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New Greek government faces questions on coal

World Coal,

Syriza, Greece’s newly elected left-wing government, is eco-friendly and pro-renewables, yet it faces internal questions over plans for new coal plants. It must therefore balance its environmentalism with pragmatism, argues Samuel Dodson.


Syriza’s election victory in Greece has captured the hopes of many people across Europe who have grown tired and disillusioned with the current political and economic elite. The left-wing anti-austerity party’s impressive victory saw wild celebrations across Greece, and even saw stock markets – previously worried about what a Syriza victory would mean for the Eurozone – bounce back from an earlier slump.

Syriza has campaigned on a platform of hope and change, and it has been the champion of environmental concerns and renewable energy. Yet now that its victory is sealed, and Alex Tsipras sworn in as Prime Minister, Syriza and Greece must face questions on the country’s energy policy.

Pushing for a low-carbon future and economy is admiral; however, Syriza must remain pragmatic and realistic in its energy outlook.

Greece has a commitment to new coal plants, while there has been much previous deliberating about a new major gas pipeline, which would be one of the longest in the world if built.

These commitments to fossil fuels are necessary in the transition to a low-carbon future, and can be seen as a bridge to a more environmentally-friendly energy mix. Syriza will therefore have to balance these commitments with its own pledge of supporting environmental projects, such as small-scale diversified renewables production, co-ordinated with local people through community-led decision making. The party also plans a large expansion of energy efficient building renovations – seen as the most cost-effective means of simultaneously cutting emissions – and fuel poverty.

The policies of Syriza are logistically achievable, yet rolling out renewables on a large scale in the place of coal and other fossil fuels is not yet a realistic option.

As noted by Arthur Neslen in the Guardian, Syrzia is torn between an economy that has contracted at a scale and speed not seen since the 1930s and a sizeable chunk of its party that is eager for growth now, at any cost. As Neslen opined: “the government will need to quickly reframe the debate about ‘sustainable growth’ or lower green expectations, or both.”

The party’s plans to invest in ‘clean’ coal will therefore stand as one of the most logical early energy policies to embark on. Syrzia hopes to build new coal lignite plants “as cleanly as possible”, according to Tsipras.

“To build one new lignite plant but replace two others which are of older technology and emit more pollution, could be seen in technical terms as an improvement,” Harris Konstantatos, a member of Syriza’s central committee, said.

The party faces some internal questions from its allegiance to the Green party, which claims clean coal techniques simply displace pollutants from one waste stream, such as fly ash, to another, such as water outflow.

Nonetheless, as Neslen commented, Syriza’s commitment to growth itself would be challenged by many European Greens, but Konstantatos, said ‘degrowth’ ideas would be viewed as “absurd” in the austerity-wracked Greece of today. Leading party thinkers also see the ‘keep fossil fuels in the ground idea’ as unrealistic, especially when one considers that Germany continues to burn coal, and indeed has turned to the black stuff in a big way following the German government’s decision to retire its nuclear capacity in the wake of the Fukushima disaster.

“If we face fiscal difficulties from abroad in the medium term, then to burn more lignite instead of importing energy will seem a wise thing to do,” a Syriza spokesperson said. “If we don’t have money to import petrol then we will burn lignite which is free – not of a carbon footprint – but relatively cheaper. One way or another Greek lignite will be exploited.”

The party remains suspicious of market-based mechanisms, such as the EU’s emissions trading system, which it sees as a way of distributing public subsidies to wealthy polluters, while doing little to tackle emissions.

“We cannot and must not reproduce the well-known business-as-usual developmental models because we missed the rest of Europe’s industrial development train a century ago,” said Konstantatos. “It is rational for Greece to go green.”

“Smart micro-grids can make much more efficient use of renewables to cater for islands that are not connected with continental grid, or make changes at the regional level,” he added. “You don’t need to reproduce the carbon model, with centralised plant that distribute everywhere. We must not reproduce this.”

Yet Syriza will face opposition from within Greece to its attempts to introduce more renewables. As Neslen noted: there will be “local opposition to wind turbines, fed by community resentment at wind farms centrally-licensed by the previous government with little regional planning that enriched big industrialists.”

The euphoria of Syriza’s election victory will likely remain for the following days and weeks, but as the new government settles into its position – and its coalition with the right-wing Independent Greeks party – it must begin to juggle the competing priorities facing Greece. Tsipras’ negotiations over Greek debt with Brussels will likely take centre stage in the media, but it will be in the country’s energy policy that the party’s influence is most keenly felt by Greeks at home. Potential blackouts and rising energy prices will not be met well by a people eager to work their way out of the dark days that have followed the 2008 financial crash. The party must therefore resolve competing energy policies and align them with a daunting reconstruction programme that keeps energy prices and emissions down, and most importantly keeps the lights on. Coal – and clean coal technologies and strategies – will be vital in achieving this. 

Written by Sam Dodson

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