Zeran Power Station, Poland. Photo by Adrian Grycuk via commons.wikimedia.org, CC BY-SA 3.0 pl

Poland’s Difficult Balancing Act

Paris Climate Agreement stakeholders are convening in Poland to set the speed of the world’s response to climate change. But can Poland balance its appetite for coal with the international push for decarbonization?

From December 03 to 14, Poland will host the 24th Conference of the Parties (COP24), the key meeting of the stakeholders of the Paris Climate Agreement which will define the path of global climate policy in the coming years. Of symbolic value, the summit is in Katowice, the centre of Poland’s coal-based industry. While it is supposed to broker a difficult deal which could help slow global warming, Poland also has clear interests at stake. It is an industrial powerhouse and, most importantly, a country which has long been heavily dependent on coal. Balancing these two conflicting goals will be difficult. However, it will also give Poland an opportunity to improve its reputation which has been tainted by recent conflict with EU partners, nationalistic rhetoric and a rapidly worsening record on democratic standards.

Coal, which accounts for around 50 percent of Poland’s total energy consumption and almost 80 percent of its electric energy production, reveals the country’s climate policy conflict. Its appetite for the fossil fuel means Poland has the EU’s least diversified mix of sources of electricity production. According to government representatives, coal is set to remain the main source of electricity and will account for about 50 percent of its production in 2050. These figures, together with around 80,000 people who work in the coal sector, set the terms of the Polish energy and climate policy debate.

As the 2018 Bertelsmann Transformation Index (BTI) country report for Poland noted “there is a broad political consensus that economic growth should be given priority over protection of the environment”. The heavily subsidized and uncompetitive national coal industry is no longer the pillar of the economy that communist Poland used to be proud of. But the strength of the coal lobby, the structure of the power sector and Damocles sword of looming social conflicts are a major impediment to any attempt to change tack. And they put the country’s approach at odds with the EU’s goal to make the decarbonization and climate goals more ambitious.

Swelling C02 footprint

To be sure, since 1988 Poland has reduced its carbon emissions by 30 percent, outstripping its Kyoto commitments. However, the biggest reductions were made by closing old factories between1988 and 1990. Over the last four years emissions have actually been rising. Nevertheless, Warsaw will meet the EU emissions reduction targets in 2020. But the country is still largely critical about EU’s climate policy direction and, most notably, questions the very idea of decarbonization.

This has sparked clashes during recent discussions about the energy union project. It was originally a Polish initiative, launched by the then Prime Minister Donald Tusk. But, according to the current Polish government, the energy union has moved far from its origins, with decarbonization and climate policy beginning to play an important role. Warsaw criticized the so-called winter package put forward by the European Commission, which included a set of electric energy market regulations and the principles to reform the EU’s emissions trading system agreed upon in February 2017, which was aimed at raising the fees for CO2 emissions and thus accelerating the decarbonization of the economy. Poland has questioned the legal basis of this and other decisions which put pressure on Polish coal. Warsaw argued that the rapid pace of decarbonization would essentially require a change in the energy mix that, according to the EU treaties, is a decision that remains in the hands of the member states. However, the European Court of Justice rejected the Polish claim in June 2018.

Ignoring wind and solar

Instead of decarbonization, the Polish government promotes the idea of the ‘climate neutrality’ of energy sources. This is reflected in the recently published draft proposal for the Polish Ecological Strategy which does not mention decarbonization at all. In other words, it sees climate goals as being achieved not by crowding out coal but rather by using advanced low-emission technologies and, most importantly, offsetting emissions via CO2 absorption capacities of forested regions. And while the government aims to support renewables, the document specifically refers only to biogas, water and geothermal sources. It is striking that both wind and solar energy are not mentioned as priorities.

Ahead of the COP24, Poland is placing emphasis on national sovereignty to choose how to reduce emissions. Another key priority is achieving a stronger valuation for forested regions as a contribution to global efforts to stop climate change. It rejects the ‘anti-coal lobby’ which claims that climate goals cannot be reached without eliminating coal from the energy mix. As the European Union speaks with one voice at the COP24, the real battle is within the bloc. In particular, conflicting views on the level of future EU reduction commitments. While the Commission advocates for the target of 45 percent in 2040 (instead of the current 40 percent) the Polish government is at the forefront of the opposition. It argues that Europe should not press ahead with its commitments as real impact can only be achieved if also other regions and continents also recognize their responsibility. As the Deputy Energy Minister Grzegorz Tobiszowski recently said, COP24 will be a forum where different approaches to coal will clash head on. The Polish government will have to make sure that its clear vested interests do not overshadow its role of an honest broker of a badly needed agreement.

First published in taz, 29.11.2018, p.12

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