In the fight against EU supremacy, our lungs are a small thing to sacrifice. Photo: © lukovic photograpy /

Poland and Bulgaria challenge EU air pollution law

Threat to annul new emission limits for coal-fired power plants that could save more than 20,000 lives every year.

In October last year, Poland launched legal action against the European Commission aimed at overturning newly adopted EU-wide air pollution standards for large power stations, and in early January Bulgaria announced its support for the Polish appeal.

In addition, in November the umbrella organisation of the European coal industry (EURACOAL) together with German lignite industries filed a case with a similar aim, namely to annul the new emission standards.

The legislation under attack is a reference document for best available techniques (BAT) for large combustion plants under the 2010 Industrial Emissions Directive (IED), which was adopted with a qualified majority by EU member states on 28 April 2017 and published in the EU’s Official Journal on 17 August (see AN 2/17, pp 8–9).

The BAT document contains air pollution standards that will require EU countries to apply new, tighter emission limits for sulphur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxides (NOx) and particulate matter (PM) to all existing large combustion plants (LCP) in the EU, including all large coal-fired power plants. Emission limits for mercury have also been introduced for the first time. The new emission limits will have to be complied with by 2021 and could save more than 20,000 lives every year by reducing pollution from coal-fired power plants alone.

Commenting on the legal challenge by Poland and Bulgaria, ClientEarth lawyer Sam Bright said: “This is irresponsible use of the law. Poland is clutching at legal straws for political and economic reasons, instead of supporting measures that will protect the health of millions. These entirely reasonable standards don’t just apply to Poland – they are designed to clean up plants all over the EU. Knocking them down has implications for every country.”

She continued: “Bulgaria has a terrible track record on emissions from energy production. The government is currently fighting several legal battles relating to the national coal industry. That includes unlawfully allocating public money to coal plants, and failing even to stick to the former, lower pollution limits. The legal case against the Commission is weak and Bulgaria’s intervention sends a terrible political signal. The Bulgarian government should be showing true leadership during its EU presidency, not trying to undo rules designed to protect our health and the climate.”

The Polish state-owned Bełchatów lignite plant is the biggest emitter of carbon dioxide (CO2) and NOx in the EU, and the second-worst SO2 emitter. The Bulgarian lignite plant Maritsa is also one of the EU’s most polluting point sources for all three pollutants (see AN 3/17, p.3).

A study prepared by consultants DNV-GL on behalf of the European Climate Foundation shows that 82 per cent of coal capacity expected to be online in 2021 is currently failing to meet the minimum air pollution BAT standards. To achieve EU-wide compliance with the new rules could require capital investments of €14.6 billion, resulting in annual incremental costs of €2.3 billion in 2021. These are significant additional costs for an industry that is already under great economic pressure.

Actually, more than half of all the EU’s coal-fired stations are already loss-making, according to a recent report by Carbon Tracker. Stricter air pollution standards and higher carbon prices will increase the operating costs, pushing even more plants into unprofitability, and resulting in 97 per cent of coal plants losing money by 2030. By phasing out coal power by 2030, losses of €22 billion could be avoided.

“The changing economics of renewables, as well as air pollution policy and rising carbon prices, has put EU coal power in a death spiral,” said Matt Gray, Carbon Tracker analyst and co-author of the report. “Utilities can’t do much to stop this other than drop coal or lobby governments and hope they will bail them out.”

When considering the urgent need to drastically cut not only air pollution but also CO2 emissions, as well as the deteriorating economics of coal power, it appears logical and rational that these old polluting plants should quickly be closed down.

Christer Ågren


ClientEarth news 27 October 2017 and 10 January 2018. Link:

Hard coal/lignite fired power plants in EU28. By DNV-GL (June 2017). Link:

Lignite of the living dead. By Carbon Tracker (December 2017). Link:




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