Black Treasure in Poland Clouds UN Warming Negotiations

A few weeks after it finishes hosting United Nations talks on limiting fossil-fuel emissions, Poland may decide to double the size of one of its biggest coal-burning power plants.

Prime Minister Donald Tusk in June revived a $3.8 billion plan to expand the Opole electricity plant to guarantee security of power supplies, as it uses domestically mined coal. Next month, a final decision on the project is to be made by a government utility that owns Opole.

The facility, along with Poland’s dependence on coal to produce 87 percent of its electricity, raises questions about the nation’s stewardship of the annual UN global warming talks under way in Warsaw. As host, Poland is responsible for helping craft the final agreement. Environmental groups are concerned it may be weak because of the nation’s reliance on coal, the most polluting of major energy sources worldwide.

“The Polish government support for coal will not help to convince poor countries that it is committed” to advance the fight against global warming, said Wendel Trio, EU director at Climate Action Network, a pressure group attending the meeting.

The government doesn’t see any inconsistency between its own policies and hosting the UN talks.

“You can’t shift from fossil fuels to renewables overnight,” Poland’s Deputy Environment Minister Beata Jaczewska said in an interview. “We need to replace old plants and we do that with climate in mind: new power units will emit much less carbon dioxide.”

History Lesson

Erased from the map for more than a century when its territory was divided between Russia, Prussia and Austria in the late 1700s, Poland puts a big emphasis on its energy security as an essential safeguard for its sovereignty. Russia supplies most of its natural gas, and Polish politicians often speak of coal as a “black treasure” to be protected.

“As the spotlight comes here, there will be pressure on the Polish government to demonstrate how it will be a leader on climate change while protecting its energy security,” said Dirk Forrister, the president of the International Emissions Trading Association. “Markets can help make the link from the coal legacy to the clean energy future.”

Poland sits atop Europe’s largest reserve of coal and is the European Union’s most-dependent country on the fuel. It has sought to block European action to unilaterally step up emissions reductions and unsuccessfully opposed an EU measure that would help push up the price of carbon offsets. Ministers talk about balancing climate protection with the need to create jobs.

“We treat Poland’s coal reserves as an asset and a force for stability in energy supplies,” Deputy Prime Minister Janusz Piechocinski said in a speech to parliament in Warsaw on Nov. 7. “Our energy security now and for many years to come will be based on coal. The reindustrialization of Europe should be just as important a goal as emission reduction.”

Solidarity Demonstration

As if to emphasize the point, Warsaw is hosting a conference on coal Nov. 18 and Nov. 19 as UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon and senior ministers arrive for the culmination of the UN talks. Two days before then, about 10,000 miners from trade unions including Solidarity will demonstrate in Warsaw.

That dynamic makes Poland an unlikely host for the UN climate talks, which bring together more than 190 countries in an effort to pare back greenhouse gases. The meeting in Warsaw is aiming to put in place the building blocks for a treaty that could be adopted in 2015 to limit fossil-fuel emissions.

“Polish decision makers are complicit in speeding up the Arctic melt and slowing down efforts to reach a global climate deal,” said Maciej Muskat, director of Greenpeace Poland. “Poland has an opportunity to halve its coal demand and quadruple its renewable energy, if obstacles are removed and right incentives are put in place.”

Poland hasn’t yet detailed its proposal for the outcome of the UN talks. Marcin Korolec, the Polish environment minister who is presiding over the discussions, said the most important issues are finance, a new mechanism to help developing nations cope with climate-related losses and a timetable for discussions that will result in a draft treaty for 2015 appearing for negotiators to consider at next year’s meeting.

Qatar Example

This isn’t the first time concerns have been raised about a UN host. Last year, Qatar had to fend off questions on its position as the world’s biggest per-capita polluter. Poland volunteered to organize the talks, which under UN rules are scheduled to be held in Eastern Europe this year, and it has held the UN talks before.

With Poland, Tusk has landed on the side of coal in the domestic energy debate. While he’s also pushing for shale gas, which is less polluting than coal, the drilling program for 2013 is behind schedule, and the government plans taxes on explorers that would make investments less profitable.

Tusk’s Preference

Tusk redoubled his support for the expanding the Opole plant, which is owned by PGE SA. PGE canceled the project earlier in the year because of concerns it wouldn’t be profitable. Tusk put it back on the agenda in June before his Civic Platform party picked leaders. About 60 lawmakers from the Silesia region appealed to save the project, which they said was crucial for the region and the industry.

Environmental groups say Tusk’s policy doesn’t reflect mainstream opinion in Poland. A coalition of 11 groups including Greenpeace and ClientEarth wrote to Tusk last month asking him to abandon the 11.6 billion-zloty ($3.8 billion) project, which is 9 kilometers (5.6 miles) from Opole city in Upper Silesia, an industrial region in the mountainous southwest of Poland.

About 70 percent of Poles surveyed support using renewable as the nation’s primary energy source, a poll commissioned by Greenpeace and released Nov. 12 shows. That compares with 18 percent who back coal, according to the survey by the Public Opinion Research Center.

6 Million-Ton Consumption

The plant will help absorb 6 million tons of coal a year from the Silesia region. The Kompania Weglowa mine in that region is the EU’s biggest producer of coal and lost 295 million zlotys in first nine months of the year.

“We have to build a model for Opole that will make the project profitable or at least safe for PGE,” Tusk said on June 27. “It’s not about business for the company but the national interest of all Poles.”

Poland can reconcile the need to protect the climate and the use of coal if it modernizes its mining industry and promotes investment in clean coal technologies, Jerzy Buzek, former prime minister of the country and ex-president of the European Parliament, said in an interview.

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