The Fate of Polish Coal

The upcoming UN Climate Change Conference, to be held on November 30 in Paris this year, means a lot to the fate of Polish coal. Environmental, climate, and health organizations in Brussels have advocated extensively for the EU to espouse a common goal of reaching at least 40% less carbon emissions by 2030. The results of Poland’s national election, set for 25 October, could signify a huge implementation problem.

Poland is the biggest coal producer and carbon emitter in the EU, with 90% of its electricity generation dependent on coal. Opponents of carbon emission reduction, namely labor unions, argue that transitioning to cleaner energies will pose a huge economic burden for the country. The coal industry gives jobs directly to about 100,000 persons and indirectly to about 1 million, according to national figures.

At the other end of the spectrum, advocates for the use of renewable energies argue that the price of renewables has fallen drastically, and that this new sector could employ as many as 100,000 people, the same number of people employed in coal. “In any case, renewable energy always ends up cheaper than coal, if you factor in the health and environmental costs that coal use precludes,” said Tobiasz Adamczewski, climate and energy expert at the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) in Poland.

Probably the biggest problem in switching to renewables in Poland is political, whereby energy companies do not operate in a totally free market system. “The major energy companies are partly state owned,” said Meri Pukarinen, climate and energy unit head at Greenpeace Poland. “In three cases the majority of shares is owned by the state.”

Recent national election polls show that the Law and Justice Party, a right-wing socialist party, is gaining in the polls (at 37%), whereas the Civic Platform Party, which heads the current government, is in second-place (at 27%). “If the Law and Justice Party end up winning, this will be a disaster for the fight against coal,” said Lukasz Adamkiewicz, Coal and Health Adviser for the Brussels-based Health and Environment Alliance. “The major point of their campaign is strengthening the coal industry, as coal employees form the biggest chunk of their voters.”

On the other hand, there is relative optimism concerning the success of the upcoming UN climate talks, as compared to the 2009 conference in Copenhagen and the 2013 one in Warsaw. “This time, there is a totally different geopolitical atmosphere. China is aligned with the US and has agreed to more carbon emission reductions,” said Adamczewski. “One can only hope that this will mean that the EU, hence Poland also, will take their commitments much more seriously.”

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