OSTRAVA – In this part of the north-eastern Czech Republic, huge heaps of coal are piling up ready to be sold to eager buyers and smoke is belching from coal-fired power plants that are ramping up instead of shutting down.
Ostrava has been working for decades to end its legacy as the country’s most polluted area and transform itself from a stronghold of the industrial working class to a modern city dotted with tourist attractions. But Russia’s war in Ukraine has sparked an energy crisis in Europe that has paved the way for coal’s comeback, jeopardizing climate goals and threatening health from rising pollution.
Households and businesses are turning to the fuel, once considered obsolete, as they seek a cheaper option than natural gas, prices of which have soared as Russia cut supplies to Europe.
Demand for lignite – the cheapest and most energy-inefficient form – used by Czech households increased by almost 35% year-on-year in the first nine months of 2022.
In the same period, production rose by more than 20%, the first increase after an almost continuous, decades-long decline, the Czech Ministry of Industry and Trade said.
“We are worried,” said Zdenka Němečková Crkvenjaš, the member of the Government Council of the Moravian-Silesian Region responsible for the environment. “If prices don’t come down, we could face increased pollution.”
The region is part of the Upper Silesian Coal Basin, a large industrial area on the Czech-Polish border with rich coal deposits and factories producing steel, electricity and the 19th-century coal used in steelmaking.
A combination of burning coal to heat homes and industrial plants led to “catastrophic” air pollution at the end of the communist era in 1989, said Petr Jančík of the Technical University of Ostrava, an air pollution expert who worked on the recently produced Air Tritia project Online model of the polluted air on the Czech-Polish-Slovak border.
Coal-fired power plants are not only bad for the climate, but also a health hazard as they release heavy particulate emissions, nitrogen oxides and mercury that contaminate fish in lakes and rivers.
A decline in industrial and mining activities and the introduction of new environmental standards after the Czech Republic joined the European Union in 2004 have significantly improved air quality.
But big challenges remain.
Airborne dust emissions – PM10 particles – now meet environmental limits in the region, but concentrations of smaller PM2.5 particles, which can travel deep into the lungs and bloodstream, still do not meet World Health Organization standards.
A 2021 study by the Spanish Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal) in more than 800 European cities ranks the regional capital Ostrava and the nearby cities of Karviná and Havířov among the ten most polluted European cities. It is estimated that 529 deaths per year could be avoided in these three cities if air quality guidelines are followed.
Burning coal also releases the dangerous substance benzo(a)pyrene, levels of which are still high despite government programs paying to replace old stoves with more effective ones that reduce pollution.
About 50,000 stoves have yet to be replaced in the Ostrava region, Němečková Crkvenjaš said, estimating that number at 500,000 in a more populated and polluted area across the border in Poland.
“I’m afraid this winter will not be ideal in terms of air pollution,” she said. “I’m happy if I’m wrong.”
Roman Vank, a board member at Ostrava-based coal seller Ridera, said coal sales were up about 30% year-on-year. The cheapest form, lignite, was in greatest demand.
Jančík, the scientist, said the impact on air quality would be difficult to predict right off the bat, especially if it was another mild winter, and that pollution “could only get slightly worse”.
He said one positive development is that high natural gas and electricity prices are forcing people to buy solar panels, more efficient heating systems and try to become less dependent on energy sources.
“There are two opposing trends: the first is that people are trying to use better and more efficient stoves, and the second is that they are considering using more coal and wood,” said Jančík. “This may be the result of shock or concern, and they want to have supplies ready.”
The Czech Greenpeace spokesman Lukáš Hrábek expects negative effects in the near future.
“We are currently seeing conflicting trends. We see higher coal consumption, but at the same time we see massive investments in renewable energy, in heat pumps, in insulation,” Hrábek said. “So it’s hard to say what the long-term impact will be, but the short-term – long-term effect is quite obvious, air pollution will be worse because of higher coal consumption.”
In another sign of the coal revival, the Czech Republic has rolled back plans to completely halt mining near Ostrava to secure power supplies amid the energy crisis.
State-owned company OKD will extend its mining activities in the Ostrava region until at least the end of next year as there is “enormous” demand. It is mainly used to generate electricity and heat homes, with coal-fired power plants producing almost 50% of the country’s electricity.
The decision came after the European Union agreed to ban Russian coal from August over the war in Ukraine and is working to scale back the bloc’s energy ties with Russia.
The Czech government wants to phase out coal-based energy production by 2033 and focus more on nuclear power.
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