By Lucas Schoeppner
COP 19 in Warsaw, Poland. A coal conference next door. A hunger strike by the Philippine negotiator after Typhoon Haiyan. NGOs staging a massive walkout. Australia and Japan, backpedaling on their past commitments. And in the middle of the conference, Poland’s environmental minister gets fired because he isn’t letting fracking occur fast enough, leaving him as an awkward lame-duck president of COP 19 and, well, not much else. It might have been somewhat dysfunctional, but don’t let anyone tell you it wasn’t interesting.
Much criticism was leveled against Poland for the visibility of the coal industry during the climate talks. So what do regular Polish people think of this circus? And why does Poland have such a love affair with coal?
Doubling down on coal
The low expectations for the talks were not helped by their setting. Around 90 percent of Poland’s electricity comes from coal. “Walking to the conference yesterday morning, you could smell the coal in the air,” said David Ciplet, a researcher at Brown University who is investigating carbon policies. Poland’s government has been notorious for blocking EU progress on reducing carbon emissions. “The top three factors that have held the EU back in terms of politics are Poland, Poland and Poland,” Samantha Smith of the World Wildlife Fund told Bloomberg News.
Many NGOs were uncomfortable with the visibility of the coal industry within the conference. “They funded a lot, with big stands inside. I’m not the only one who thinks it’s somewhat strange,” said Josh Kempinski of Flora and Fauna International. To top it all off, Poland is about to double down on its coal use, with plans to build two big 900 megawatt expansions at an existing power plant in Opole, Poland.
This is in addition to the country’s massive Bełchatów power station, which is the biggest single carbon polluter in the EU. The new capacity is slated to come online around 2020. Though they will reduce the carbon intensity of current outdated plants by about one third, these new facilities will be part of the energy infrastructure for decades. Coal is affordable and domestically sourced, and industry supporters are quick to point out how coal supports energy independence. However, due to the rising costs of mining coal in Poland, the amount of coal imports into the country is increasing, recently exceeding the amount exported.
The Polish citizens
Many Polish citizens believe a headlong dive into alternative energy just isn’t feasible, given the country’s status as one of the poorer EU states. Alexander Kamenske is an electrical engineer from Warsaw who got a job as a coatroom attendant for the COP 19 summit. As delegates and NGOs made final speeches on the last day of the negotiations, he took a smoke break, away from the bureaucrats inside who had been talking for almost two weeks. “We use coal because we have only coal. There are no other solutions or other options without a very high cost. For us, cost is a very high barrier.”
He also mentioned the lack of interest in the conference within Polish society, which has one of the lowest levels of concern about climate change within the EU. “In the Polish media, there is no information about this. If you watch Polish TV right now, you will see almost nothing about this conference.” The Polish government itself didn’t even bother to pay lip service to the conference; a Polish civil servant admitted to the Financial Times that “Poland did not make a strong effort to host, but it is a prestigious event, so we took it.”
Karolina Kirey is a Polish university student living in Warsaw, who was passing out flyers for amber jewelry to exhausted negotiators and NGO reps too worn out to be interested in trinkets. She admitted that she has seen only one local news channel covering the conference.
“I care for the environment, but my friends don’t,” she said, mentioning that to her, young people seem less interested in the environment than older Poles. When citizens are concerned, she said, “they care more about pollution in their own city, soot in their air. They care less about climate change.” For some Poles, it seems, the immediate pressures of economic development and soot in the city air mean that climate talks just aren’t on the radar.
The role of shale gas
For a several years, Poland was seen by many investors as the EU country most likely to pursue shale gas exploitation. After several companies recently pulled out of shale gas exploration in Poland, citing less promising exploration results and a difficult regulatory regime, the role shale gas might play in the near future of Poland’s energy mix isn’t a clear one. This is despite a level of popular support for the use of hydraulic fracturing higher than anywhere else in the EU.
However, the dismissal of Environmental Minister Marcin Korolec in the middle of COP 19, whose administration was blamed for slow progress on shale gas exploitation, could be a signal that development will be accelerated.
“The future of Polish energy is in brown coal and black coal, as well as shale gas,” said Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk in September, “energy independence requires not only the diversification of energy resources, but also the maximum use of one’s own resources.”
Shale gas-fired power plants could have a lower carbon intensity than the planned new coal plants if fugitive emissions are properly managed. However, if bringing the coal plant expansions at Opole online will take until 2020, it is reasonable to think that scaling up shale gas use could take even longer. Nonetheless, the use of domestic natural gas would also reduce reliance on imported Russian gas, a long-standing sore spot for the Polish government.
For all the criticism it is getting for its resistance to climate policy, Poland has actually decarbonized a great deal in recent decades and exceeded its Kyoto Protocol targets. However, this was achieved mainly through the closing of inefficient industries after the collapse of its communist regime. Because about 70 percent of Poland’s coal plants are over 30 years old and inefficient, replacing them with newer coal plants or shale gas-fired generators could still reduce carbon emissions. Of course, the concern is that this will lock in an energy infrastructure incompatible with the globally agreed upon carbon limits required to avoid a global temperature rise over 2°C, and divert capital away from lower-carbon alternatives. This reality was not lost on many participants in the climate negotiations, some of whom were clearly discouraged.
“Poland brought the coal industry to the heart of the climate talks,” said Kempinski. “It is a fine line between not ignoring [the fossil fuel industry] and slightly greenwashing the event by having them present and letting them say that they are working to a solution.”
Despite some progress on issues like deforestation, the spectacle of COP 19 wasn’t very pretty. But at least by hosting the event, Poland has forced those of us in the climate “chattering class” to more directly grapple with the huge role coal will continue to play in developing markets.
Lucas Schoeppner is an independent ESG analyst and journalist who has worked for National Public Radio, the investor network Ceres, and the research provider Sustainalytics. As one of five journalists selected annually for the “Fulbright U.S. Young Journalists in Germany” program, he is currently living in Berlin covering the potential economic and environmental impacts of shale gas development in the EU.
Image credit: original photo from the author.