Coal casts a shadow over U.N. climate talks in Poland

  • Activists have questioned the integrity and effectiveness of the U.N. climate talks in Poland, in light of its close associations with the coal industry.
  • Among the event’s sponsors are three Polish coal companies, and in his opening speech, the Polish president said his country’s continued use of coal did not go against efforts to tackle climate change.
  • Activists say the influence of the coal lobby at the conference amounts to greenwashing and could undermine the effectiveness of any outcome from the discussions.

KATOWICE, Poland — Joanna Flisowska is a native of the coal-mining city of Katowice in Poland. She says she welcomes her city hosting the latest United Nations climate talks, seen as the most important discussions since the 2015 Paris climate summit.

The city of Katowice grew out of the discovery of rich coal reserves in the area throughout the mid-18th century. Since then, Katowice and its surrounding areas have turned into a major coal production center, home to around half of all the coal workers and the biggest coal company in the European.

The irony of a coal city hosting a summit on climate change isn’t lost on Flisowska, a coal policy coordinator at Climate Action Network (CAN) Europe. Instead, she sees it as an opportunity to take a stand.

“We can be such a bright example for the transition away from coal if only we could put effort into using these opportunities,” she told Mongabay at the climate talks.

The burning of coal accounts for almost half of global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions. And Poland generates 80 percent of its energy from coal. It’s the 10th-largest consumer of the fossil fuel in the world, and the second-biggest in the EU, after Germany.

So it was little surprising that the Katowice summit’s host, Polish President Andrzej Sebastian Duda, used his opening speech on Dec. 3 to declare that his nation’s dependence on coal doesn’t go against global efforts to combat global warming.

“The use of our natural resources, that is coal in case of Poland, and relying our energy security on these resources isn’t contradictory to climate protection and to the progress in the area of climate protection,” he said.

Duda added that there were no immediate plans for Poland to stop burning coal.

“Experts point out that our supplies run for another 200 years, and it would be hard not to use them,” he said.

If anything, Duda said, Poland was able to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent compared to the base year of 1988 by using technology to reduce emissions emitted from coal.

“We’ve been able to ensure energy security and the development of the industry based on efficient coal technology,” he said. “Poland presents a good example of a country following a sustainable development path because over the years, emission from our economy has been falling and we have been recording constant growth of GDP at the same time.”

Polish President Andrzej Sebastian Duda gives his opening remarks at the 24th U.N. climate summit in Katowice, Poland. Image by IISD/ENB | Kiara Worth.

Sense of urgency

This year’s climate conference was preceded by a cascade of gloomy reports, including one from the U.N. in October warning that humans have just 12 years left to cut global carbon emissions in half to have any chance of slowing the rate of catastrophic global warming, as well as climate-induced disasters around the world.

The number of climate-related extreme events, such as droughts, wildfires, heat waves, floods and cyclones, has doubled since 1990, research has shown.

As a result, there’s an extra sense of urgency at the Katowice talks, known as COP24, and delegates are looking to the summit to provide a ray of hope.

The conference has three primary goals: complete the rulebook for full implementation of the Paris Agreement, a landmark global pact to combat climate change; encourage nations to increase their carbon-reduction pledges by 2020; and increase climate-finance commitments for poor nations already suffering from the impacts of climate change.

Host countries of U.N. climate talks are usually expected to lead the negotiation process for countries to agree on how the global community can address climate change and limit the global temperature rise to avoid cataclysmic and irreversible climate impacts.

But in saying that Poland can continue to burn coal to fuel its economy while also tackling climate change, Duda has sent the wrong message — one that could help the fossil fuel industry tighten its grip on the country, according to Flisowska.

“The fact that the president, who should be well aware of who comes to this global summit that’s supposed to fight climate change, said something like that, it’s really misleading to the public,” she said. “[The public] probably know much less than the people inside the conference center. So what should people believe in if their president said something like that?”

Pascoe Sabido, a researcher and campaigner at the nonprofit Corporate Europe Observatory, also criticized Duda’s statement, saying there was no such thing as clean or emissions-free coal.

“Science bears out the fact that such a statement is completely untrue,” he told Mongabay. “Even Poland’s planned new coal plant, which they claim is going to be the latest most efficient technology, is still going to be an enormous emitter of climate-wrecking pollution and lead to thousands of premature deaths.”

Sabido also slammed the Polish government’s decision to measure its emission reduction achievement by using the baseline year of 1988, not 1990 as commonly used by other EU member states.

“Do you know what happened in 1991? The Berlin wall came down and the Soviet Union collapsed. So all economies in the EU collapsed and there’s nothing to do [with climate policies],” he said, “In the EU, we’ve reduced our emissions by 30 percent, all that based on economic collapse.”

If the Polish government used 1990 as its baseline year, then the country’s emissions reductions would only amount to 20 percent, Flisowska said.

She added she was “extremely frustrated” with how Duda touted the COP24 conference center as being built on the site of a former coal mine.

“Katowice is one of the greenest cities in Poland right now with forest covering more than 40 percent of the area,” he said.

The reality, Flisowska said, is that power plant chimneys continue to pump out plumes of smoke and monitoring sites elevated levels of air pollution.

Between November and April, a heavy veil of hazy smog often hangs over the city. It is, quite literally, a homemade problem: More than 80 percent of private households are heated with outdated coal ovens, sending dangerous particulate matter and soot into the air unfiltered.

The burning of low-quality coal and even household waste is common, further exacerbating air pollution. Breathing the air in Katowice in a year has been likened to smoking 1,711 cigarettes a year.

“We have pretty bad air in Katowice during winter,” Flisowska said. “There are days where pregnant women are suggested to not go out.”

Delegates heading toward the plenary hall of the 24th U.N. climate talks in Katowice, Poland. Image by Hans Nicholas Jong/Mongabay.

Corporate influence

Flisowska’s frustration doesn’t end at Duda’s statements.

The climate conference, which carries a hefty price tag of nearly $67 million, is being sponsored in part by fossil fuel companies, including three state-run coal giants  as well as gas company PGNiG, insurance company PZU and PKO Bank — a decision that has caused an uproar among activists.

They include JSW, which describes itself as “the EU’s largest coking coal producer” and PGE, which operates the world’s second largest fossil fuel power plant.

“We hope that our participation in the summit attended by nearly 30 thousand delegates from across the globe, including heads of states and ministers of the environment and industry, will contribute to promotion of JSW as an environment-friendly leader of the mining industry,” Daniel Ozon, president of one of the sponsors, JSW, said on the company’s website.

“We want to strengthen the image of the JSW Group in the international forum as the biggest producer of coking coal and coke, i.e. the components required for production of steel and development of modern, low-emission industry and innovative technologies of the future.”

During the climate talks, JSW will organize expert panels at which it will present the company’s environmental efforts to reduce emissions.

Flisowska said the Polish government shouldn’t have allowed fossil fuel companies, which together are responsible for at least 71 percent of global emissions, a platform at such a major international event to greenwash and lobby for false solutions to climate change at a time when the stakes could not be higher.

“I’m extremely frustrated with it,” she said. “I think there’s a lot of miscommunication, misinformation that’s created by the government and also by the coal utilities that’s changing the perception of reality.”

Corporate Accountability media director Jesse Bragg said the involvement of fossil fuel companies in this year’s climate summit cast the negotiations into doubt.

“There’s a lot of skepticism of what can be done in this COP24 partly because of coal sponsorship,” he told Mongabay. “It’s like if you have an arms dealer sponsoring a peace talk.”

Bragg said sponsoring COP24 was a desperate act by coal companies looking to remain relevant as the fossil fuel is systematically phased out in the EU due to rising carbon prices and stricter air quality rules. The Carbon Tracker Initiative estimates that nearly all of the coal-fired power plants in the EU will lose money by 2030.

“This is their last shot of getting their agenda locked in the Paris Agreement, so they’re pretty much here and active,” Bragg said.

Corporate Europe Observatory’s Sabido said the U.N. had displayed “willful ignorance” in allowing the climate conference to be sponsored by fossil fuel companies.

“This is not the first time, it happens time after time,” he said, citing the example of the Paris summit in 2015, sponsored by French natural gas utility Engie. With the fossil fuel industry so deeply embedded in the climate talks, Sabido said he was concerned the negotiation process would get derailed.

“We’re getting massively distracted from the task at hand which is staying under 1.5 degrees [Celsius, or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit],” he said. “Instead, we’re talking about crazy technology and how to make coal clean.”

A display of coal in the Katowice pavilion during the COP24 climate talks in Poland. Image by Hans Nicholas Jong/Mongabay.


Sabido said the fossil fuel companies’ involvement in the climate talks was part of a greater greenwashing campaign. He cited a display of coal in the Katowice pavilion during the summit.

Asked about what the display signified, a worker at the pavilion said that it was meant to show that Katowice was moving away from coal to clean energy, as evidenced by a display of grass outside the pavilion. Inside, the pavilion also features products made of coal, such as soap — a “perfect example of greenwashing,” Sabido said.

“For me, I don’t see a transition, I see the grass covering the reality. The air is still incredibly polluted and they’re still building new plants and coal mines. The Polish government is being very clever,” he said.

The Polish Energy Ministry recently said in a draft document that the country would reduce its percentage of energy coming from coal from the current 80 percent to 60 percent by 2030.

However, to meet the targets agreed to curb global warming, Poland will need to reduce coal use in its power generation to 39 percent by 2030, not 60 percent, Jan Witajewski-Batvilks, an expert with the Warsaw-based Institute for Structural Research (IBS), told AFP.

And even if Poland manages to meet its stated target of lowering the coal mix to 60 percent, that doesn’t mean coal production will decrease. Piotr Naimski, the secretary of state in charge of energy infrastructure, said coal production would remain at near current levels, with Poland mining some 65.5 million tons in 2017.

And according to an analysis of the Polish government’s energy outlook document, carried out by Greenpeace Poland, the decrease of coal in the country’s energy mix doesn’t mean much because Poland is projected to consume more energy due to its economic growth.

“We will simply use more energy and the use of coal will be similar,” Greenpeace Poland campaigner Pawel Szypulski told Mongabay. “They’re not planning to phase out coal. So they’re still building new capacity and keeping plants that they already have.”

Recent statements from the Polish Energy Ministry indicate that the country will stick with coal for the foreseeable future, including an announcement that it planned to invest next year in a new coal mine in the Silesia region.

And a position paper issued in November by the ministry said: “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.”

While it doesn’t make sense economically speaking, since electricity produced from coal will be more expensive than that generated by renewables in the long run, the Polish government still has a vested interest in keeping the coal industry alive, according to Szypulski.

“There are 80,000 people working in this industry, and they are quite well organized, unlike any other business in Poland,” he said. “They are able to put pressure on politicians, I believe it’s all simply about votes.”

Szypulski said there were many examples of Polish politicians with close ties to energy companies. He cited an article on energy transition written by Michał Kurtyka, the secretary of state in the Polish Environment Ministry, who is also the president of COP24, sponsored by the Polish Electricity Association (PKEE).

“PKEE is a lobbying body of the Polish energy sector that works in Brussels to slow down the transition to renewable energy sector,” he said. “This is the level of to how the messaging of the Polish presidency was compromised by Polish utilities. At least it shows how close the ties are between them.”

The historical coal mine of Guide in Poland. Image by the Polish Foreign Affairs Ministry.

‘No more excuses’

As host of one of the most important climate talks, one that will determine the future of the planet, there’s simply no excuse for Poland to keep protecting the fossil fuel industry, according to Meenakshi Raman, coordinator of the climate change program at the international research and advocacy organization Third World Network (TWN).

“If they themselves can’t phase out coal and fossil fuel, and the U.S. can’t give up their oil addiction, what kind of leadership or what kind of examples are you showing to the world?” Raman told Mongabay.

She said Poland, as a developed country and member of the EU, should have set a positive example for other countries at this critical point in time.

“The thing is rich countries have no more excuses,” Raman said. “Poland is part of the EU, they can’t be having more excuses. Even Germany, which is supposed to be champion of climate, is not phasing out coal. So there is a real problem.”

Banner image: Members of civil society demonstrate in the hallway, calling for an ambitious outcome at the 24th UN climate talks in Katowice, Poland. Image by IISD/ENB | Kiara Worth.

This story first appeared on Mongabay

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