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Polish coal

Andrea Rönsberg / lwNovember 10, 2013

Negotiators from around the world begin meeting in Warsaw for an annual climate conference. In the past, Poland has made its mark by blocking the EU from calling for stricter greenhouse gas emissions limits.

View of the Belchatow power plant (Photo: Darek Redos/AFP/Getty Images)
Image: Darek Redos/AFP/Getty Images

For Christiana Figueres the facts are clear. "There is a very real necessity to reduce greenhouse gas emissions," said the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change's executive director. A report from the UN environment agency UNEP released at the beginning of November showed just how real this necessity is: we can only meet the target of limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius (3.4 degrees F) if greenhouse gas emissions worldwide are drastically reduced in the years leading up to 2020.

This goal was set out by the international community at the 2009 climate conference in Copenhagen. The average global temperature should not increase on pre-industrialization levels by more than 2 degrees Celsius. Despite the political agreement, countries have failed to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions in the necessary amounts since the agreement was made. According to UNEP, the greenhouse gas emissions in 2020 will be between 8 and 12 gigatons more than the amount compatible with the 2 degrees goal.

Poland blocks ambitious EU reduction target

The likelihood that big countries come forward at during the climate conference in Warsaw, which begins Monday (11.11.2013) with binding promises to reduce their emissions is low. This is partly due to the fact that the European Union has so far failed to set a good example by agreeing on an ambitious goal for its own carbon dioxide reductions.

The Climate conference logo inside the National Stadium in Warsaw(EPA/TOMASZ GZELL)
The conference is taking place in Poland's national Stadium in WarsawImage: picture-alliance/dpa

The EU has almost already achieved its official goal of a 20 percent reduction in their greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 in comparison to 1990. For a long time, environmentalists have been pushing for the EU to set itself a new, more ambitious goal. Some EU member states, for example France and the United Kingdom, have already come out in support of a goal of a 40 percent reduction in emissions by 2030. But one member country in particular is halting such agreements: Poland, the host of this year's climate conference.

"Particularly inside the EU, the role Poland has played in the last few years is a strongly blocking one," said Christoph Bals, policy director of the environment NGO Germanwatch. "Again and again, Poland has stopped goals from being increased as would have been necessary."

Coal-powered Poland

Poland meets around 90 percent of its energy requirements by burning coal. Compared to all other fossil fuels, coal releases the most carbon dioxide when used to create electricity. Despite this, Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk said the country will continue to focus on coal as its main source of energy.

"The future of Poland's energy lies in brown coal (lignite) and black coal," he said at a mining conference in Katowice in September. "We respect that reducing emissions is necessary, but we will nevertheless continue to rely on coal."

An excavator works in a open-cast lignite mine (Photo credit: Darek Redos/AFP/Getty Images)
Around 90 percent of Poland's energy comes from coal mines like this oneImage: Darek Redos/AFP/Getty Images

There is also the issue of protecting jobs in the coal industry. "It's being said that the price of energy generated from coal is much cheaper than it would be otherwise, if we moved towards renewable energies in Poland," Maciej Muskat, director of the environmental organization Greenpeace in Poland, told DW.

Environmentalists see a chance for renewables

But for Muskat, such arguments are just a pretext. "On the issue of price it's worth remembering that what's interesting from the point of view of the consumer, is not the price, but the cost," he said. "And the cost is always the price multiplied by usage. If they really wanted to drive down the cost for the consumer, the Polish government would make a strong move towards energy efficiency." Muskat, however, added that he doubts this will happen.

The European Commission has already pushed for a case against Poland at the European Court of Justice for failing to implement directives on developing renewable energies. According to a report published at the end of October by scientists from Greenpeace and organizations in the renewable energy sector, less than 8 percent of Polish energy requirements were met by renewable energies in 2010. The scientists said they believe that by 2030, this amount could increase to just under 27 percent - if Poland stopped using coal now. Drawing on the results of several opinion surveys, Muskat from Greenpeace Poland said he is convinced that such a transition would reflect the wishes of Polish citizens.

PR for the Polish government

It is unlikely that the Polish government will change their stance, and equally unlikely that it will allow the EU to set more ambitious goals during talks in Warsaw for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

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The Polish Minister of the Environment and President-Designate of the conference Marcin Korolec has stressed that he will lead this year's climate conference to success, said Maciej Muskat. "It's pure PR at the moment," he said, adding that if Poland keeps resisting stronger climate goals from the EU, there will be no progress internationally.

Cooperation necessary

Muskat said he hopes Polish citizens will put increasing pressure on the government to change its climate and energy policies. He also sees a chance that at least part of the opposition will take the issue on board in the medium-term.

But this will hardly change things for the climate conference in Warsaw. Bals of Germanwatch said he sees it as the duty of larger EU members, like Germany, to push for change. They would have to offer Poland a "package," allowing the country to change its stance without losing face or compromising security interests.

"On the one hand, we need to make it clear to Poland that if it focuses on energy efficiency and invests in renewable energies, its economy and its citizens can profit," said Bals. "Apart from that, we need to show Poland how not to become dependent on Russia through this kind of energy policy. The EU has to show that Poland's energy supply is guaranteed."