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November 21, 2013

Beyond “Coaland”: Poland hosts COP 19

During the proceedings of the UN Climate Change Conference of Parties (COP 19), Poland has earned the nickname “Coaland” from activists. Partly because of the unprecedented move in which Warsaw hosted The World Coal Association's “Coal and Climate” conference simultaneous with COP 19. 

Photo courtesy of Julia Michalak
Activists giving President of the COP, Marcin Korolec, a shirt that reads “Coaland Proud Citizen.”

Civil society in Poland and from around the world is demonstrating outrage at the hypocrisy of this move with protests and actions designed to show global support for Poland's moving beyond coal. In Warsaw on Sunday, a march on climate traveled from the city center to the National Stadium where the COP is being held. Sierra Student Coalition is supporting a Polish NGO's “StopEP” campaign against the building of a new coal plant in Pomerania in northern Poland. And a rally was held outside the coal summit on Monday to show outrage at the fact that it was happening while the world's leaders were meeting to work out the newest iteration of an agreement on lowering emissions with the goal of keeping the change in climate to below 2 degrees Celsius.

The “Coaland” moniker is also earned because Poland currently produces almost 90 percent of its electricity from coal. This is in spite of the EU regulations and renewable energy directives that the country has refused to follow to such an extent that it might be levied a large daily fine until it complies.

The government is synonymous with the industry because it owns the mining and the electric utilities in Poland. Following Poland's independence from Soviet control, the country has managed to decouple its economic development from greenhouse gas emissions. But it can do much more. A recent poll of the Polish people shows the majority of the people of Poland are opposed to the country's coal reliance, but the government is not responding to this information because there is still only a small number of voices active in pushing the government in its desired direction toward renewables. Similar to places in the U.S. where mining is a large part of the economy, a large group oppose moving away from coal because they fear loss of livelihood.

I spoke with some members of Polish NGOs about their views of the situation in their country as they try to move it into alignment with the EU's and global clean-energy goals.

Tobiasz Adamczewski, the Climate and Energy Expert from WWF Poland tells me that way he looks at the numbers, the Polish government's argument that coal will give Poland energy independence is false. Even from a purely financial perspective, given the state of the existing mines in the country, it will be cheaper to use coal only if the coal is imported. Otherwise, they will have to go much deeper in existing mines, which is a safety hazard for the miners, or open up new pits, displacing the people living in those areas at great expense. And they already do import a large amount of coal from Russia and projections include larger imports as energy needs rise. Health effects of the pollution from the coal-fired plants and environmental degradation from mining increase the projected costs greatly.

A European Environmental Agency study recently found Poland's second city, Krakow, has the third worst air quality in Europe. Krakow is also the home of the Academy of Mining and Metallurgy. Based in places like this century-old institution, the Polish government's idea is that they can “innovate” with “clean coal” technology, which they can then export. Technologies such as carbon capture and storage do not yet exist in a form that is viable economically or effective environmentally, and as the atmosphere passes 400 parts per million of carbon dioxide, we don't have time to wait. 

Mr. Adamczewski said the free trade agreement that is currently being negotiated between the EU and the U.S. is going to be an important factor in the targets set by the EU in the future. He said that if the U.S. has strong protections in place around coal plants, it will help the EU maintain their more stringent standards. But it could easily become a race to the bottom with lax regulations, which is why Sierra Club is so concerned about the pact.  

I asked what they would like to see in the next five years for clean energy in Poland and he replied, “We would like to see a good renewable energy law, which gives individual citizens the ability to produce green power economically, and a change in the perspective of Polish people toward climate change. And with that, a change in the mindset of policy makers so that Poland is never again a blocking country in the EU.”

Countries will conclude this round of climate talks on Friday, and despite a groundswell of support, especially for the Philippines in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan, we could see little outcome in the form of meaningful agreements on emissions reductions or pledges for funds for mitigation, adaptation and the new category for weather events like Haiyan, loss and damage.

You can tell Secretary of State Kerry he needs to make the US push for meaningful outcomes of the COP.

--Claire Horn, Sierra Club Georgia Chapter volunteer

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