Polish strategies for decarbonization

Coal power plant in Bełchatów
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Coal’s long shadow: Polish national-conservatives could take European climate politics hostage.

On August 6, the new Polish president – Andrzej Duda, from the right-wing and anti European Law and Justice Party (PiS) – was sworn into office. And if the current political winds do not change, we can expect a substantial shift in the Polish parliament after the general elections in the fall, warns Michał Olszewski. Current polls suggest that the PiS will gain a significant margin. Pessimists warn that we should be prepared for a “Hungarian scenario”.

This will have severe consequences for Polish environmental policy. The first red flag came from Krzysztof Szczerski, one of the closest advisers to the new president and responsible for foreign policy. Shortly after winning the presidential election, Szczerski revealed a number of conditions for its partnership with Germany. Among them this: “Finally, Berlin must recognize that Polish coal mining industry will not be jeopardized by the European Union’s energy and climate policy. Of course we are not supporters of poisoning our air. Both the president-elect and I come from Krakow. We want to reform our energy system, and we will do it. But we do not accept a dictate that stops the development of our country and tells us to close all our coal industries”(“Rzeczpospolita” of June 14, 2015).

This statement is not out of the ordinary. This is part of a consistent and coherent policy narrative that has been shaped by PiS for the past years. The party sees the EU climate and energy goals as misguided and harmful for Polish industry. In fact, since 2008, when Poland signed the first energy and climate law, PiS has fiercely criticized any EU climate and energy decisions. During the negotiations on the EU 2030 goals, they called on Polish authorities to veto it.

Why does the PiS believe that European energy policy should be constructed in such a way as to enable Poland to continue its coal mining? Who is preventing Poland from developing its mining industry? I recall that in 2008, Poland successfully negotiated a European support package for the Polish energy sector. Poland received free permits to emit carbon dioxide. The package was supposed to help modernize the Polish energy sector, but was essentially used to support coal power plants. Similarly, during the 2030 goal negotiations, Poland, among others, managed to negotiate that CO2 emissions permits for the power sector would continue to be made available for free. So the main reasons for the troubles of the Polish coal sector are not EU regulations. Instead, the Polish coal industry has suffered immensely from the state of the world coal market (i.e. very low prices of good quality raw material) and international competition in particular. For the PiS, however, the matter is clear: the main cause of problems to the Polish coal industry is the notion of decarbonisation. It’s a very convenient approach to the problem and one of the reasons why the party is supported by the powerful mining unions. So the easiest way for the PiS is to deal with the issue is to find an enemy outside Poland and point a finger at EU officials. It is more difficult to admit that there are a number of other factors responsible for Polish mining crisis, including domestic and international ones, independent of EU policy.

Yet another energy detail: the PiS is not interested in developing a “prosumer” movement of small and decentralized power producers. Instead the energy program of the party is based on maintaining a traditional large-scale power scheme, based mainly on coal and large state-owned utilities. Windmills and solar panels are seen as a German invention that is incompatible with the Polish energy vision.

What would Polish-German negotiations on the coal issue look like? I have no idea. Germany plays a key role in negotiations of European climate policy, but all decisions are finally made by EU member states. The 2030 goals have been agreed upon, and there is no way to imagine that the Germans or anyone else for that matter would want to renegotiate them. However, it is clear that the PiS will want to request a special status for the Polish coal industry. Perhaps they see Poland as a carbon island on the map of a largely decarbonized Europe?

The information and views set out in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion of the Heinrich Böll Foundation.