Katowice, Poland – Starting today, the Polish city of Katowice is hosting the largest and most crucial U.N. climate summit since the landmark 2015 Paris accord. The goodwill of its host, however, seems rather doubtful.
Representatives of over 190 countries, as well as numerous NGO’s and civil society organizations, will flock to the Silesian city in Poland’s south to give a new momentum to international climate negotiations and agree on concrete measure to implement and reach the goals laid out in the French capital three years ago.
This summit comes at a pivotal time for international cooperation on climate change, under growing pressure following Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States, the world’s second largest emitter of greenhouse gas after China, from the 2015 Paris agreement. His decision emboldened other climate change skeptics around the world, including newly elected President of Brazil Jair Bolsonaro, who recently announced that his country, the world’s seventh largest emitter, will not host next year’s climate talks. The stakes are high, with experts repeatedly highlighting that the current course of action will not be sufficient to rein in global warming and urging world leaders to do more, faster.
As host country, Poland will be in charge of presiding over the talks and of facilitating the negotiations in order to reach an agreement by the end of the summit, on December 14. The fifth largest emitter of greenhouse gas in Europe, Poland is also the most polluted and coal-reliant country in the bloc.
Located at the heart of Silesia’s mining region, Katowice itself – like dozens of other Polish cities – is one of the most polluted cities in the EU. According to the European Environmental Agency, air pollution is to blame for around 50.000 premature deaths per year and countless cases of respiratory illness in the country.
Although Poland has reduced its share of coal in power generation, the Central European country still relies heavily on coal (80% in 2017, compared to 98% in 1990) to meet its electricity needs. With around 400.000 people working in the industry throughout the country, and households highly dependent on the cheap, often low grade coal to heat their houses during cold winter months, Poland’s leaders are reluctant to plan any official phase-out in the near future. Already under growing pressure both at home and abroad on several fronts, the Polish government knows that such a move would only come at a great social and political cost.
To make matters worse, Deputy Energy Minister Grzegorz Tobiszowski announced on Thursday that Poland will start investing in the construction of a new coal mine in Silesia. “Poland needs coal, and either this will be our coal or from outside”, he said, referring to the country’s growing coal imports, including from Russia.
According to experts from the Warsaw-based Institute for Structural Research (IBS), quoted by AFP, Poland should reduce the share of coal in its electricity mix to 39% by 2030 in order to fulfill its commitments. Released one week ago, a draft version of the country’s long-term energy strategy lays out plans to reduce the share of coal in power production to only around 60% by that time. According to government officials, the country’s reliance on coal will only be halved during the following decade, due to the launch of the first nuclear plant scheduled for 2033, along with offshore wind farms.
But even though the relative share of coal in Poland’s energy mix is expected to decrease in the next three decades, that doesn’t mean that coal production will stop or even fall: on the contrary, analysts expect it to remain at near-current levels (Poland mined over 60 million tonnes last year).
“Poland doesn’t have a strategy, it’s the short-term political interest that prevails, the difficult decisions are being postponed”, said Marek Jozefiak from the Greenpeace Foundation, pointing to the recent launch of the Ostroleka coal-fired power plant by Energy Minister Krzysztof Tchorzewski in his political stronghold north of Warsaw.
Well aware of the social and political risks, Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party has consistently indicated its preference for the continued use of coal. And while the EU climate chief urged the bloc to take the lead and aim for net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 ahead of the Katowice summit, the Polish government has opposed any moves that would threaten its strategic energy sector: “Poland opposes the EU’s increased CO2 reduction targets for the year 2030 as this would have a negative impact on the electricity sector and the Polish economy as a whole”.
Poland is not the only European country that still strongly relies on coal. Together, Poland and Germany account for 51% of the EU’s installed capacity and 54% of the emissions from coal-fired power plants. Quite symbolically, both countries are the only ones to have hosted COP climate summits more than once – Germany hosted it four times, while Poland has already been the host of the COP14 in Poznan in 2008 and the COP19 in Warsaw five years ago.
Ahead of the opening ceremony, whose main sponsors include some of the country’s largest mining and energy groups, Greenpeace activists attempted to stage a wake-up call and climbed the 180 metre-high chimney of the Belchatow plant, Europe’s largest lignite-alimented plant and biggest coal polluter, responsible for around one tenth of Poland’s total CO2 emissions. “We are pushing nature to the brink and now she’s pushing back”, Marek Jozefiak argued. “A climate crisis in unfolding before our eyes, and political leaders who have the power to change the course of events must lead us towards a solution”.
Will world leaders, enshrouded in the infamous Katowice smog, be able to hold constructive discussions and agree on concrete steps to tackle climate change? We’ll just have to wait and see.