Ensuring the reduction of the negative impacts of coal on the environment | WWF

Ensuring the reduction of the negative impacts of coal on the environment

Coal powered power station in Nottinghamshire, UK. Ratcliffe-on-Soar a massive coal powered power station in Nottinghamshire UK that is responsible for huge carbon dioxide emissions.
© Global Warming Images / WWF

Coal-fired power plants are the single biggest global source of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Burning coal releases nitrogen oxides, sulphur dioxide, dust and heavy metals, making it the dirtiest fuel available. These pollutants are major causes of acid rain and ground level ozone, and are associated with a range of human health problems. Coal mining also causes local environmental destruction, contamination and depletion of water supplies.

With its current low financial cost, coal continues to be preferred by the energy industry. The sector justifies its continued use and promotion of coal, by arguing that unproven future technologies may possibly be able to capture coal GHG emissions, notably carbon capture and storage technology (CCS).

Despite the EU’s long-standing ambition to tackle climate change, emissions from the EU's coal power stations have risen, due to a rise in coal use caused by the relative competitiveness of cheap coal compared with expensive gas. To contribute to the EU 2030 climate targets , European coal consumption should decline by 23 Mtce to a level of 348 Mtce in 2018.

The rising emissions from coal power in the EU are due to the low CO2 price in EU Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) and cheaper coal imports from US related to shale gas developments. Currently, approximately 30% of electricity generation in the EU-28 is coal-based and in some EU Member States coal accounts for more than 50% of total power generation. 

There are currently around 330 coal power plants in the EU with a total capacity of about 205 GW. Some of these power plants (about 20GW) will close between now and the end of 2015 as a result of the modest pollution controls introduced under the LCP Directive. Some more will close from the start of 2016 once the more rigorous IED Directive takes effect. The coal and lignite power plants being built today have a lifetime of at least 40 years. Europe cannot afford to continue to stand around, it must act now.

The "Europe's Dirty 30" report outlines key requests to further guide this process, including: (1) ensure the rapid closure of the most polluting EU coal power stations, including those listed in this report;(2) put in place a process to prevent the lifetime extension of old coal power stations;(3) halt investments into coal by EU governments in the EU and worldwide and end public financing of coal projects; and (4) put in place a joint EU initiative to support 'coal mining regional transformation.'


  • Darek Urbaniak

    Energy Policy Officer

    WWF European Policy Office,

    +32 2 761 04 21