Poland, Coal, And The Uncertain Road To Decarbonization
August 4, 2022 Yefren Nye
As the second largest carbon emitter in the EU, Poland’s role in the EU’s plan for decarbonization by 2050 is a critical one, and one which receives relatively little coverage compared to the big economies of Europe like Germany, France and the United Kingdom. Much like China, Poland is a traditionally coal burning economy which relied on this abundant power source in order to power its smaller economy and bring it into line with Western Europe.
During the period of the Warsaw Pact, Poland’s coal production grew year on year, peaking in 1979 and remaining high through the 1980’s with the vast majority being for domestic consumption. Polish coal production plummeted after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but it is still responsible for around 70% of Poland’s electricity generation, and indeed in 2020 Poland overtook Germany to become the biggest coal generator in the EU.
Poland has often been seen as a laggard in its commitment to climate action. The country is the only EU member state not to commit to decarbonization by 2050, and certain figures in its’ right wing government have stated their open hostility to European green policies which they describe as based on unproven theories. Some activists in Poland have linked the relatively marginal status of environmental issues to Polish society’s lack of interest in critiques of the capitalist system and the association of the climate movement with the political left, with 85% of Poles expressing support for the current combination of a multiparty system and market economy. This has meant that the climate movement has not found fertile ground in Poland for its criticisms of the capitalist system.
However, times have recently been changing, and in a significant break from the past, by 2020 53% of Poles identified climate change as a ‘very serious problem’, compared to only 19% in 2015. The new wave of the European climate movement which emerged around figures like Greta Thunberg in 2018 likely forms part of the explanation, but organizations like the Global Catholic Climate Movement have also contributed, with the strongly catholic country likely influenced by the more activist rhetoric of the current pontiff. The current government has also had some success in marrying nationalist right wing rhetoric to a redistributionist economic policy, something of a rarity in post-Soviet Europe, which may bode well for a more environmentalist turn in Polish policy.
In another striking similarity to China, the discourse around climate change is connected to the discourse around air quality in a way that it has not always been in Western Europe, where clean air standards had often improved before climate change came onto the agenda in a big way. Poland has 36 of the 50 most PM2.5 polluted cities in Europe, and air pollution is estimated to cause 50,000 deaths per year in the country. This contrasts with roughly 150,000 people directly employed by the coal industry, who often bear the brunt of the health impacts due to their residential proximity to coal mines. This leaves a thorny problem in the management of a just transition as jobs will need to be found for communities dependent on the industry. Poland has applied for funding for a just transition from the EU, but fears of a repeat of the 90’s, when thousands were laid off from state enterprises, have lead to political protests by miners over the destruction of the industry.
It is not as if Poland has done nothing to change its’ energy policy, indeed it has been doing so for some time, but its’ leaders have also warned that it will not accept a simple even division of the costs of adaption, given that Western European societies were able to burn fossil fuels for the past two centuries, and that under Soviet control it was not able to develop the nuclear energy which would allow it to diversify away from fossil fuels. It now plans to build six new reactors by 2043.
The European energy crisis unfolding at the moment will be a key test of Poland’s transition, and it is too early to say for sure what it will result in, but it is notable that the war in Ukraine has led to a split with Hungary, previously seen as a key Polish friend in Europe due to their similar right nationalist governments. Where Hungary has been seen as ambiguous in its’ stance towards Russia, Poland has taken a hard line, promising to boost military spending and taking in huge numbers of Ukrainian refugees. Poland has also unveiled “the most radical plan in Europe” for its energy transition away from dependence on Russian gas. The plan initially involves replacing the gas with supplies from Norway, but the longer-term plan is to increase the supply of renewables. If this transition is legislated for effectively then it will be another indication of the growing convergence between renewable energy and strategic necessity in Europe.