WARSAW - Poland’s coal habit is becoming more expensive and damaging to the environment, but the host of the COP24 global climate summit is struggling to part ways with its “black gold” and main energy source.
Polish cities and towns are among Europe’s most polluted, blanketed in smog during the colder months of the year due to the widespread use of coal, mostly low grade, for heating.
The European Environmental Agency blames air pollution for an estimated 50,000 premature deaths per year and countless cases of respiratory illness and other symptoms in the EU country of 38 million.
It currently uses coal to meet around 80 percent of its energy needs and some 82,000 people work in the coal sector.
Decisive and socially painful measures will likely be necessary for Poland to meet its commitments on emission reductions in the Paris Climate Agreements that are intended to curb global warming.
To meet those targets, Poland needs to reduce coal use in power production to 39 percent by 2030, Jan Witajewski-Baltvilks, an expert with the Warsaw-based Institute for Structural Research, said.
The European Union unveiled an even more ambitious plan Wednesday to cut emissions and make the bloc carbon neutral by 2050.
But just days earlier, Warsaw revealed that while it plans to reduce carbon emissions by 30 percent by 2030 compared to 1990, it would still use coal to meet 60 percent of its electricity needs 12 years from now.
Poland is planning to launch its first nuclear power station in 2033, with five more to follow, along with offshore wind farms. Coal is slated to account for under 30 percent of electricity production by 2040.
Delegations from nearly 200 countries are due in Poland next week for the latest COP24 climate summit, aimed at renewing and building on the Paris deal and limiting global warming.
Poland’s right-wing Law and Justice government has a clear preference for continued coal use, which has raised questions about whether it is serious about curbing emissions.
A position paper issued earlier this month by the Polish Energy Ministry said: “Poland opposes the EU’s increased carbon dioxide reduction targets for the year 2030 as this would have a negative impact on the electricity sector and the Polish economy as a whole.”
Due to EU pressure to decarbonize and thanks to the advent of renewable energy resources, coal-based electricity in Poland fell from 98 percent in 1990 to 80 percent in 2017, official statistics show.
Its relative share is expected to fall to 50 percent over the next three decades.
But that does not mean that coal production will decrease. According to Piotr Naimski, the secretary of state in charge of energy infrastructure, it will remain at near current levels. Poland mined some 65.5 million tons in 2017.
Should domestic extraction decline, Poland will meet its needs through imports.
Purchases of good quality and relatively cheap Russian coal increased significantly this year, reaching 12 million tons between January to September.
Environmentalists contend that subsequent Polish governments, no matter their political stripe, have failed to develop any real strategy to wean the country off coal.
“Poland doesn’t have a strategy, it’s the short-term political interest that prevails, the difficult decisions are being postponed,” says Marek Jozefiak, coal expert at the Greenpeace Foundation.
He points to the recent launch of the Ostroleka coal-fired power plant by Energy Minister Krzysztof Tchorzewski, in a region north of Warsaw that is his political stronghold — over 200 kilometers (125 miles) away from any coal mine.
According to Piotr Siergiej, an environmentalist with the Polish Smog Alarm NGO, the ever higher price of natural gas is driving consumers back to coal despite its health risks.
But Siergiej insists that at the macroeconomic level, Poland is paying a heavy price for its reliance on “black gold.”
According to Poland’s Supreme Audit Office, the mining industry received more than 15 billion euros ($17 billion) in subsidies between 2007 and 2015.
This figure does not factor in the cost of the toll that coal pollution takes on the health of Poles.
Siergiej argues that pumping coal subsidies into renewable energy would not only provide cheaper energy in the long run but would also bring substantial savings in health care.
Environmentalists also warn that a new law banning the retail sale of cheap, low-grade coal for use in home furnaces is unlikely to curb smog significantly.
They point to a government regulation allowing coal for retail sale to contain up to 30 percent of the most polluting low-grade varieties.