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Fortum/Uniper among Europe's worst polluters, say NGOs

Last year, Finland's biggest energy firm, Fortum, became the largest owner of a heavily-polluting German company.

Dark clouds over Uniper's Scholven Power Station in Germany's Ruhr Valley. Image: Hans Blossey / AOP

Finland's biggest energy company, the majority-state-owned Fortum, is one of the EU's worst emitters of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, asserts a report backed by major European environmental groups.

The finding is mostly based on Fortum's ownership of the coal-heavy German energy company Uniper. Fortum is Uniper's largest owner. As of last year, it the holds a 49.99-percent stake in Uniper, and has expressed an interest in buying the remainder of the firm's shares.

A study by Climate Action Network (CAN) Europe claims that due to its stake in Uniper, Fortum is involved in energy production that is linked to hundreds of premature deaths annually in Europe and sets back efforts to slow climate change. The study is part of Europe Beyond Coal, an initiative backed by various NGOs including CAN, Greenpeace, the WWF, Friends of the Earth and the European Environmental Bureau.

Uniper has more than 11 gigawatts (GW) of coal-fired assets in Europe and Russia. Within the EU, it owns hard coal plants in Germany, the UK, France and the Netherlands, as well as a higher-polluting lignite (brown coal) plant in Germany.

The study adds Uniper's emissions to Fortum's proportionally, based on the Finnish firm's ownership stake. The data is from EU registries from 2016 and 2017. Since then the companies have sold off or converted some facilities.

For instance in 2017 Fortum closed its idle Inkoo coal plant and last year converted two old coal plants in Poland into the new Zabrze combined heat and power (CHP) plant, which burns coal and waste, and could also run on biomass.

Fortum: Uniper an independent company

Fortum, which describes itself as "a leading clean-energy company," says that "the focus on reducing CO2 emissions has been in Fortum’s DNA for decades" and that its "carbon exposure is already one of the lowest within the European power generation industry."

Fortum says that 96 percent of its power generation in the EU is "CO2-free". This does not however include its heat production (which relies partly on coal), its operations in Russia, India and Norway, or its share of Uniper's energy production. Roughly one third of that is generated with coal with a quarter of that from high-emission brown coal.

Fortum says it does not include Uniper's emissions in its own figures since it is an independent company.

"We do not hold a controlling stake over this company. Therefore we do not combine their financial and production figures [with ours]," Pauliina Vuosio, Fortum's VP, Executive Communications, told Yle.

German, Czech firms the biggest polluters

According to CAN Europe research, the 10 European electricity producers that emitted the most GHG emissions in 2017 were heavily coal-driven.

The report blames the top 10 companies for two-thirds of the health damage caused by coal power plants. That includes an estimated 7,600 premature deaths annually, based on World Health Organization health impact assessments for air pollution.

Together the firms churned out nearly 10 times as much GHG as Finland's entire economy annually. The combined Fortum/Uniper entity comes in tenth on the list, producing nearly half as much as all of Finland each year.

The highest-polluting company, Germany's RWE Group, pumped 136 billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere that year, followed by the Czech Republic's EPH Group at 77 bn. The rest of the list includes Italian, Polish, French and Greek companies, as well as another Czech firm, followed by Sweden's Vattenfall at 27 bn and Fortum/Uniper at 23 bn.

Four of the 10 highest-polluting electricity producers have their main coal plants in Germany, including RWE and Uniper. Vattenfall also owns coal-fired power plants in Germany.

Comparing the CO2 output of all firms subject to EU emissions trading, Fortum/Uniper is 12th on the list, as the top 10 electricity producers are then joined by a French steel company and an Italian oil and gas firm.

Coal drove emissions rise in 2018

According to Beyond Coal, 103 companies operate coal power plants in the EU. It calculates that 26 plants have closed since early 2016, with 32 more scheduled to retire and 263 still operating – as well as 60 planned new projects.

The International Energy Agency, meanwhile, says burning coal is the largest source of global temperature increase. It estimates that CO2 from coal has been responsible for nearly a third of the 1°C increase in global average annual surface temperatures above pre-industrial levels.

Coal plants were the biggest contributor to the growth in global emissions last year, says the IEA, rising nearly three percent from 2017 levels and exceeding 10 gigatons for the first time.

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