Belchatow

Top 10 EU emitters all coal power plants in 2021

Coal power plants dominated the list of top emitters, as EU power sector emissions rise in 2021

Harriet Fox

8 April 2022 | 12 min read

Highlights

10


All top 10 2021 emitters were coal and lignite plants

17%


Coal power emissions up 17% compared to 2020

53%


Germany and Poland account for more than half of all EU power sector emissions

About

Ember analysis of EU-ETS data finds that the top 10 emitters in the EU-ETS were coal or lignite power plants in Germany and Poland.

 

On Friday 1st April, the European Commission released emissions data for 2021. This data is reported as part of the EU’s Emissions Trading System (EU-ETS) which is a cap and trade carbon market covering EU countries, Switzerland, Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein. The EU-ETS sets a market price for carbon across Europe and covers aviation, electricity and heat generation, and energy-intensive industries such as steel, cement and oil refineries.

Executive summary

Coal power still dominates EU-ETS emissions

Emissions from the EU power sector rise as the post-Covid economic recovery and gas price crisis push up coal power plants emissions.

  • 01


    All top 10 largest emitters in the EU-ETS were coal or lignite power plants

    Emissions from these plants accounted for 12% of all EU-ETS emissions. All top 10 largest emitters are found in Germany and Poland. The two countries contribute over half of power sector emissions between them.

  • 02


    Coal emissions see largest jump since EU-ETS began 17 years ago

    Emissions from coal power plants rose for the first time since 2015 and accounted for a third of all ETS emissions. Power sector emissions are down 7% since pre-pandemic 2019 but this rate of decline does not put the sector on track for a EU 2035 net-zero electricity system: a critical milestone for keeping global heating to 1.5C according to the IEA Net Zero pathway.

  • 03


    Top three emitting utilities each produce as much CO2 as Italy’s power sector

    Polish utility PGE was the largest emitter in the EU last year, emitting 70.5 Mt CO2, closely followed by RWE and EPH. For these top three utilities, coal was responsible for 92% of their total emissions.

Clean power by 2035 is a climate imperative for the EU. That means any growth in coal generation must be temporary. Cutting off Russian gas in the next few years and a Paris-compliant coal phase-out aren’t mutually exclusive. Now is the moment for a massive effort on renewables to create a cleaner, cheaper and more reliable energy mix as quickly as possible.

Harriet Fox Energy & Climate Data Analyst, Ember

2021 EU-ETS emissions

EU emissions increase with post-Covid recovery

Total EU-ETS emissions have seen an increase, rising 7% or 90 million tonnes (Mt) in the last year to 1364 Mt as Europe recovered from the impact of the pandemic. Compared with pre-pandemic 2019, emissions have decreased 8%. In the last year power sector emissions have gone up 10%.

Dirtiest emitters of 2021 are familiar repeat offenders


The top 10 emitters in the EU are made up of a mixture of lignite and hard coal power plants, with Bełchatów topping the table as it has done since the trading system began in 2005. 

For the first time, all of the top 10 plants are located in Germany and Poland, and make up 12% of total emissions across all installations in the EU-ETS. German lignite plant Niederaußem, owned by RWE, showed the largest emissions increase from 2020 of a colossal 36%. EPH/EnBW’s Lippendorf plant was the only new addition from last year, displacing Voestalpine’s Linz steel plant.

Serial offenders make up the majority of the list with six of the plants having the dubious honour of appearing in the top 10 every year since the EU-ETS began.

Coal pushes up EU power sector emissions


EU-ETS emissions cover power, aviation and other industries such as cement, steel and oil refineries. In 2021, industry accounted for 616 Mt of carbon emissions, up 3.6% from 2020 but down 3.7% on 2019. Cement, steel and oil refineries were the biggest industry emitters, producing roughly 27% of all EU-ETS emissions. The power sector currently accounts for roughly half of all EU-ETS emissions, down from two-thirds when the trading system began. 

 

In the EU power sector, rising gas prices caused coal to become more financially competitive in the second half of 2021, increasing lignite and hard coal generation. As seen in Ember’s European electricity review, gas generation decreased 5% across the EU in 2021 with coal increasing by 20% as it became more economically favourable. 

Along with a post-Covid rebound, these changes caused EU power sector emissions to rise by 10% to 720 Mt. While power sector emissions fell 7% compared to pre-pandemic 2019, this rate does not put the sector on track for a EU 2035 net-zero electricity system: a critical milestone for keeping global heating to 1.5C according to the IEA Net Zero pathway.

Coal emissions rise for first time since 2015


In 2021, coal emissions rose 17%, the largest increase since the EU-ETS began in 2005, and the first increase since 2015. This uptick from coal led to the release of 62 Mt more CO2 into the atmosphere than in 2020, with 49 Mt from just two countries: Germany and Poland. Emissions from hard coal and lignite accounted for 31% of all ETS emissions, up from 29% in 2020. 

 

Gas power plants were responsible for fewer emissions – down 3% on their 2020 level. In absolute terms, emissions from gas have decreased by 5.8 Mt since 2020, dwarfed by the increase of 62 Mt from coal. Italy, Germany and Spain remain the top three countries for gas power emissions, accounting for 58% of EU emissions from gas power plants.

Germany and Poland contribute more than half of EU power sector emissions


Germany and Poland were responsible for 53% of emissions from the EU power sector in 2021. In Poland 85% of power sector emissions come from coal. Previous analysis of coal scenarios in the Polish energy strategy (PEP2040) released in 2021 show that Poland still plans to produce at least 75 TWh from coal in 2030. This is a far cry from the decrease required according to the IPCC 1.5C report which states OECD nations should end coal use entirely by 2030. 

 

In Germany, the coalition government announced in November 2021 it would ‘ideally’ like to phase out coal by 2030. Currently 75% of power sector emissions in Germany come from hard coal and lignite plants. Unlike Poland, Germany has committed to decarbonising its electricity by 2035 and has recently released ambitious plans to increase its clean energy share to 80% by 2030, up from 40% today.

Utility PGE emits as much CO2 as Italy’s power sector


Three utilities dominate EU power sector emissions. Polish utility PGE was the largest emitter in 2021, emitting 70.5 Mt CO2 – equivalent to the emissions of Italy’s entire power sector. Emissions from utilities RWE and EPH followed close behind, with 69.4 Mt and 67.6 Mt CO2 respectively.

For these top three utilities, coal was responsible for 92% of their total EU power sector emissions. PGE and EPH both reported an increase in coal emissions since pre-pandemic 2019 of 17% and 8% respectively, whilst RWE coal emissions fell 9% since 2019. Previous analysis from Ember found that none of these utilities currently have a plan to phase out coal before 2038. 

ENGIE, EDF and Eni are the power sector utilities with the highest gas emissions in the EU-ETS, accounting for 20% of total gas power emissions. It’s long been clear that reliance on imported fossil gas exposes countries to volatile pricing and geopolitical pressures, but the war in Ukraine and surging gas prices have shattered the assumption that fossil gas can act as a ‘transition’ fuel. Utilities most reliant on gas will have to start to look at other options, starting with a significant increase in ambition on wind and solar.

Conclusion

The EU needs to cut off Russian fossil fuels, not climate targets

Following the invasion of Ukraine, Europe is faced with the urgent task of cutting off reliance on Russian coal, oil and gas. Meanwhile, the third IPCC report released this week highlighted the pressing need for the world to end all fossil fuels to keep global heating to 1.5C. As governments consider extending coal use to end Russian gas imports, this report underlines that they can’t lose sight of the disastrous climate impact that comes with burning more coal. A recent report by Ember, E3G, RAP and Bellona showed that the EU can end imports of all Russian fossil gas by 2025 with clean energy replacing 66% of Russian gas imports, and without extending coal power generation. 

The rise in the EU-ETS price has provided a nudge away from the most polluting fuels, but carbon pricing alone won’t be able to shift the electricity sector fast enough. The EU and European countries need to make or firm up commitments to 100% zero-carbon power by 2035, signalling that the end of coal and gas generation is in sight, and urgently address regulatory and market barriers that are holding back clean energy deployment at the speed and scale needed.

See more: View the daily EU-ETS and UK-ETS carbon prices.

Dig into the data

Country-level top 10 emitters

Select a country to see the top 10 emitting installations of 2021 on a national level.

Supporting Material


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Methodology

Missing installations

Some installations have not reported emissions yet. These installations accounted for roughly 8% of emissions in 2020. For these installations, emissions for 2021 were estimated provided their account status was ‘open’, they were not excluded from the ETS and they reported in 2020. To calculate their estimated emissions, a percentage change from 2020 was applied. This was taken from the sector the installation belongs to, or according to the installation’s power plant fuel type where possible. 

From 2021 onwards, the UK no longer reports emissions as part of the EU-ETS. Year-on-year comparisons have been adjusted to take this into account, however, previous Ember analysis of the EU-ETS is based on EU-27 + UK data and may therefore appear different to the results presented here.

Power Sector Definition

The EUETS power sector records include combined heat and power plants along with power only. 

In this analysis, power sector is taken to include combined heat and power installations alongside power only installations.

Biomass and some waste generation is not included. If biomass emissions were counted in the EU-ETS, the UK’s Drax Power Station, with emissions of 13.9 million tonnes of CO2e in 2021, would be Europe’s 7th largest emitter. 

Fuel Categories

Mappings for installation fuel types have been taken from previous Ember analysis and the ETC/CME Dataset 1/2021

Peat, non municipal waste, oil and blast furnace gases were all mapped to other unless clearly stated separately. In addition the primary fuel for many very small installations could not be researched. These are also mapped to other, but are most likely small oil and gas plants, or oil and gas cofired in biomass plants.


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