Polish dependency on coal and possible routes that Poland may follow in the future

This is a guest post by Magda Strzala for Aberdeen Climate Action

WHY DOES POLISH ECONOMY RELY HEAVILY ON COAL?


Opening the COP 24 UN summit, Polish President Andrzej Duda boasted that Poland is sitting on 200 years’ worth of coal supplies and ‘it will be hard not to use them.’ These words uttered by the Head of State surprised and outraged many, particularly in times when the EU actively calls for cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

Currently, there are 90 coal deposits in Poland which produced above 140mln metric tons of coal in 2012, providing 55% of that country’s primary energy consumption, and 75% of electrical generation. Poland is the ninth-largest coal producer in the world and second in Europe.

International Energy Agency 2016 Review provides that productive capacity of 62% of Polish coal mines is older than 30 years. Such coal mines are around 20% less effective than the more modern ones, burning more coal and emitting more greenhouse gases.

Despite the lack of sufficient redevelopment in that area, the coal mining industry in Poland became a source of identity and national pride, especially in the southern Silesian area. Coal mining has historical value in that region, as well as cultural and political connections.

Many fears that weakening the coal industry or diversifying the energy mix will lead to an economic disaster. This, together with above mentioned almost ‘mythical status’, has led to a heavy reliance on the highly pollutant fossil fuel that remains Polish main energy source.

Polish CO2 emissions constitute around 1% of the world’s emissions. If all countries (regardless of population and economy) emitted as much as Poland- global emissions would double.

NEGATIVE SIDES OF POLISH ‘BLACK GOLD’

Coal, known in Poland as ‘black gold,’ has helped the country gain its energy independence. But, that high-polluting fuel has been linked to serious diseases and premature death.

Of the 50 most polluted cities in the EU, 36 are in Poland, causing nearly 50,000 premature deaths a year, according to the European Environment Agency. Cracow Smog Alarm proved that benzo(a)pyrene level in the city was 8 times above the recommended limit. Each resident’s exposure to the toxin is equivalent to the damage caused by smoking around 7 cigarettes a day. Similarly, according to data collected by Quartz, in one day in January 2017, the levels of air pollutants registered in Warsaw reached 437 micrograms per cubic metre – with the average norm established by the EU being 50
micrograms per cubic metre.

In the 70s in Poland there were around 4 days in a year with a temperature above 30 degrees; in the last 10 years, there were on average around 13 days with such temperature. The last two decades have shown that more frequent precipitation has negatively affected the risk of floods, water erosion and landslides. Disastrous floods occurred in Poland in 1997, 1998, 2001, and 2010. There is also a serious threat of drought in the vegetation seasons (major droughts occurred in 1992, 2003, and 2006) which impeded the country’s ability to feed itself.

CAN POLAND OVERCOME ITS COAL DEPENDENCY?

During the last UN summit talks, due to increasing pressures, Poland promised to reduce its reliance on the fossil fuel. However, with 100,000 coal-dependent jobs in the country, switching to alternative sources of energy may carry great economic risk.

Recently, 17 Polish cities joined a zero-carbon coalition. According to a survey by Greenpeace, a proposal to phase out coal by 2030 has the support of 69% of Poles. On the other hand, currently governing party the Law and Justice won the 2015 parliamentary elections on a promise to keep the coal industry as the country’s main energy source. Politicians are aware that the mining industry plays a crucial role; weaning Poland off its coal reliance may lead to a decrease in support from those involved in this sector. Hence, the government should ensure that during that process benefits packages should be offered to those adversely affected by necessary transformation of the Polish energy sector.

Those politicians who have tried to introduce changes are struggling, according to Mateusz Klinowski, the former mayor of Wadowice located in Silesia. He lost office in an election after trying to cut pollution and wean the city off coal. ‘But even if I tell them the planet is dying and I will give them 50% of the cost of a new heating system, they think it’s just green bullshit and not necessary. We need to change the state government and do it at the top level.’

One of the main coal mining cities in Silesia – Katowice – has partly reinvented itself as a cultural centre, conference hub and university city, but the resistance has been fierce from the left and right of the old economy. The Solidarity union, representing tens of thousands of Polish miners, has joined with the
right-wing US lobby group, the Heartland Institute, to dispute the climate change.

But it is not just Poland ignoring the problem. Coal is on the rise in Japan, Indonesia, India, Vietnam and Russia. In China, the world’s biggest producer, output has increased after several years of declines. Ottmar Edenhofer claims that planned new coal investments in the world would add 330 gigatonnes of CO2 to the atmosphere.

Jennifer Morgan of Greenpeace concluded the COP 24 held in Poland: ‘A year of climate disasters and a dire warning from the world’s top scientists should have led to so much more. Instead, governments let people down again as they ignored the science and the plight of the vulnerable. People expected action, and governments did not deliver. This is morally unacceptable.’

I do believe that Poland can move away from coal dependency. But what is needed is active involvement of the government. Politicians can change the attitude of society towards climate change. Individuals do speak up and raise awareness but, unfortunately, it does not suffice; especially when we talk here about transforming the energy sector. Right now, I do not know if I should be optimistic about the future of the Polish energy sector. On one hand, concluding COP 24, Poland’s presidency sought to highlight the issue of a “just transition” for workers away from fossil-fuel jobs. But I do not see any decisive steps that the government would take. I hope that this inaction will end and that our politicians will finally be concerned not only about profits but also about our planet. How long do we need to wait? Well, future will tell; let’s just hope that it will not be too late.

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