In the face of the escalating crisis in the Ukraine and widespread dependence on unreliable Russian gas, environmental concerns may take a back-seat in relation to energy independence. With gas supplies being threatened, Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk believes that it’s time to “rehabilitate” coal’s dirty image.
Yes, coal is a dirty fuel. It creates pollution and contributes to climate change. As a fuel, natural gas is much more environmentally friendly. When combusted, natural gas (methane) produces about 45% less carbon dioxide than does coal in producing the same amount of electricity. On the other hand, coal is cheap and plentiful. Especially in Poland which still relies to a great extent on coal for its energy needs. More than half of Poland’s energy is derived from coal which makes the country far less reliant on Russian gas. By comparison, according to the European Commission, the share of Russian natural gas in the country’s domestic gas consumption in 2007 was 76 percent for Greece, 98 percent for Slovakia, 100 percent for the Baltic Republics and Finnland, and only 48.15 percent for Poland.
“In the context of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, the overriding objective is to lessen the dependence on Russia,” said Mujtaba Rahman, an analyst at Eurasia Group in London. “Climate objectives will be absolutely secondary to that.” In this context, Polish PM’s suggestion just might fall on fertile ground. Poland is still a large producer of coal. Poland’s largest operating coal mine in Belchatow produces more than twice as much coal as the whole of the U.K.
“We want the whole of Europe to acknowledge coal as a legitimate energy source,” Prime Minister Tusk said on TV on March 29. “Poland has been consistently proving that it can guarantee energy security.”
This view might be unpopular among environmental groups but is likely to find many supporters in mainland Europe, especially among ex-Soviet-Block countries eager to sever their dependence on Russian energy.
Whether political instability in Ukraine will succeed in putting environmental concerns on the back-burner will remain to be seen. Yet coal with its low price and high energy content will always be a viable alternative in the face of energy shortages – despite environmental concerns and along the old saying about beggars and their ability to choose.
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