Commission, this allows us to monitor the levels at which each factory and each company is emitting.

El País, working alongside outlets in the Sonar Europe data journalism group, has investigated each of these ‘big emitters’: companies, establishments or institutions that produce more than 70% of emissions in each country, the majority of whom are in the energy sector. The burning of fossil fuels (such as coal, petroleum and natural gas) represents 6 tonnes of carbon dioxide in every ten emitted in Europe annually. Aviation, boosted by an uptake in air travel in recent years (until the pandemic hit), is the fifth highest polluting industry in the EU.

This information is useful in terms of finding out how these large corporations are meeting their carbon reduction targets, given that the EU has pledged to cut its emissions levels by 2030 to 55% of what they were in 1990. In 2019, European emissions levels maintained their downward trajectory, falling by 9.1% on the previous year. Since the 1990s, emissions have fallen by 23%, a figure that the European Commission has warned is too slow to hit its 2030 target.

One positive aspect is that the greatest reduction in carbon emissions has come in the sector that emits the most, in fossil fuel plants (a 13% fall on last year). Endesa, the only Spanish company within the top twenty polluters, stands out as an example for decarbonisation. The year before, Endesawas emitting 46% more carbon and found itself among the top ten polluters. Among the other large, Spain-based corporations, Naturgy reduced its emissions by 32% whilst Iberdrola’s increased by 18%. Cemex, ArcelorMittal and the oil companies Cepsa and Repsol also stand out in having higher emissions than they did the year before.

The dirtiest plants in Europe

A driving factor in the reduction at a European level is the data from the thirty facilities responsible for a vast proportion of Europe’s greenhouse gas emissions. From large energy plants to petroleum refineries, these thirty facilities were responsible for approximately 20% of Europe’s emissions in 2019. The largest emitter in 2019 was the plant at Belchatow, which had led the list for several years previously.

In Poland, the transition to clean energy has been slower than elsewhere in Europe. “It is a change in energy production that needs time because Poland has a complex climate without sufficient exposure to sunlight. At present, conventional energy gives security to 11 million homes across Poland”, claims Apanasionek, spokesperson for this plant which has been operational in Poland for thirty-nine years, one of the European countries most dependent on coal. Aleksandra Gawlikowska-Fyk, an energy expert at Forum Energii, backs up the claim that replacing the 5,000MW of power that Belchatow provides with energy from renewable sources is an unrealistic target given Poland’s current circumstances. The Polish government and PGE are both allegedly considering the possibility of complimenting Belchatow’s output with energy from nuclear power and natural gas.

Greenpeace’s Anna Meres says that Poland has not committed to a date in terms of definitively abandoning coal usage, something that damages mining communities excluded from the Just Transition Fund. “To avoid a 1.5°C worldwide rise in global temperatures compared to the preindustrial era, Poland must abandon coal usage by 2030 at the latest”, she adds. According to data from Eurostat, Poland has not abided by its promise to source 15% of its gross final consumption of energy from renewable sources by 2020. Meres explains that this goal was not met because of a lack of regulation which could have driven the use of clean energy.

For its part, the owners of Belchatow, PGE, want to reinvent themselves given the rising cost of coal usage: on the one hand, they hope to develop, by 2034, 340 hectares of land for wind farms and solar panels; on the other, their long-term strategy no longer includes the construction of a large open-pit mine in Zloczew- 50km from the plant- as it did in 2016. Additionally, Apanasionek revealed that, through an investment of 9bn zloty (roughly equivalent to €2bn), the plant has succeeded in reducing its sulphur dioxide emissions by 93%, its nitrogen compounds by 55% and its suspended particles by 98%.

“We are fearful that PGE will abandon its plans and hang us out to dry. The people of this city feel seduced by the riches that coal has brought to other regions in Poland”, says Dominik Drzazga, mayor of Zloczew. In Belchatow, Jolanta (a pseudonym) has similar anxieties: “My son began working in the plant this year. If the mine does not go ahead, we will be left with nothing”, she says. Others, such as Ryszard Frys, from the Solidarnosc trade union, still cling onto the idea that increased activity at the plant ca only come from opening a new open-pit. However, around 25% of workers will have a guaranteed job when renewables burst onto the scene at the plant.

Power plants in Germany and Asturias

On the list of the highest-polluting facilities in Europe, there are five large plants situated in the East and West of Germany, responsible for 25% of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions. In Spain, the Asturian thermal power plant at Aboño, between Gijón and Carreño, is managed by EDP (the largest electrical group in Portugal) and the plant was responsible for 4% of Spain’s emissions in 2019.

These facilities place Germany and Poland top of the leader board in terms of European greenhouse gas emissions in 2019. Germany has the highest population on the continent and also provides the most indirect incentives (in the form of subsidies and tax cuts) to polluting corporations to carry on their work. Poland is the sixth-largest European country in terms of population and is also the largest producer of coal in the EU: 80% of its energy production depends on coal.

Spain has the fifth highest emissions in the EU though they have fallen by 13% in the last year, propelled by a reduction in the combustion of fossil fuels, down 20%.

Yet to achieve these goals, these kinds of decarbonisation figures need to be focused on other sectors as well, explains Fernando Prieto, an expert at the Observatorio de Sostenibilidad: “The transport sector and certain other areas in industry, such as oil, are probably the biggest hurdle”, he explains. “There is still not much widespread and easily available technology for transportation that does not use petroleum (the electric car, with a scarcity of charging points and a high demand for materials, will still need a while to take off)”.

The cost of aviation

One sector that accounts for a significant proportion of European emissions is aviation. Airlines based in Europe form the sixth highest polluting industry and their emissions have risen 50% since 2012. They emit 4% of Europe’s total greenhouse gases, more than the production of basic chemicals or aluminium. The continent’s best-known low-cost airlines, Ryanair and EasyJet, are also the biggest polluters in the aviation sector. If you compared Ryanair to the institutions mentioned earlier in this article, its emissions would place it ninth in the table of Europe’s dirtiest companies. Iberia (including Iberia Express) sits in the middle of the table.

The sector’s combined emissions surpassed- by far- the limits established in 2019. Therefore, airline operators have had to buy emission credits from other sectors to comply with emissions goals.

The power plant with a ski resort

Aside from the millions of tonnes of CO2, the enormous plant at Belchatow has also built a mountain. Kamensk stands at 407m above sea level, making it the highest point in this central part of Poland. It is a mountain built from 1.5 million cubic metres of earth dug up in the construction of the open-pit mines that serve the plant. PGE planted 40 million trees on the mountain and have subsequently turned it into a tourist attraction. In winter, the mountain serves as a ski resort, while in the summer it provides over 40km of cycle routes. A second mountain will accommodate solar panels in the future.

Translated from the Spanish by Albie Mills | VoxEurop