8 of Europe’s 10 dirtiest coal power plants are in Ukraine.

Eight of the ten dirtiest European coal power plants by particulate matter emissions are in Ukraine, 12 of 30 by sulphur dioxide emissions and 9 of 30 by nitrogen oxide emissions. But the most astonishing fact is that the state continues to subsidize them, instead of investing in new generation methods. The reason is the oligarchic lobby in the government, especially in the current government of Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal who used to work in DTEK – the energy company of the richest Ukrainian tycoon Akhmetov.

Interestingly, Ukraine still formally complies with its international obligations regarding emissions, and lies in the middle of a global trend towards more renewable energy. But it should be compared with its progressive European neighbors, not with the main world polluter, China.

Global trends

Ukraine is often neglected in global energy reports; compared to dragons such as China, the country is a tiny player in the electricity market with little growth.

However, many of Ukraine’s coal power plants are old and cause significant emissions of sulphur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxides (NOx) and other chemicals.

Currently, Ukraine, Turkey, and Western Balkan countries are competing in coal power air pollution in Europe, followed by Germany and Poland, according to the Ember think tank. The report by the Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air claims SO2 and NOx contribute significantly to higher levels of lung diseases in Ukraine.

According to the report by Ember, global wind and solar generation rose strongly in 2020 by 15% (+314 Twh), accounting for almost a tenth (9.4%) of the world’s electricity last year, doubling from 4.6% in 2015.

Many G20 countries now gain around a tenth of their electricity from wind and solar: India (9%), China (9.5%), Japan (10%), Brazil (11%), the US (12%) and Turkey (12%). Europe is leading the way, with Germany at 33% and the United Kingdom at 29%. Indonesia, Russia and Saudi Arabia still have near-zero clean energy.

The world share of electricity generation by type. Source: Ember

Ukraine lies at exactly the world average by wind and solar generation, making up 9% of domestic electricity production.

However, last year rapid development of wind and solar generation slowed down in Ukraine because of difficulties with balancing day- and night-time generation from solar power plants – an issue less relevant to fossil or nuclear power generation.

This is why the government reduced green tariffs on Ukraine’s market, causing a number of lawsuits from electricity companies. The future of wind and solar generation in Ukraine is unclear. At the same time nuclear and many coal power plants are 35- to 65-years-old and already pose a huge environmental threat.

Making Ukraine green again: how to keep the renewable “energy miracle” going

On the global market, China was the only G20 country with a large increase in coal generation. China’s electricity demand was 33% higher in 2020 than in 2015 — the most rapid increase in the world. China’s fossil-free generation met only 54% of the rise in electricity demand; 46% was met from fossil generation. That made China responsible for more than half (53%) of the world’s coal-fired electricity, up from 44% in 2015.

China openly demonstrates a complete disregard towards decreasing coal use in electricity generation. It is the only G20 country where coal generation is increasing. It is also the world leader in coal generation increase. Source: Ember

The dirtiest power plants in Europe

The report by the Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air claims pollutants from Ukrainian power plants are among the reasons for a higher share of lung diseases in the country compared to the rest of Europe. Pollutants include sulphur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxides (NOx) and particulate matter.

1954 Darnytska heating and power plant, located just inside Kyiv city, burns coal and gas. Source: ecodiya

According to the report, coal-fired power plants in Ukraine are responsible for 80% of the total emissions of sulfur dioxide in Ukraine and 25% of nitrogen oxides, while there are essentially no emission controls for sulfur and nitrogen oxides at Ukrainian coal plants.

The report by Ember shows more nuanced data.

For particulate matter emissions from coal plants, Ukraine is the frontrunner by a large margin. The main contributors of sulfur dioxide pollution from coal power in Europe are Ukraine (27%), Turkey (24%), Serbia (15%) and Bosnia & Herzegovina (11%). Turkey also takes the lead with a 20% share in nitrogen oxides pollution from coal power, followed by Germany (16%), Ukraine (16%) and Poland (14%).

Particulate matter pollution from coal power in Europe. Sources: Europe Beyond Coal (for the EU and the UK), European Environment Agency (for Energy Community countries), HEAL (for Turkey). Graph by Ember.

SO2 pollution from coal power in Europe. Sources: Europe Beyond Coal (for the EU and the UK), European Environment Agency (for Energy Community countries), HEAL (for Turkey). Graph by Ember.

NOx pollution from coal power in Europe. Sources: Europe Beyond Coal (for the EU and the UK), European Environment Agency (for Energy Community countries), HEAL (for Turkey). Graph by Ember.

Ukraine meets international regulations of EU Energy Union

Interestingly, due to its large population and territory, Ukraine has a relatively high ceiling for emissions and, despite many outdated plants, was effectively within limits.

On 1 January 2018 the Large Combustion Plants Directive (LCPD) entered into effect in the Energy Community which extends the European Union (EU) internal energy market to neighbouring countries. The Parties to the Treaty are the European Union, along with nine Contracting Parties, namely Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Moldova, Montenegro, Serbia and Ukraine. As the report by Ember notes,

“The treaty regulates the emission levels of SO2, NOx and PM10 from existing thermal power plants. Bosnia, Kosovo, North Macedonia and Serbia did not comply with the ceilings both in 2018 and 2019. The Secretariat launched a dispute settlement procedure in March. Ukraine, as being on the top of all polluter lists, interestingly met all emission ceilings for all three pollutants by a large margin.”

The Ukrainian Burshtynska thermal power plant with capacity of 2351 MW leads the list of top SO2 pollutants from coal power in Europe.

Oligarchs behind the pollution

The outdated power plans and lack of money definitely contribute to slow modernization of Ukraine’s generating capacities. But the main reason lies with the oligarchs, in particular Rinat Akhmetov. He owns the top three biggest atmospheric polluters in Ukraine, including coal power plants. Being the richest Ukrainian oligarch, he controls the full cycle of production, from mining of coal to electricity generation.

So far, governments have not dared to confront Akhmetov directly. Conversely, the amounts of state subsidies to Ukraine’s coal energy are the largest in Europe. In 2018-2019 they amounted to EUR761 million. Yet more disturbing was the policy of Denys Shmyhal’s government. In 2020 it reduced green tariffs for renewable energy and showed no plans for modernization of Ukraine’s generating capacities, while large subsidies for Akhmetov’s companies remained. Yet this is not surprising, considering that Shmyhal worked in Akhmetov’s energy company DTEK before becoming a minister.

“Due to long-term dependence on coal and low energy efficiency, Ukraine was the 32nd country in terms of total emissions in 2017. And the state’s economy is one of the most carbon-intensive. Therefore, the scale of subsidies spent on the most polluting energy source is alarming. As the world moves toward a carbon-neutral energy system, the report shows that we remain in the past. For a ‘green’ transformation, it is necessary to stop subsidizing, lending and investing in fossil fuels ,” comments Anna Bohushenko, an energy policy specialist at the Ecodia NGO.

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