Poland’s Disappointing Impact on Climate Summits and Conventions – Emila Dorniak, Poland

POLISH COAL + UN CLIMATE CONFERENCE IN WARSAW = ?

Since Poland joined the European Union in 2004, coal has almost been floating in the air. But, fortunately, not as much as it used to before. The EU has tightened the screws in terms of CO2 emissions, however, the Polish ecologists and the environmentalists aren’t singing ‘Ode to Joy’, though.

To explain Poland’s impact on climate conventions, we definitely need to start with its ‘waterfalls’ of coal. Substantial coal resources; this is one of the things that helped to push the country out of problems with its economy’s weak state after communism, which came to an end in 1989.

More than 90% of the energy that the Polish use in their homes comes from pure, polluting COAL. “How can it be possible if Poland is a EU-member?”, you may ask. Well, it’s a long story.

In 2007, the EU has set a goal in carbon dioxide emissions reduction, which means for the membership as a whole to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 20% by 2020 from 1990 levels. For today, the members have almost met this target. There were plans to raise the reduction level to 40%, but it didn’t go through. So who blocked it? Poland.

Some experts say that in the last few years, Poland has constantly played a blocking role on such agreements. This has disappointed many activists, ecologists and other scientists because most of them claim that the country has the sufficient potential and resources to lay the foundation for switching gradually to renewable energy, at least to some extent. Policymakers and coal stakeholders say it’s all about the money and jobs in the coal industry. Some of them say that coal will always be cheaper than renewable energy.

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The largest coal production plant in Europe is in Poland (source: The New York Times)

For EU members, setting and reaching a climate goal may be hard because of Poland’s stance on the agreement. But according to what Polish politicians claim, the talks on climate conventions and summits include mostly the duties of the membership as a whole, and do not focus on problems of the countries as individual members.

However, the media stated that there was a compromise made during the meeting. It considered Poland’s resistance as additional (because of the ones set in 2007) burdens to take on. In fact, Poland was one of the very few opponents. Western diplomats said that convincing Kopacz of continuing the fight with global warming was a considerable success at the summit.

‘If the EU plans to jack up the European climate goals, it will have to get our consent to it. And there will be no consent’

– said Rafał Trzaskowski, an expert for European affairs.

The country’s government had considered putting a veto on the European climate policy plan. And so assumed François Hollande, the French President, before the conference. However, a veto would not only stop the energy development of the EU as a whole, but it would also be detrimental to the PR of Poland on other conferences, even those not related to climate issues. Other EU members would not be so easy to convince to let Poland emit more greenhouse gases, as they did this year. As a result, the country would no longer be in its favourable position within the EU.

Moreover, what is most important is that we have to fight with global warming. A veto would knock over the efficiency of this fight.

But, there was one thing that also helped convincing Poland. It was the political agenda planned for the end of the year 2014 (the climate summit was held in October). Herman Van Rompuy, the former President of the European Council, wanted to close the last summit in his term of office with a success, in order not to burden Donald Tusk with this problem. (Donald Tusk is Van Rompuy’s successor). Moreover, François Hollande is the head of the international climate negotiations in Paris (2015), where, among others, China and the USA will have to decide about taking action regarding the problem of CO2. Hollande was afraid that if the EU had failed to come to an agreement this year, it would have encouraged the “big polluters” form outside of the membership. And it would have caused a failure in reaching an agreement in Paris.

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The COP19 opening at Warsaw in 2013 (source: Mateusz Włodarczyk)

What is interesting is the agreement reached by the French, Polish and Peruvian executives. It happened before the last climate conference, in 2013, during the COP19 held in Warsaw (Poland’s capital city). Entering into this trio was the idea of Marcin Korolec, Poland’s Minister of the Environment, who led the negotiations. According to most of the media reports, it seems that Korolec was really working towards an agreement, which would help to prepare the countries for the next COP20, happening in Peru. After the EU climate conference in Brussels (2014), he has emphasized that Poland has to move towards renewable energy, although the Polish policymakers viewed the victory of Prime Minister Kopacz as a possibility to extend the time when Poland’s energy is going to be still dependent on coal. Comparing to other Ministers, he has focused on ecology and the whole climate policy in doing his job. And although Korolec seemed to lead the COP19 well, the former Poland’s Prime Minister, Donald Tusk dismissed him from his position in the Ministry during the negotiations.

People asked, “why?”. The situation could have a bearing with what Donald Tusk said about coal: “We respect that reducing emissions is necessary, but we will nevertheless continue to rely on coal.” That’s how it really is.

But coming back to the Trio, Hollande could see that Korolec had tried to do his best by coming up with this idea, but still it was clear that he was the only Polish policymaker with a proper stance to the problem. In the EU, Poland is simply known as a blocking country, in terms of climate goals. The policymakers know that we rely on coal, especially Hollande knows that, and that is why he predicted the resisting position of Kopacz in Brussels.

In brief, this year in Brussels, Kopacz firmly negotiated a concession which allows the coal-powered plants emit more CO2 than other countries. Low income member states i.e. with GDP per capita below 60% of the EU average, like Poland, can put forward these demands. It is good for their mostly post-communist economies, but without any motivation to move forward and develop, the change will not come, as it is happening in Poland. Ecologists reported that some industry organisations had prepared more ambitious plans in terms of the Energy and Climate Package, than those on which the EU finally agreed. Polish coal-fired power plants were not burdened with any additional cuts on CO2 emissions, comparing to the previous climate summit. (They do not have to pay for 40% of their ETS certificates, which allow them emit CO2 for free). If they had to incur the costs, the power costs in Poland would rise, and that is why Kopacz was so determined to achieve her goal of obtaining the concessions.

Scientists say that it would be better if Polish policymakers tried to get more funds to modernize the energy sources, rather than obtaining the permits for CO2 emissions. Why? Because letting the coal plants emit more does not mobilize to build renewable energy sources. It discourages from carrying out reform in energy industry.

The concessions, in other words, allow the country to reap hundreds of millions of euros in free allowances to develop and modernize the coal-fired power plants. The allowances were supposed to expire in 2019, according to the former treaty, but now it all has been extended. Some Polish activists and scientists say that European politicians had to discuss whether to give away the money to dirty coal-power plants, instead of talking how to improve the whole climate policy. In fact, the most important talks were held between the German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Hollande, Van Rompuy and Kopacz.

Now, according to what Marcin Korolec and the scientists say, Poland has to invest in low emission economy (this is the reason why the country will not have to pay to the EU for polluting – to save money and modernize the energy plants).

Investing in new, small renewable energy sources could push the Polish economy towards development. Marcin Korolec said that simple acts of replacing old coal-fired plants with new, cleaner energy technologies can significantly reduce the emissions and create a system that would provide the Poles with stable power costs. The dismissed Minister emphasized that the money that Poland’s economy saved thanks to the concessions should be spent on renewable energy. The European policymakers also claim that this is what the money is for. Now it is time for the Polish politicians to consider these advantages of change.

If we take advantage of the money from the EU not by investing in green energy, but by supporting the coal industry, our economy will stop developing and will not be able to catch up easily with other european countries. This situation, the “energy conservatism” of the government, can lure Poland into a trap of economic stagnation.

The climate policy in Europe works in the way that countries have to develop as fast as the others, then it becomes successful. But policymakers in Poland forget about this. They postpone the fact that when introducing the renewable energy will get cheaper in the EU, it will be hard for the country to catch up with this fast-developing technology. In truth, the concessions might be a threat to Polish economy.

It is easy to draw a conclusion at that point: if the EU does not persuade Poland to do anything, the country itself will not do anything too. It often happens, not only in terms of saving the Earth from climate change.

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Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz (source: Thomson Reuters)

There are voices that Kopacz has forgotten that sweeping the problem of CO2 under the carpet can obviously make the things all go wrong. There will be times when Poland will have to obey the EU’s climate treaties and decisions (in the sense that it would not resist the decisions so firmly). The members are turning green and so will Poland have to do one day. And it is better to start now, we will have to incur the costs of reducing CO2 emissions anyway. It is better to pay for it gradually.

The success of Prime Minister Kopacz cannot be called as a success of Poland, but in fact it was a success of the coal lobby. She is not the first Prime Minister who insists on keeping on relying on coal. Donald Tusk, the former PM, was definitely not worried about climate change and taking real climate action. He would would rather modernize the coal industry and make it more effective and secure. It’s true that some large advanced economies are hesitating if it was a good decision to invest in renewable energy so quickly. But still, it is not a reason to reject the EU projects and treaties. Maybe politicians do not believe that renewable energy plants can give more workplaces, or that the economy can then become more competitive with other countries?

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Greenpeace activists protest in Poland and hang a banner on the Polish Economy Ministry headquarters (source: Reuters)

COP 19 – A global UN conference held in the EU capital of coal industry

‘It was the summit of absurdity’ – German Berliner Zeitung

– ‘Nobody knows how it all should work. They didn’t set anything.’

Die Welt, German national daily newspaper:

‘The Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk dismissed Marcin Korolec, the President of the COP19 and Minister of the Environment during the second week of the conference because of some interior arguments. It is a clear proof of how miserably significant was the summit for the political authorities in Poland.’

As the COP19 host, Poland used the conference to justify its huge consumption of coal. The country went as far as to have organised a coal lobby conference simultaneously with the COP19.

‘Predictably, COP19 in Warsaw has achieved little.’ – The Guardian.

‘It was the best COP in the history of the nineteen COPs’ – Marcin Korolec.

WHY DO THE OPINIONS DIFFER SO MUCH?

The conference as a whole did not achieve much. The media tend to point out the almost farcical, preposterous affairs that came out in Poland during the conference as the reason of the failure.

For some journalists, scientists and ecologists, COP19 failed because of the inept skills of the host to lead the negotiations. For others, it is because it was all just hugely absurd. But, if we look at this conference as part of the whole COPs-chain, we will see why was the COP19 so unsuccessful, similar to the previous ones.

The reason is more rounded and complex. It is the constant, every-time-repeating tense ambiance during the negotiations. The final talks during the COP19 lasted continuously 11 hours. It is hard to imagine how the delegations could come to a reasonable and achievable agreements in such circumstances. And these 11 hours can also show that there was something particular that caused that it was hardly possible to make progress in the negotiations.

It is not the bad impact of Poland, but just the individual interest of every country taking part in the conference, followed by uncooperation. How can they achieve anything, when it often comes to calling out the culprits to the climate change, or pushing one country’s interest against the other? Obviously, every country has its own economy and conditions to develop. Every country’s way to create a sustainable, green economy is different. Some people claim that the countries need to observe their interior situation, what they can afford to do. Then, a different system of negotiating should be devised, where everybody would be able to put forward its requirements and observations. There are perspectives saying that there are too many activist groups at the conferences or that the people who lead the talks are not the people who are really needed and who know very well the particularities of climate policies. Much needs to be done to create positive circumstances for the countries to come to a reasonable, credible and achievable agreement.

The conclusion is that the reasons of the unsuccessful result of the conference are not as obvious as it seems.

However, it is true that Poland, in some cases, conducts ridiculously. Dismissing the COP19 President from his position in the Ministry of the Environment, taking part in the coal lobby conference simultaneously to the COP…

It is pure PR what certain Polish policymakers said about the COP19. It seems like the country does not manage to keep up with the changes in climate policy, even though it could.

After the COP19, Marcin Korolec said: ‘Education is the most important tool one can use to change the world.’

Poland can change its stance to the climate change policies carried out by the EU only when the citizens get to know what is renewable energy in everyday life, not only in definitions. They should be able to list up the pros and cons of change towards low emission economy and reasonably and critically judge what is good for them and what they can afford. With that knowledge, they will put increasing pressure on the government. The coast is clear for them to start.

It simply requires mutual involvement between the government and the citizens.

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