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Portugal stops burning coal for good – what’s next?

Out of the frying pan and into the furnace? Portugal face an environmental dilemma...

Every country has their own environmental goals – and Portugal recently hit one of their big ones. They made the clean switch to renewable energy, after the last-remaining coal plant, Pego, halted production for good! But some climate activists are asking: is this out of the frying pan and into the furnace for the Iberian nation? 

Hundreds of protestors were calling for climate justice on Lisbon’s streets last winter. That’s down to a number of policies that still need changing in their eyes, especially after a new loophole was revealed. Portugal got a bid from a company that wants to burn wood pellets at the power plant, instead of coal. Environmentalists have said this will ‘sour the momentous day for Portugal’. [1] 

‘Ditching coal only to switch to the next worst fuel is clearly not an answer,’ said Francisco Ferreira, president of Portuguese environmental group, ZERO. ‘Instead the focus should be on rapidly upscaling our renewable energy capacity in wind and solar.’ 

What's wrong with wood pellets?

TrustEnergy, Pego’s biggest shareholder, plans to replace burning coal with burning wood pellets that were produced out of ‘forest residue’. Nope, that’s not dew or the wet mark your dog left from weeing on a tree… 

It’s actually a tricky term that implies fallen branches or maybe the odd piece of bark. Forestry residue can actually include any type of wood, including whole trees, according to EU rules.

If TrustEnergy goes ahead with the deal, it’s been estimated that between 1.1 and 5 million tonnes of wood would be needed to power the Pego plant every year. [2] This is super bad news whether you love forests or not! This move would produce way more carbon dioxide emissions…

In case you were wondering, trees are technically ‘renewable’ energy. It’s just that the air quality and climate will take a blow from the impact of burning more wood. ‘Clean’ renewables such as wind, solar, or nuclear, have been shown to produce between 4-6 grams of cO2 per hour.

Burning biomass such as wood pellets would increase this to around 98 grams! [3] 

That's more than a 1800% rise...

The risks of climate change are close to home in Portugal, where forest fires and poor air quality in cities are a growing concern. [4] So, will officials approve the switch, just weeks after COP 26? 

Biofuelwatch, an organisation campaigning against the proposed switch, says that TrustEnergy plans to ‘access millions’ from the EU’s Just Transition Fund. That’s a cash pool designed only to help communities to transition to renewable energy sources. 

But campaigners have led an open letter, signed by 9 other NGOs and 55 international organisations. It demands that the EU and the Portuguese government not allow public funds to finance ‘a coal to biomass conversion at Pego power station’. 

Will the rules be tightened? An EU document draft from June 2021 seemed to suggest that they would reword some policies that allowed  biomass to be called ‘renewable energy’. But we’re yet to see anything concrete yet! [5] 

We can all take a little cheer from the closure of the last-remaining coal plant in Portugal but it’s clear there is work still to be done. There’s a petition you can sign, run by Rainforest Rescue, a non-profit environmental organisation, to stop firms burning wood for ‘green’ power. 

Did you know that Contiki is going carbon neutral for 2022? Hit the link to find out how you can support sustainable tourism on your next travel adventure!








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