Coal in Europe

Coal in Europe:
It’s time to stop digging

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Europe has a coal problem

Climate change means droughts, floods, rising sea levels, extreme weather and nature loss

How much carbon dioxide we release will decide how serious these impacts are. Burning coal is a major contributor

To protect the climate, coal’s share of global electricity supply must be cut to 2% by 2050

But governments in the EU hand out billions in subsidies to prop up coal every year

And coal’s toxic problems don’t end with climate change

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Coal burning blights lives and destroys nature

It seeps poisonous heavy metals into our rivers and habitats

Mining destroys whole villages and the communities that built them

The polluting impacts of Europe’s coal habit stretch around the globe

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What’s wrong with coal?

It’s well known that coal plays a major part in driving climate change.

What are less widely known are coal’s insidious health effects.

Between coal dust, ash and stack emissions, the coal industry exposes everyone to mercury, arsenic, sulphur and nitrogen oxides, all of which pose proven and serious health risks.

In Bulgaria, figures show the rate of lung disease is dramatically elevated in the areas around coal plants. Meanwhile, a recent US study showed that the rate of premature births fell in areas near coal power plants when they closed.

Coal is terrible for your health. It’s also bad for your environment.

As well as causing air pollution, water discharged from plants can heat waterways making them uninhabitable for fish and other wildlife. Mercury often finds its way into local waterways as well, further damaging the ecosystem.

I lead ClientEarth’s team of lawyers tackling Europe’s toxic problem.

The EU needs to stop burning coal for power by 2030 if we are to have a chance to stop catastrophic climate change. We use the law in the EU and beyond to help make this a reality.

The law can help shape  a clean energy future for Europe

We use environmental laws to challenge highly polluting coal plants and force them either to invest to prevent pollution, or to shut down.

We use State aid law – which governs subsidies – to challenge governments that prop up unprofitable coal companies with taxpayers’ money.

And we use energy markets laws to promote the transition to an energy system based on renewables and other clean tech – and which no longer relies on coal.

The challenge is huge but we’re gaining ground.

Sam Bright, Energy Lawyer

Which chemicals are released when you burn coal?

There’s no such thing as clean coal. The costs to our health and to the health of our planet are enormous. Here are just some of the heavy metals and other harmful chemicals released when coal is burned:

Nox
Nitrogen Oxides (NOx): These gases can irritate airways and cause breathing problems. Long-term exposure can compromise your lung function, increase the risk of respiratory conditions and increase your response to allergens. NOx gases also react to form acid rain and smog.
SO2
Sulphur Dioxide (SO2): reacts with other chemicals to form a wide range of toxic compounds. It causes coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath. People with asthma and other respiratory conditions are particularly at risk.
Mercury
Mercury (Hg): a known neurotoxin and a threat to the development of babies in the womb and early in life. Mercury may have toxic effects on the nervous, digestive and immune systems, and on lungs, kidneys, skin and eyes. One of the WHO's top ten chemicals of major public health concern
Toxic Metals
Toxic heavy metals: from cadmium and chromium to lead and arsenic, coal mining lets loose heavy metal elements in quantities that are a major health concern. In Greece, poor ash storage contaminated local water with levels of hexavalent chromium – known to cause cancer, and damaging to the respiratory system, kidneys, liver, skin and eyes. The contamination was so high that the water source had to be cut off immediately.

Does coal cause climate change?

Yes, it does.

In fact, coal is the worst fossil fuel for greenhouse gas emissions.

The EU’s coal plants are almighty carbon emitters. One power plant alone – Poland’s Belchatow – emits four times as much as Ryanair’s entire fleet of passenger planes every year.

To have any chance of meeting the climate goals laid out in the global Paris Agreement, we have to move beyond coal by 2030. Europe can do this – but there is too little progress and too little ambition.

There are more than 250 plants left in Europe – and plans to build more, even as others struggle to earn their keep. We have to stop this. Too many communities have been robbed of their homes and futures, and too many people are being robbed of their health.

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Coal pollutes at every stage

From when it’s extracted until it’s burnt, coal is a pollution disaster.

Mining
From where it’s mined – either locally, or in countries like Colombia where coal poses major human rights issues – and through its journey to the plant.
Shipping
When it’s moved, it leaves a legacy. Tankers spill toxic dust into the sea when it’s delivered at the port.
Truck
Trucks and trailers sprinkle it onto roads and railways while it’s in transit.
Slag heap
Dust blows off the coal piles while it waits to be burned.
Burning
Finally, gases and heavy metals are released as the coal is burned; these come out through the stack and are propelled far and wide, beyond local and even national boundaries.
Dead fish
Meanwhile, coal ash deposits leach dangerous chemicals and heavy metals into soil and local water supplies.
Carcinogenics
When the mine or power plant is decommissioned, carcinogenic chemicals will remain in the soil for generations.
Renewables
By supporting renewables instead of coal, Europe could end this toxic cycle. ClientEarth is using the law to drive this change

The villages killed by coal

Emil Mirchev’s family has farmed the land he lives on, in Bulgaria, for generations. Now, a coal company plans to take that land over, creating a mine in place of kilometres of fertile land and decimating the local water supply. The landscape will change irreparably.

So with our support, Emil has taken legal action to fight the mine that would put a stop to the way of life of hundreds of people.


In Zloczew, Poland, 3,000 people are waiting to find out if they have to leave their homes as giant power plant Belchatow seeks a fresh source of coal. The Zloczew mine, if it goes ahead, would be the deepest mine ever constructed in Poland. Explosives would have to be used to blast away millions of tonnes of rock to get to the coal – deafening for the residents and devastating for the environment.

ClientEarth has launched a legal challenge to block the mine – with its long list of hazards, it should not have got the green light.


Inhabitants of Anargyroi, Western Macedonia, were evacuated in 2017. The mine on its doorstep caused a major landslide, leaving the villagers to jump in their cars and leave.

It’s a sad place to be, now. A beautiful community hall with portraits and paintings largely abandoned, cafés with outdoor ovens left empty, a rusted bus stop, scrawled farewell messages to the village painted on the walls. Just 20 people live here now, out of the original 500. They are still waiting for compensation.

What is ClientEarth doing to end coal in Europe?

There are more than 250 coal power plants left in Europe. But across the continent action is not happening fast enough.

In Poland, where I’m based, coal remains king. Europe’s most disastrous coal plant, Belchatow, continues to blight lives. We are fighting it.

Turkey has plans to build around 50 more plants. Germany is clinging to coal, under pressure from industry: seven of Europe’s top ten worst carbon emitters are in Germany.

In the UK, the pledged 2025 coal phase-out still hasn’t been written into law.

Governments across the EU are still breathing life into coal with major subsidies. Europe needs to get a grip on its coal problem.

ClientEarth is using the law to force action on coal

We have live legal challenges across the EU from Spain to Bulgaria. We’re committed to fighting the injustices that let coal ruin lives. You can explore our actions against coal below.  We’re grateful for your support.

Ilona Jedrasik, Energy Lead, Poland.

Where we’re taking action…

There are alternatives to coal

Clean, renewable energy is already gaining ground.

Changing our energy system will limit the impact of climate change, protect our health and safeguard nature

Decision-makers need to choose the right policies. Governments need to support the right industries.

Communities need the opportunities to get behind clean energy.

We’re working to support all these changes, to make clean energy across Europe a reality.

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