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Environment

COP24 host Poland's toxic love affair with coal

media Smoke and steam billows from Belchatow Power Station, Europe's largest coal-fired power plant operated by PGE Group, near Belchatow, Poland November 28, 2018. ©REUTERS/Kacper Pempel

There are growing calls for world leaders to step up climate action at crunch UN talks in Katowice, the capital of Poland’s Silesian coal mining district. However, stakeholders are having a hard time getting their message across to host Poland, which seems reluctant to give up its reliance on coal.

While delegates hammer away at the rules on how to limit further warming of the planet, coal fire stations outside, are burning.

This aspect of daily life in Poland has not stopped, despite UN talks aimed at achieving a fossil-free world.

"The government is not serious but they should be serious about climate change," says Marcin Woscinksi, a local Polish man.

"They should change the coal situation and think about other forms of electricity," he told RFI from Tychy, a lush green town 20 kilometres south of Katowice and vaunted as an example of Poland's green transition.

Activists call the transition a mirage, pointing to the presence of coal companies at the talks.

Experts argue that phasing out coal is possible but will not "happen overnight."

A case in point : Europe's largest coke coal producer, the Budryk Coal Mine near Katowice, is still facing pressure to clean up its act.

RFI's Jan van der Made interviewed workers and management at the mine back in 2009. Clearly, nothing has changed, as his video explains.

Dilemmas in a Polish coal mine

"Even for the very ambitious CO2 reduction scenario between 2015 and 2050, this phase-down of coal will take 30-35 years," says Jan Witajewski, an economist at the Institute for Structural Research in Warsaw.

Killer smog

Poland is still going strong on coal: 80% of its power comes from the fossil fuel, often at serious health consequences to its citizens.

The European Environment Agency says pollution leads to more than 44,000 premature deaths in Poland a year, urging the country to speed up its fight against smog.

"We are ready," to go green, insists Woscinski. "It would be better not only for Poland but also for the rest of Europe." The continent aims to reach carbon neutrality by 2050.

In the meantime, Poland is trying to diversify its energy sources. Energy Minister Krzysztof Tchorzewski is pushing for nuclear power to meet the Paris climate targets, but experts warn that a nuclear plant is unlikely to be built until 2030.

This means the amount of coal in the country's energy mix is likely to stay unchanged for at least another decade.

Despite the toxic air, the mounting pressure to drop coal altogether and the dire climate warnings, Polish politicians are gripping on to fossil fuel with tenacity.

Illusion of security

Coal, commonly referred to as “black gold,” is seen as energy security to Russian gas in this country, which broke away from Soviet control three decades ago and remains deeply suspicious of its neighbor to the east.

This reasoning however, is flawed, reckons Oliver Sartor, a researcher at the Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations (IDDRI), author of a report on Poland's coal transition.

"The government no doubt wants to appease unions and the local communities. However, this is short sighted: workers and communities will be worse off when the unsustainable economic situation holding up the coal sector finally comes undone in an unmanaged and unplanned way," he told RFI.

Managing the transition

Market conditions may force Poland to switch to renewable power sooner.

It is important to note that many existing hard coal mines are uncompetitive compared to imported coal and the latter is expensive compared to solar and wind power.

The challenge will be in finding new jobs for former miners, for whom coal is a way of life.

"We don't expect massive layoffs, provided the transition is not going to be rapid," comments economist Jan Witajewski.

Polish authorities have been promoting the notion of a 'just transition' to ensure that the switch to renewable energy does not leave anyone behind, or lead to a backlash like in France against the government's climate change policies.

"By the time the production of coal will be very small, most of these people [miners] will be retired. (...)," continues Witajewski.

"There will be some challenges for the economy, but we have to make sure that other sectors are growing."

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