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Portugal coal

"No to oil, gas, and coal," reads one of the placards carried by demonstrators at a September 27, 2019 climate protest in Lisbon, Portugal. (Photo: Horacio Villalobos/Corbis via Getty Images)

'Momentous Day': Portugal Becomes Europe's 4th Country to Quit Coal

"The challenge now is to ensure utilities do not make the mistake of replacing coal with fossil gas or unsustainable biomass."

Brett Wilkins

Environmentalists on Monday hailed the shutdown of Portugal's last coal-fired power plant—a move that came nearly nine years ahead of the government's 2030 target—while warning against converting the facility to run on unsustainable biofuel.

"Ditching coal only to switch to the next worst fuel is clearly not an answer."

Reuters reports the Pego power plant in Abrantes, which was responsible for 4% of Portugal's carbon emissions, exhausted its coal stock on Friday, making Saturday the first day in the nation's history that electricity was generated without the fossil fuel.

In shuttering the facility, Portugal fulfilled a pledge it made along with 18 other nations at the 2017 United Nations Climate Change Conference—COP23—to phase out coal power plants.

"Freeing ourselves from our biggest source of greenhouse gases is a momentous day for Portugal," Francisco Ferreira, president of the environmental advocacy group Zero, told the Associated Press Monday.

In decommissioning Pego, Portugal becomes the fourth European country after Austria, Belgium, and Sweden to go coal-free. While the nation of 10 million inhabitants now generates as much as 70% of its electricity from renewable sources, it remains heavily dependent upon imported fossil fuels to meet all of its energy needs.

According to the End Coal coalition, the fossil fuel is responsible for over 800,000 annual premature deaths globally and millions of additional illnesses.

While cheering Portugal's fossil fuel milestone, climate campaigners warned of the dangers of converting the Pego plant to burn wood pellets, with Zero's Ferreira warning that the country's accomplishment is "soured by the prospect of the plant being converted to burn forests."

"Ditching coal only to switch to the next worst fuel is clearly not an answer," he stressed.

In a statement, Zero told Diario de Noticias that "the future of the Pego plant must not involve burning biomass, an inefficient option that calls into question more ambitious goals for mitigating climate change."

Kathrin Gutmann, campaign director at Europe Beyond Coal, said in a statement that "Portugal is the perfect example of how once a country commits to quitting coal, the pace of the phaseout inevitably accelerates. The benefits of transitioning to renewables are so great, once started, it only makes sense to get out of coal as fast as possible."

"The challenge now is to ensure utilities do not make the mistake of replacing coal with fossil gas or unsustainable biomass," she added. "Instead, the focus should be on rapidly upscaling our renewable energy capacity in wind and solar."

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