German government and Green regions are letting the lignite industry decide on air pollution standards for power plants

On Friday 7 May the German Bundesrat may vote a dangerous compromise allowing business as usual pollution levels for German coal and lignite power plants. The Green regions’ failure to pull the brake on this proposal would be terrible news for Germany’s public health and claimed leadership in pollution standards, NGOs warn.

The Bundesrat is set to vote on the adoption of EU pollution limits for large combustion plants at the national level, known as the 13. BImSchV. The item had been taken down from the agenda of the March session following the objection of Green led regions and is now back on the table. Back in March, NGOs had called on the Parliament to reject the adoption of those standards that are not fit to protect people’s health and the environment from toxic industrial pollution [1].

The Greens had initially demanded the standards to require more effective controls on nitrogen oxides emissions from gas turbines and at least a symbolic tightening on mercury pollution limits for coal combustion, however they now seem ready to endorse an even weaker proposal [2].

“Most of the blame should go to the federal government for tabling a proposal written by and fitting the interests of the lignite industry, but it would be a disgrace for the Green party to give in. This would send a terrible complicity message to the rest of the EU, showing that Germany is putting the fossil industry interest before public health. The Greens must resist corporate greed, it seems they have been fooled big time” said EEB Policy Manager Christian Schaible, who has been involved in the definition of EU standards on behalf of NGOs since the start.

The EU Industrial Emissions Directive requires all operators of Large Combustion Plants to comply at the latest by 17 August 2021 with emission ranges set by EU law according to the current best available techniques to prevent pollution (BATs). These emission limits should have been transposed into German law as early as August 2018.

Germany should choose to adopt stricter emission limits that would prevent thousands of premature deaths and save society €5.6 billion a year in terms of health and other air pollution-related costs just for coal combustion. However, three years later than the implementation deadline, the German government’s proposal aligns to the most indulgent possible limit values to favour the lignite industry [3]. This would not trigger any further abatement by German plants of toxic pollutants such as mercury (Hg) and nitrogen dioxide (NOx), and leave citizens exposed to tons of dangerous emissions that could be avoided [4]. Enforcing the strictest NOx limit would allow Germany to cut the pollution load by more than 80%.

Schaible said: “German decision makers, including the Greens, seem unfit to protect citizens and the environment from coal pollution. Approving those weak rules for the sake of legal certainty would harm the overall reputation of Germany as an environmental leader, they should better trust the ability of permit writers to set emission limits within the stricter EU emission ranges and wait for a new government to take back control to restart from scratch”.   

With coal phase out discussions happening in several central and eastern European countries, and the European Commission possibly strengthening emission limits in the near future, the German Bundesrat’s vote has far reaching implications beyond national borders.




[2]The new amendments tabled as a “compromise” from the Green led Baden-Württemberg, ruled by Winfried Kretschmann, are almost aligned to the government proposal. The following changes were made:

  • For hardcoal plants, the initial higher level of ambition of 2µg/Nm³ for mercury emissions, due to apply 3 years after entry force is delayed by another year and aligned up to 4µg/Nm³ maximum EU limit for “system relevant plants”
  • For lignite plants the situation is worse:  the initial marginal improvement proposal on mercury due to apply as from 2025 (5µg/Nm³) is weakened further to 6µg/Nm³, meaning business as usual for all RWE lignite plants and the Lausatia / MIBRAG plants firing higher mercury containing lignites (e.g. KW Schkopau, HKW Chemnitz Nord and KW Lippendorf, of which one unit is owned by Energie Baden-Württemberg AG EnBW.) For plants with capacity <1500MWth and the high mercury input plants where this was relevant, the higher permissible EU level of 7µg/Nm³ has been copied over from EU minimum requirements.

A 2019 study commissioned by North Rhine Westphalia confirms that already since 2012 all RWE lignite units achieve values below 5µg/Nm³, of which the highest one is Neurath (5µg), due to the 10mg/kg fuel input threshold, the limit of 5µg/Nm³ will be set anyways (see page 59 and following).

A very recent study commissioned by the German Federal Environmental Protection Agency (DE UBA) confirms that at least 3.3 tonnes of mercury per year of operation of lignite power plants could be prevented on an annual basis if dedicated mercury controls would be required (achieving 80% reduction) (see page 132, table 29).

The EEB study of 2017 confirms those enormous pollution saving potential by requiring BAT levels of 1µg/Nm³

  • Nothing is proposed on the more critical NOx parameter, which led Germany to vote against the EU standards in the first place. The current average in Germany is around 180mg/Nm³ due to optimization of primary measures (boiler tuning) only. A level of 150mg/Nm³ would have required introduction of the technique called Selective Non Catalytic reduction (SNCR), achieving 20-30% better abatement. A limit of  100mg/Nm³ or below would have required the more effective catalytic version (SCR), enabling to cut further NOx pollution by at least 75%. See EEB study / briefing here
  • The only positive initial ambition to tackle NOx emissions from gas turbines (cutting the limit from the proposed 30mg/Nm³ to 10mg/Nm³) meant further investment in DeNOx (SCR) but has been given up by the Greens as well. The proposal would allow not even built plants to sideline the SCR controls, if the operator applied for a permit before the entry into force of the law. This stance will not achieve the necessary 65% NOx reduction required under the EU NEC Directive.

[3] The EEB heavily criticised the draft proposal as an example of “Klientel-politik” in its August 2020 submission to the public consultation on the German draft law (, in German), because it failed to look at the important public benefits that would be delivered by stricter limits.

[4] The public benefits of preventing just the NOx pollution could amount to 11,9 Billion € over 10 years. Requiring lignite operators to meet the strict mercury level of 1µg/Nm³ could also prevent a damage cost of about €165 Million per year of operation. Considering all air pollutants, a potential €5.6 Billion in annual air pollution cost “savings” could be achieved. The EEB also criticised the lack of transparency on public access to monitoring data in Germany, and authorities’ failure to correct those flaws.