The shift to low-carbon economy is far from assured

London in Victorian times and beyond was infamous for its thick smog, caused by the extensive burning of coal industrially and domestically, which cloaked the city and made its inhabitants ill. A century or so down the line, the air of Europe’s cities may not be quite so polluted, but we still appear to have a lurking appetite for coal, and a growing appetite for gas.

In 2010, Europe installed more coal power plants than it decommissioned for the second time in 12 years. EWEA’s 2010 statistics show that while 1,550 MW of coal capacity was taken offline, 4,056 MW were added. Simply put, we added 2.5 GW of coal – the equivalent of about five new power plants.

At a time when the EU rightly prides itself on its leading role in international climate negotiations, its world-class renewable energy industry and forward-thinking climate and energy legislation; when more wind power and other zero-carbon power capacity is installed in Europe year on year; when a majority of EU citizens are alarmed by the reality of climate change; it is worrying that we are installing more of the world’s dirtiest, most harmful fossil fuel.

And topping the 2010 league table – and in fact the 2000-2011 cumulative table – for newly installed power capacity is gas. As Steve Sawyer of the Global Wind Energy Council said in a recent online debate, while switching from coal to gas helps reduce emissions in the short term, sooner or later gas becomes part of the problem. While gas emits less than half the CO2 of coal, it still emits ten times more CO2 than wind energy and other renewables.

It’s a wake-up call for our political leaders. Europe’s transition to a low-carbon economy is far from assured. Strong national and EU policies are needed to achieve the EU’s 20% renewable energy target by 2020, let alone the 80-95% emissions reductions promised for 2050. We need to move swiftly to a 30% emissions reduction target as a first step to the 80-95% emissions cut by 2050 agreed by the Heads of State.

Not only that, but we must ensure a cap is put on carbon emissions from new power plants from 2015 onwards so that the market decides on the best way to produce zero-emission, or low-emission, energy.

Of course the picture is not all gloom. Over the last 11 years more coal power plants have been decommissioned than built, and further decommissioning is planned. Europe also has fewer nuclear and fuel oil power plants than in 1999. Renewable energies including wind power accounted for 41% of all new power installations in 2010 – and that makes the fifth year running that renewables have represented more than 40% of new electricity generating capacity.

We have a booming renewable energy sector in Europe – we have what it takes to make the transition to a zero-carbon economy, but there’s no room for complacency.

By Sarah Azau,