As the European Union gears up to enforce a ban on the import of Russian coal that goes into effect on August 10, a sad reality has become clear: the champions of clean energy will be burning a lot more coal in the coming months.
European leaders face the dilemma of finding alternative avenues to replace Russian coal as they figure out ways to keep their power plants running.
A lot of natural gas, the other source of energy, which Europeans use to heat their homes, run factories and generate electricity, also comes from energy-rich Russia.
Last winter's energy crisis became a serious headache as companies struggled to get hold of cargoes and prices shot up.
Decreasing the reliance on Russian coal means Europe will need to buy it in increasing quantities from elsewhere to make up for the natural gas shortfall, which is used to generate 15 percent of Europe’s electricity.
Between January and May 2022, European countries bought more than 3.2 million tons of coal from South Africa, up over 40 percent from the total of 2021.
Moscow is under international economic sanctions for sending troops into Ukraine in February and the EU is slowly cutting back on Russia energy supplies.
With gas shortages rekindling the memories of the previous winter when consumer bills in Europe shot up in the absence of a reliable gas supply, European leadership has few options but to increase reliance on imported coal.
In recent months, Germany has restarted a coal plant, calling back engineers from retirement and looking to burn 100,000 tons of coal a month, which will likely be imported from Australia and South Africa.
Austria and the Netherlands are also restarting their coal-fired power plants.
The EU was actively planning to phase out coal as part of the pledge made in the UN Paris Climate Agreement to mitigate the effects of CO2 emissions. Coal-fired power plants were gradually being shut down as they are a major contributor to emissions.
Half of the 324 coal power plants in Europe are already shut and the remaining were set to be retired by 2030.
In 2021, the EU imported 30-35 million tonnes of thermal coal from Russia. In recent months, the 27-member grouping has drastically cut reliance on Russian coal as it seeks to put pressure on Moscow to halt its advance on Ukraine.
European officials estimate that the move to block Russian coal will inflict damage of $8.2 billion dollars on Moscow.
The debate around the issue of Europe’s energy security fired up last year when a sharp rise in energy bills hit consumers.
That was because of a sudden surge in gas demand as factories and businesses opened up after a months-long shutdown during the pandemic.
An unusually long cold spell that lasted well into May 2021 exacerbated the shortage as European energy companies had to draw reserves from underground storage tanks.
Russia uses a network of pipelines to export gas to Europe. It has been Europe’s biggest and most reliable gas supplier for years.