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23rd Aug 2019

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Poland's love affair with coal won't end soon

  • Poland, along with Bulgaria, are the countries with the worst air quality in the EU. (Photo: Bogusz Bilewski)

Poland's coal-based energy sector provides a livelihood for hundred of thousands of people in Upper Silesia and has the potential to swing Sunday's (25 October) national election.

In the small Polish town of Brzeszcze, part of the Upper Silesian coal basin, almost half of the 21,000 inhabitants depend on one employer: the KWK Brzeszcze mine, which is soon to be closed.

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  • Today coal based energy sector puts Poland in he position of 22nd most air polluting country in the world. (Photo: GrueneNRW)

More then 2,000 men stand to lose their jobs because, for the last couple of years, the mine has been unprofitable – for every tonne of coal sold, the company had to pay an extra 265 zlotys.

If the mine is closed, unemployment in the municipality will skyrocket from its already-high level of 11.6%.

A similar fate probably awaits another 11,000 workers from unprofitable mines run by the biggest state mining company, Kompania Węglowa and 3,000 from JSW.

"The situation in the mining sector is tragic and we are fighting to keep our livelihoods", Roman Brudzinski, head of the JSW miners' union, told EUobserver.

Aleksander Sniegocki, an energy market and climate expert from the Warsaw Institute for Economic Studies, said that it was only during the period of 2010 until 2013 that the Polish government pumped 22 billion zlotys into the mines in the form of state subsidies.

Poland is not only paying extra for every tone of coal produced in its mines, but the industry itself does not add anything to the country's GDP growth.

"The profitability of this industry is much lower than any other sector. The coal also doesn't count in the export results: we export only 10 million tonnes per year and [we] import [a] similar amount so the balance is zero," Sniegocki said.

Due to technological underdevelopment, the productivity of Polish mines is very low, with 648 tonnes of coal produced per worker per year while in the worst US mines it is more then 2,000 tonnes.

In the biggest state-owned coal companies - Kompania Węglowa and JSW - labour costs constitute 50% of operating costs (compared to the privatised and profitable Bogdanka mine, where operating costs are around 20%).

So why are politicians so eager to keep the coal industry alive?

Dariusz Jabłoński, a political scientist from Warsaw University, told EUobserver: "[The] Polish coal industry employs around 104,000 people mainly in one region: Upper Silesia. Another 208,000 people are on miners' pensions. Adding on those who are financially dependent on them we get to around 500,000 active voters."

"This is the reason why instead of the debate about climate goals before the Paris summit, Poland has a debate on how EU goals to cut CO2 emissions threatens the country's economic interest," Jablonski added.

Coal-based energy sector

A strong workers union lobby, in combination with coal's large share of Poland's energy mix are the reasons why Polish politicians are so reluctant towards decarbonisation plans.

According to Eurostat data, around 83% of energy consumed in Poland is produced from black and brown coal, while in the rest of the EU 28, the average is 28%.

Only around 10% comes from renewables (the EU 28 average is twice as high, at 20,4%) and only 4% comes from natural gas and oil (while in the rest of the EU 28 it is 25%).

The problem with gas and oil is that 90% of it is imported from Russia.

Changing these figures will be both expensive and time consuming. According to the long-term energy security strategy adopted two years ago by Donald Tusk's government, coal will remain Poland's main energy source until at least 2030 and will slowly be replaced by renewables, nuclear power and shale gas.

Currently, some 70% of Poland's 5.5 million households warm up their houses using coal installations, simply by using ovens.

This causes huge amounts of smog and makes Poland, along with Bulgaria, the countries with the worst air quality in the EU.

Coal-burning energy plants also add to this.

Today, the coal-based energy sector puts Poland in the position of 22nd most air-polluting country in the world. Poland produces 317 tonnes of CO2 every year, according to data from British Petroleum.

Despite this, the Polish government continues to invest in coal plants. Two years ago, the then PM Donald Tusk decided to extend the Opole Plant by building another two coal blocks. Large investments have also been made in the Turów, Kozienice and Stalowa Wola plants.

Polish politicians claim that coal plants can also produce clean energy.

"To reach emission goals we don't have to resign from coal. It is enough to switch to clean technology," Jerzy Buzek, chair of the ITRE committee in the European Parliament, told EUobserver.

One victory at a time

During the latest negotiations on the common EU position for the Paris climate summit, Poland has managed to push for one important solution: the "coal neutrality", which means that decarbonisation may be achieved in two ways: by the reduction of industrial emissions and by an increase in natural CO2 neutralisation, for example by reforestation.

But this compromise is not enough for Law&Justice politicians who are likely to take power this Sunday.

It is not clear what may happen during the Paris climate summit if Poland is represented by the Law&Justice ministers, but as Katarzyna Pliszczynska, current spokesperson for the Environment Ministry points out, the EU negotiating position is already agreed and is not subject to change.

"Poland's disagreement may only put the country in the outsider's position and create an awkward diplomatic situation," she said.

Katarzyna Guzek, Greenpeace spokesperson, said: "Climate change is a problem but it's a global problem so the responsibility is blurred. That makes it more difficult for people to understand that actions have to be taken locally."

This story was originally published in EUobserver's 2015 Regions & Cities Magazine.

Click here to read previous editions of our Regions & Cities magazine.

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