Europe is turning to coal to try and offset the effects of the energy crisis as a ban on all Russian coal imports came into force on Wednesday. However, EU authorities insist this will not derail their environmental commitments.
The embargo, agreed by member states in April, will end the import of all coal from Russia, which until now was Europe's largest source of coal. The bloc imported 52 million tons of coal from Russia in 2021 and the European Commission estimates that the ban will cost Russia $8 billion a year.
As the energy crisis intensifies, member states will be looking for ways to plug the energy gap by turning to other sources of coal and ramping up the transition to greener, renewable energy sources.
In the short term, experts predict that EU coal imports will increase by 43 percent in the next year as the bloc reduces its reliance on Russia oil and gas by 15 percent, as agreed by member states in late July.
Alternative coal suppliers in South America, Africa and southeast Asia could be used to meet Europe's needs but at a higher cost, with increased freight costs and coal prices soaring in the last year.
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Questions have been raised about how this recent uptick in coal burning fits into the European Union's commitment to being the first climate neutral continent by 2050, with environmental groups warning that coal cannot be seen as a long-term solution.
Elif Gunduzyeli, Senior Energy Policy Coordinator for the Climate Action Network, said that "any signal about having coal come back, not in a temporary way, but for good, would be a betrayal to the people who were promised a just transition away from a very dirty and unhealthy environment towards good and prosperous jobs and a sustainable energy system – as well as a betrayal to the investment and business community, so I wouldn't think that the EU can take that risk."
EU authorities are confident that coal use will be a short term fix which won't knock the bloc off track.
"We stay committed entirely to our objective of climate neutrality by 2050," said Eric Mamer, the European Commission's chief spokesperson, who said Russia's military action in Ukraine "paradoxically is going to help us speed up our move away from fossil fuels in general and Russian fossil fuels in particular. That is going to be done by energy savings, that is going to be done by the build-up in renewables, that is going to be done by energy efficiency."
With large parts of Europe still on track to phase out coal by 2030, a limited return to coal ahead of the challenging winter seems to be a short term fix while the bloc accelerates its transition to green energy.