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Climate Hawks See No Gain in German Utility RWE’s Plan for 2040 Coal Phaseout

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German coal and power plant giant RWE, Europe’s biggest emitter of carbon dioxide, is promising to make its operations carbon neutral by 2040, prompting climate organizations to accuse the company of spinning an inevitable business transition as climate protection.

The company “operates three of Europe’s five most CO2-intensive power plants, a role that has made the company one of the prime targets of climate activists,” Clean Energy Wire writes [1], citing British NGO Sandbag. “It is also Europe’s largest emitter of CO2, according to Carbon Market Data.”

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But now, “we will be a carbon neutral company by 2040,” CEO Rolf Martin Schmitz declared last week, at a media event to mark the company official takeover of former rival E.ON’s renewable energy facilities. “Today begins the era of the new RWE.”

RWE said it had already cut its carbon dioxide emissions by one-third, for a total of 60 million tons, between 2012 and 2018, and Schmitz called the 2040 target “more than ambitious”. But Clean Energy Wire points out that Germany is already committed to completing its coal phaseout by 2038. Over the last year, RWE has faced court action [3] and blockades [4] over its plan to mine coal from the last remnant of Germany’s 12,000-year-old Hambach Forest.

In response to the phaseout announcement, climate hawks and media observers said the company was just trying to sell the inevitable phaseout of its coal-fired power plants as a pro-active decision to cut emissions.

“As Europe’s largest single emitter, we believe that this ambition needs to be matched with a science-based target that ensures that decarbonization for the company happens in line with the goals of the Paris agreement,” said Steven Tebbe, Managing Director, Europe for CDP, the London-based organization formerly known as the Carbon Disclosure Project.

“Other firms are already ahead in this transition,” Tebbe added. “Those like Ørsted, Iberdrola, and Enel have approved, science-based targets in place and have recently committed to decarbonize at the pace required to limit warming to 1.5°C. To give confidence to investors and stakeholders, this must be the next step for RWE to show a viable path for faster emissions reductions.”

“With this announcement, Europe’s largest CO2 polluter is not assuming any responsibility for the climate crisis,” said Greenpeace energy specialist Karsten Smid, adding that cheap renewables and European climate targets will ensure that lignite power plants are retired long before RWE’s 2040 target date rolls around.