Is There a Blueprint for the Coal Phase-out? A Discussion of International Experiences

In November, Canada announced its intention to phase out coal-fired electricity generation by 2030, in the United Kingdom the last coal-fired power station is to be taken offline by 2025, and Denmark plans to switch to an entirely renewables-based electricity and heating system by 2030. How did these decisions come about? What political and economic conditions underpinned them? How were conflicts resolved? Is it possible to identify shared characteristics in the stories of each of these ‘pioneering nations’? These questions were at the centre of the workshop “Is There a Blueprint for Coal Phase-outs?” held at the IASS on 22 and 23 November.

Scientists and representatives from ministries, government agencies, and think-tanks reported on their experiences in the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Denmark, Germany, and the Canadian provinces Alberta and Ontario. “We specifically invited experts from governments and scientific organisations from countries that have already gained experience in the process of phasing out coal with the intention of promoting international exchange on this topic and identifying the lessons learned,” explained Dominik Schäuble of the IASS.

United Kingdom hopes to raise its profile by phasing out coal

In 2015, UK Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, Amber Rudd, confirmed the country’s intention to end their dependence on “polluting, carbon-intensive 50-year-old coal-fired power stations.” At the same time, the government is funding gas-fired and nuclear power stations and has cut subsidies for renewables. A major factor favouring the phase-out of coal in the UK is the country’s out-dated power plants. The carbon emission floor price means that these plants are becoming increasingly less cost-effective.

The Netherlands continue to use fossil fuels, Denmark moves to wind energy

In the Netherlands the Energy Agreement of 2013 has led to the closure of five out of ten coal fired power plants which were all built in the 1980’s. Currently there is a public debate on coal plant phase out following a motion in the Dutch Parliament. The Dutch coal fired power plants are relatively new and efficient. One of the issues investigated, is whether a coal plant phase out, although reducing the CO2 emissions in the Netherlands, will also lead to a decrease of CO2 emissions on the European level.

The remaining coal-fired plants in Denmark are being turned off more and more frequently to allow wind energy to be fed into the grid. By 2050 the share of wind energy is to be increased to 50 per cent. All Denmark’s conventional power stations are configured for cogeneration, using their heat to supply district heating networks, for example. This significantly increased their efficiency. In addition, the conversion of coal plants to burn biomass is seen as another strategy to phase out coal.

Canada: public health and climate concerns drivers of change

The Canadian debate about the coal phase-out centres not just on climate change mitigation, but also on public health concerns, as Ivetta Gerasimchuk from the International Institute for Sustainable Development and a representative of the think tank Pembina Institute showed, using the provinces Ontario and Alberta as examples. The government involved medical associations such as the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment in the development of its plans to phase out coal. But the paths that Ontario and Alberta are taking towards this goal are very different, not least because of the very different conditions of the coal sectors in the two provinces. Ontario does not have any coal mines and it has a strong nuclear energy industry. Alberta, by contrast, has a strong oil and gas industry, and its choice to phase out coal is motivated by a desire to lessen the pressure to reduce emissions from these sectors. These factors favoured the decision to phase out coal.

“The framework conditions for a coal phase-out vary greatly from country to country; thus, there can be no blueprint that outlines the ‘right’ path. Nonetheless, an enhanced exchange of ideas helps us move forward, because experience with different approaches and policy instruments can be quite useful for other countries,” Daniela Setton (IASS) remarked in summary. The results of the workshop will inform a study that Setton and Schäuble plan to publish next year.