The Power of Coal in Poland

When we speak about Poland’s position in climate change policy negotiations, an image of huge coal power plants, massively pumping black smoke into the air, quickly pops up in our mind. As a country that is heavily reliant on coal-fuelled power generation, Poland often appears as a main opponent to ambitious greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reduction targets, which are negotiated either on the EU level or on the global level. Just recently, in the context of COP 21, the Polish government condemned the EU’s ambitious goals, arguing that they would damage the European and Polish industry.

 

Yet, when it comes to meet the targets set by the European energy strategy for 2020, Poland seems to be doing remarkably well. Primary energy intensity has decreased since 2005 at a faster pace than the EU average, the increase of GHG emissions was lower than the set target, and Poland is on the best way to meet its target for the share of renewable energy by 2020. So what is all the fuss about?

 

The problem lies with the long-term perspective. Poland’s economy is expected to grow in the coming years, which implies that its energy needs will also increase. The main resource on which the country intends to rely to satisfy those needs is coal. Approximately 85% of Poland’s electricity consumption is based on coal, which causes far more GHG emissions than any other energy carrier when used for electricity production. An effective dealing with climate change issues is not compatible with this approach.

 

The Polish government is reluctant to initiate reforms of the energy sector. The country’s big coal industry is considered as the motor of the Polish economy. Coal is a cheap commodity, easy to transport and to store. For Poland, which has big coal reserves on which it can rely, it is a symbol of energy independency. Other countries in the neighbourhood, such as the Baltic States or Finland, use gas instead of coal. In addition, having to import this gas from Russia makes them highly vulnerable.

 

But these arguments justify Poland’s strict adherence to coal on the surface only. In reality, its coal industry is not as profitable anymore. The international coal market is in crisis, as coal prices have plummeted, pushing the Polish coal industry on the brink of bankruptcy. It has become cheaper to import coal than to produce it domestically for Poland. In the first three quarters of 2015, the country’s coal industry has had losses reaching almost €400 million, with large companies such as Kompania Weglowa reaching out to the state for support.

 

Economic arguments can hardly give a good explanation for the strict adherence to coal. There are however some political and sociological factors that play a significant role. First, there is a strong lobby of coal miners who exert a lot of pressure on the government. Given the symbolic status of the Polish coal industry, coal miners can easily influence the public opinion, which is why any Polish government will be eager not to harm the coal miner’s interests. What is more, climate and environmental issues are not as present in the consciousness of Polish citizen’s as they might be in Western European countries. As pointed out by Prof. Dr. Zbigniew Karaczun, an expert on climate issues in Poland, the former communist country has experienced an economic boom only since the beginning of the nineties, and most citizens are still more concerned with increasing their standards of living than with the general quality of their environment.

 

Given the current crisis of its coal industry, it is inevitable that Poland will reform its energy sector in the coming years. Hopefully, this will also give a positive turn to its attitude to climate change policies. Before we can expect Poland to fully accept these issues as a priority on its agenda, we will have to wait for a change in the general mindset of the people. The Polish society needs a stronger awareness of environmental issues and has to change its perception of the coal industry, whose potential role in economic growth is very much overestimated.

Laurin BERRESHEIM

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