Will Poland’s COP24 Presidency and its addiction to coal undermine ambitious global climate goals?

By Kevin Anderson[1] and Magdalena Kuchler[2]
Dec. 2018

[1]Prof. Energy and Climate Change, CEMUS, Uppsala University
and Deputy Director of the Tyndall Centre, University of Manchester

[2]Senior Lecturer, Natural Resources and Sustainable Development,
Department of Earth Sciences, Uppsala University

This year’s round of climate change negotiations (COP24, the twenty-fourth meeting of the ‘conference of the parties’) is being hosted by the Polish city of Katowice – the proud centre of the countries thriving coal industry and the powerhouse of the Government’s proposed energy policy.

Katowice was built on “black gold”, the colloquial name for coal, with around 50 collieries operating within the city limits through until the 1930s. Today, as Katowice endeavours to rebrand itself as a city of economic and industrial transformation, twenty-two of Poland’s remaining twenty-three hard coal mines are sited within fifty kilometres of the city, producing more hard coal than any other EU region.

If COP24 coincided with Poland ushering in a clean energy revolution, then inviting the world’s policy makers, diplomats, scientists and NGOs to lend support to such a transformation would be understandable. But in stark contrast, Poland’s draft energy policy is set to lock the country into a high carbon fossil fuel future for many decades to come, in essence, to reject the Paris Agreement and embrace a latent form of climate denial. So why is the Polish government hosting its third COP in eleven years?

The Paris Agreement established a global commitment to reduce emissions in line with holding the rise in temperature to “well below 2°C” and to pursue the even more ambitious target of 1.5°C. Negotiators will be gathering in Katowice to compose the “rule book” for aligning national mitigation with Paris and for increasing financial support to poorer nations. Once established, this rule book will likely remain the principal framework of international guidance for many years to come. By hosting COP, the Polish Government can apply the subtle influence of the COP presidency to constrain the level of international, and particularly EU, ambition. Early signs from Michal Kurtyka, the COP24 president and Poland’s former Deputy Minister of Energy, suggests he will resist aligning the EU’s mitigation policies with the Paris 2°C commitment, let alone consider the rapid and deep reductions called for in the recent IPCC 1.5 °C and UN Emissions Gap Reports.

To understand the deep desire to thwart an ambitious rule book, it is necessary to recognise how deeply embedded coal is in Poland’s industrial history, how far removed from Paris the country’s existing energy system is, and the depth to which fossil fuels are core to the Government’s energy plans.

The notion of Poland as a country that “stands on coal” was enabled and fuelled by abundant resources of both hard coal and lignite. This indigenous coal played a key role in rebuilding the country after the Second World War, with the subsequent communist period overseeing a peak in production during the 1980s. Following the collapse of communism, the new and democratic government viewed Poland’s coal ‘monoculture’ as a challenge to the development of a progressive society. “Black gold” provided 97% of electricity generated in 1990, a legacy successive governments have struggled to escape. Although Poland meets the Kyoto commitments, the bulk of its emission reductions were a consequence of the prolonged recession accompanying the country’s economic transition. Since 2000, however, reductions in emissions have stalled, with some small increase evident in recent years.

Today a quarter of urban households still burn coal directly in domestic boilers, rising to over three quarters in rural zones. Apart from the carbon dioxide emissions, smoke from domestic chimneys combined with an inefficient housing stock gives rise to serous issues for local air quality, with very high levels of suspended particulates leading to thick smog with accompanying health impacts.

When it comes to electricity generation, 90% is from fossil fuels, with almost 80% from coal. However, the sheer scale of lock-in is only evident when reviewing the Government’s proposed energy plan – which is really a much narrower ‘electricity’ plan. By 2040, their draft policy sees fossil fuel electricity generation drop to a little over 50%, but set against a backdrop of rising electricity demand, this represents a real fall in fossil-fuelled generation of less than 20%. Moreover, the Polish Energy Ministry insists that the share of coal in national electricity will remain at over 60% well into the 2030s. What small reductions are proposed depend entirely on a new nuclear power plant and offshore wind farms. At the same time the Government intends to phase out onshore wind. Away from electricity, the plan provides much less detail, suggesting ongoing use of fossil fuels for both heating and transport.

Poland’s historical and contemporary lock-in to coal poses a huge risk to the forthcoming negotiations. To those unfamiliar with the protracted COP process, Katowice may appear little more than a detailed technical discussion. However to the dedicated few intimately engaged in the process, Katowice is where the fine words of Paris are translated into something more concrete. Without a rule book, or something similar, Paris remains as little more than a rhetorical aspiration. More worrying still, an anaemic rule book risks sustaining a political appetite for ongoing delay and only minor adjustments to business as usual. If the international community is to respond with purpose to the unequivocal evidence linking ongoing fossil fuel use with climate impacts, it needs a rule book informed by the science and aligned with the explicit Paris commitments. The Polish presidency is key to this. One can only hope that the highly educated and able Michal Kurtyka has the courage and invention to see beyond the short-term interests of his nation’s fading coal industry and support a rule book and just transition to a rapidly decarbonised future.