Poland’s resurging right bids to stem coal decline

Incoming president Andrzej Duda’s Law & Justice party wants to rescue ailing mines, in a break from EU low carbon agenda

Bełchatów coal power station in Poland, one of Europe’s dirtiest plants. The country granted €7 billion in fossil fuel subsidies in 2011. (Flickr/ Kamil Porembiński)

Bełchatów coal power station in Poland, one of Europe’s dirtiest plants (Flickr/ Kamil Porembiński)

By Alex Pashley

Andrzej Duda was sworn in as Poland’s president on Thursday, after a shock victory in May’s election.

The Law & Justice (PiS) candidate’s win has propelled the opposition party to lead the polls for October’s parliamentary elections.

It is a shift to the right that risks destabilising the hard-won EU agreement on climate change.

“The strategy that we’re planning for the economy rejects the dogma of decarbonisation,” Piotr Naimski, the party’s energy policy advisor told Bloomberg. “The role of coal in Poland’s economy fully deserves to receive special treatment.”

The party has vowed to protect the country’s loss-making coal industry, renegotiating the EU carbon-cutting settlement if necessary.

As the EU’s largest miner and Poland’s third-biggest employer, Kompania Weglowa, totters toward bankruptcy, PiS wants to force profitable state-owned utilities to take on more of miners’ costs.

But can Duda and his party really reverse the decline of this polluting sector, in an EU set on a low carbon path?

Report: Poland “won” EU 2030 deal – does the climate lose?

“Of course its election campaigning to a certain extent,” said Pawel Nierada, an energy expert at the Sobieski Institute, which has advised the party.

“I don’t see any radical challenges with overall policy, the question is how we are going to address the coal issue in the broader sense, which is making existing plants a significant part of the energy mix in the future.”

Coal provides up to 90% of Poland’s electricity generation. But the EU’s second largest producer has ran huge losses in the region’s deep mines. While a privatisation programme is underway, much of Poland’s energy sector is still owned by the state.

Poland leaders see it as core to reducing energy dependence on Russian oil and gas imports.

And its coalfields, mainly in the south-west region of Upper Silesia, employ about 100,000 people.

By 2020, Kompania Weglowa, which accounts for about half of mining, plans to shut down half of its mines, from 15 to eight, Coal Age reported.

The volume of coal mining is projected to drop from 38-40 million tonnes in 2012 to 25 mt in 2020.

Yet coal is expected to remain the main fuel for electricity generation, according to the government’s 2030 energy plan.

PiS “treat [coal] as a national treasure”, said Wojciech Szymalski, vice-president at the Institute of Sustainable Development.

Poland has signed up to the EU commitments to cut greenhouse gas emissions 20% by 2020 and 40% by 2030 on 1990 levels, but at a price.

Together with the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania, it led the Visegrad Group in calls for weaker targets and concessions in the 2030 package.

Ewa Kopacz, prime minister and leader of the incumbent Civic Platform, proudly declared she had “won” the negotiations last Autumn.

She extracted extra allowances for Poland’s energy sector under the bloc’s emissions trading scheme, giving breathing space to coal generators. The country will also benefit from a redistribution of funds from richer member states.

But successive governments have failed to take on vital restructuring, using funds to award pay increases rather than spur privatisation, said Nierada.

Krzysztof Blusz, president of demosEUROPA think tank told RTCC there was a “massive risk of a climate-sceptic approach brewing within the ranks of the party.”

PiS has sought to politicise a coal-phase out, linking it with a rise in electricity prices, he said. But despite the posturing, its lawmakers have “learned you can’t reverse the river” – by which he means coal’s terminal decline.

 

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