National Geographic News

A man fishes in an artificial lake outside Poland's coal-fired Belchatow Power Station October 31, 2013. The Polish government's decision to host a coal-industry conference during international climate talks has drawn fire from environmental activists.

Photograph by Kacper Pempel, Reuters/Corbis

Ben Jervey in Warsaw

For National Geographic

Published November 19, 2013

It's a tale of two conferences in Warsaw.

Inside National Stadium, the huge new football arena festooned in Poland's colors of red and white, delegates from 194 countries are gathered for yet another attempt to hammer out an international treaty to address the threat of climate change. Meanwhile, a short walk away at the national Ministry of Economy, coal industry leaders from around the world came together  Monday and Tuesday, invited by the Polish government to a summit on the role of the carbon-intensive fossil fuel in the global energy future.

The juxtaposition has sparked outrage among environmental advocates gathered here. Some activists organized a loud coughing protest beside a massive set of inflatable lungs outside the coal conclave, while others clambered to the ministry rooftop to unfurl a mock national flag emblazoned with the words, "Who rules Poland? Coal Industry or the People?"

But while the side-by-side meetings seem an affront to many, they highlight the central challenge faced by the climate negotiators. (See related "Quiz: What You Don't Know About Climate Change Science.")

Although a sense of urgency pervades the 19th annual round of talks on global warming, so does the realization that no binding international agreement to cut fossil fuel emissions is in sight. Nations may have signed on to work together when the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) entered into force in 1994. But they've been riven apart since then by competing national priorities to bolster domestic industry or spur economic development. And that has meant a commitment to coal, the cheap fuel that has powered much of the economic progress of the past two centuries. (See related interactive map: "Four Ways to Look at Global Carbon Footprints.")

Poland, or "Coal-land"?

There's perhaps no better place to witness the conflict between coal and climate than Poland, one of the most coal-dependent states in the European Union. (See related quiz: "What You Don't Know About Electricity.") The latest government figures show that Poland generates more than 80 percent of its electricity from coal, a growing share of which is in the form of lignite, a low-grade mineral with high carbon content that is in ample supply in Poland's mines.

With most of the country's coal and lignite mining companies and electricity producers completely or partially owned or controlled by the state, the national imperative to boost the industry is clear. "The largest coal deposits in the [European Union] are in Poland, so over the next decade, coal will remain an important fuel and can be a guarantor of energy for the entire EU," said  Polish Economy Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Janusz Piechocinski in an opening day address at the World Coal Association summit.

Poland's history has long been intertwined with coal; the former communist state built almost all of its industrial-based economy of the back of its considerable reserves. Amid worsening economic conditions in the 1970s and 1980s, coal miners led some of the most dramatic protests as the state imposed martial law, with seven workers killed by strike-breaking police in a 1981 massacre at a Silesia mine. That incident and other coal mine strikes helped galvanize support for the trade union movement, Solidarity, and its founder, Lech Walesa.

More than two decades after the fall of communism, the specter of protest continues to be a concern for Poland's leaders, said Michal Wilczynski, Poland's former chief geologist. who served as deputy minister of the environment during Walesa's administration in the early 1990s.

He explained that there are roughly 115,000 jobs in Poland's coal mines today, and those workers are all part of  strong unions. "The government is thinking about European parliamentary elections that come every couple of years, and they're very afraid of a strike or a demonstration by the miners," he said.

But  Wilczynski notes that the coal industry's natural constituent base is shrinking, as there are perhaps one-quarter of the jobs in the Polish coal mining sector as there were 20 years ago, when workers numbered more than 400,000. And the domestic mining industry can't keep up with national energy demand. Since 2009, Poland has been a net importer of coal.

There's also growing awareness in Poland of the price citizens have been paying for their coal dependence.

The noxious air quality that plagues so much of Poland is directly attributable to coal—not only from the many coal-fired power plants that pepper the country's landscape, but from the coal still used widely in home heating systems. (See related, "Harbin Smog Crisis Highlights China's Coal Problem," and "Coal Burning Shortens Lives in China, New Study Shows.")

"Poland has the second worst air quality in all of the European Union," said Wilczynski. "Only Bulgaria has worse." In fact, six of the ten most polluted cities in the European Union, in terms of fine particulate matter air quality, are in Poland. Krakow, where EU air quality norms are exceeded more than half of the year, is the EU's third most polluted city.

Simply by living and breathing in Krakow for a year, a resident inhales as much benzopyrene, a highly carcinogenic pollutant, as he or she would from smoking 2,500 cigarettes, according to an analysis by the activist group Bankwatch. Earlier this fall, the regional parliament adopted an air quality program, including a proposed ban on coal burning for households in Krakow starting in 2018. (See related quiz: "What You Don't Know About Home Heating.")

Wilczynski said  the majority of Polish citizens are ready to leave coal behind. He cites a recent public opinion poll sponsored by Greenpeace that found that, nationwide, 89 percent favor subsidies for renewable energy sources rather than for coal.

"This is supposed to be a democracy," said Wilczynski. "Politicians should pay attention to poll numbers like that." (See related story: "Climate Change Action Could Save 500,000 Lives Annually, Study Says.")

But in a nation that has struggled to catch up to the standard of living in western European countries, and has sought to avoid over-dependence on Russian natural gas imports, it has not been easy for political leaders to write off a cheap, abundant domestic source of energy. When initial geological surveys showed that the nation's shale formations were promising, there was some initial hope that Poland could push its economy from coal to less carbon-intensive natural gas. But Exxon Mobil abandoned its shale gas exploration there amid disappointing early results.

Poland's leaders have come to see coal, and further development of the country's vast lignite reserves, as crucial to maintaining the nation's position as one of the faster-growing economies in the EU.

Poland is hardly alone in pinning its hopes for economic development on a foundation of black rock. Coal power is increasing in every region of the world except the United States, and may surpass oil as the world's main source of energy by 2017, says the International Energy Agency. (See related story: "As U.S. Cleans Its Energy Mix, It Ships Coal Problems Abroad.")

Part of the Solution?

"We acknowledge we are part of the problem," Godfrey Gome, chair of the World Coal Association's Energy and Climate Committee, told summit attendees Monday."But that is exactly why we must be part of the solution."

But a group of climate scientists say that's technically impossible. They released a report rebutting the industry's claims on the same day the WCA summit convened. Dutch climatologist Bert Metz of the European Climate Foundation,  who formerly co-chaired the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's mitigation working group, said the climate solutions offered in the coal group's "Warsaw Communique" simply don't add up. "Nations have agreed to limit temperature increase to no more than 2 degrees Celsius, and to do that there is simply no room to build unabated coal plants," he said. In other words, Metz said, there should be no new coal plants without carbon capture and storage (CCS), which has yet to be proven commercially viable anywhere in the world.

The high efficiency plants that the coal association is promoting at its conference don't come close to closing the emissions gap, he said. "The solution they're offering is completely at odds with the need," Metz said. "New or retrofitted coal plants without CO2 capture and storage will have a lifetime of 40 to 50 years. We need to dramatically reduce emissions over the next 40 years. That is not possible with unabated coal."

Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the UNFCCC, attempted to seek common ground with the coal industry delegates in Warsaw, initially drawing the ire of climate activists and the doubt of many gathered diplomats when she accepted an invitation to speak at the coal summit's opening session.

She quelled many of the critics, though, when she told the coal reps that the industry "must  change rapidly and dramatically for everyone's sake," that all inefficient old coal plants should be shut down, that all new plants should include CCS, and that the world must "leave most existing [coal] reserves in the ground."

Figueres acknowledged coal's role in past economic development, but said the industry must find a new way forward. She urged the companies not only to invest in low-emissions technologies, but to diversify beyond coal.

"Coal has undoubtedly enabled much of our progress over the last 200 years," she said. But "we now know there is an unacceptably high cost to human and environmental health."

"We must urgently take steps that look past next quarter's bottom line," said Figueres, "and see the next generation's bottom line, and figure health, security, and sustainability into the bottom line."

This story is part of a special series that explores energy issues. For more, visit The Great Energy Challenge.

Manohar Reddy
Manohar Reddy

even the shadow of the factory smoke spoil the water and air

Abhimanyu Singh
Abhimanyu Singh

well what is Ministry of environment of Poland is doing on it

Vic Steblin
Vic Steblin

There are many types of carbon, from coal, pencil lead to diamonds. The study of carbon chemistry even explains all life as we know it.

The complexity of wood and the cells that make up wood says that any pollution will also be complex. The types of coal also show this complexity.

We are told that the highest grade coal, anthracite, produces the most heat with the least pollution. We are told that lignite, just a step up from peat and rotting wood, is very polluting. Often sulfur contaminates coal, which comes from the original wood or rotting processes.

And then wood, all of a sudden, when dry enough, is supposedly clean, green, safe, cheap, and sustainable. Wood is the beginning step of a long complex natural process all the way from soil to coal. As it rots it releases complex chemicals but SLOWLY. Burning wood speeds up the process and shows little respect for nature, clean air and other people nearby. Burning wood is silly in many complex ways. Think of wood as very dirty coal.

Vic Steblin
Vic Steblin

And can you believe that there are people out there that want to replace coal with wood? Wood is just the dirtiest coal available!

paul bedichek
paul bedichek

Climate change from human activities is real but that doesn't mean the solution has to cost much or anything.The real problem in Poland is burning lignite to heat homes and they're trying to stop.Greater use of nuclear power is good for the air and doesn't usually cost a lot.Here in the US our gas is cheaper than coal.The Keystone pipeline should have been approved already as it will bring needed oil cheaper and cleaner than other ways ie trucks and trains.With FHR reactors (research money needed) all electricity and transport fuels could be produced without emissions.People using renewable energy(firewood) kill over a million and a half a year from indoor pollution. The car is way cleaner than the horse it replaced.The article should have stated where the Poles are importing coal from(Russia?).If the Germans would keep their reactors on(they're on now)and the Japaneese would turn theirs back on,the air would be cleaner and the world economy a lot stronger.It would also slightly lower the cost of fuels like LNG.

Jonathon A.
Jonathon A.

Poland's coal production has clearly polluted the county's air, yet the coal industry provides jobs to thousands of Pollocks. An argument against the coal industries in terms of reducing pollution to Polish cities is a legitimate argument, however arguing in terms of overall planetary health is not. 

Coal mining in Poland can hardly be held accountable for large scale climate change. Sure the coal production is harmful to the atmosphere and the people who directly breath in the pollution, but that pollution wouldn't effect someone in America for say.

Global Warming is a factual occurrence, yet human contribution to large scale climate change is little to none. We as humans have defiantly exploited our planet, but not to the point of altering the overall climate of Earth. 

Coal production in Poland should indeed be reduced, or at least reduce the amount of emissions it produces. The regulation of coal industries should be implemented in order to protect the well-being of the Polish, but not so much that it eliminates a large number of jobs in the area. The situation of Polish cola is undeniable, yet one should not blame a global occurrence on one country's coal production. 


the use of coal is a big question, it poses threat to our health and does harm  to the environment. Government should take it serious.

Keyto Clearskies
Keyto Clearskies

Why The Second Law of Thermodynamics Rules Out Strictly Ambient Heat Engines  

A block of ice just below the freezing point is far above absolute zero, so it actually contains plenty of heat. Can we take advantage of this to boil a pot of water, by setting it down on a block of ice?

Expecting an ambient heat engine to do any work, with only one heat reservoir, is exactly equivalent to expecting a teapot to boil water by absorbing heat from a block of ice.

Both processes are ruled out by the very same law - the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

An ambient heat engine, with only one heat reservoir, would not merely "circumvent" the Second Law of Thermodynamics - it would actually DISPROVE the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

An engine that only uses ambient heat would need to be able to DECREASE the entropy of the universe. The Second Law tells us that we can never decrease the entropy of the universe, or of an isolated system.

As a consequence of this law:

"It is impossible for any device operating on a cycle to produce net work from a single temperature reservoir; the production of net work requires flow of heat from a hotter reservoir to a colder reservoir."

In a strictly ambient heat engine there are not two heat reservoirs at different temperatures; no reservoir would be available at any temperature other than the ambient temperature. No matter what cycle we design with this constraint, we will find that the cycle would have to be able to decrease the entropy of the universe in order to do any work.

The Second Law tells us that we can never build an engine that does some work with heat taken from a heat reservoir, without also transferring some heat to another reservoir at a lower temperature.

An equivalent statement is that we can't decrease the total entropy of an isolated system.

The entropy change differential due to heat transfer to or from a reservoir is inversely related to the temperature at which the transfer occurs. The consequence is that transferring heat INTO a cold reservoir produces a larger GAIN in entropy, than the LOSS of entropy that occurs due to transfer of the same amount of heat FROM a hot reservoir. This noteworthy and remarkable inequality enables a heat engine to use some heat to do some work without violating the Second Law - as long as it can make use of two different heat reservoirs, at different temperatures. The ambient-heat-powered engine only involves a single reservoir, at a single temperature (at any given moment). Use of heat from the single reservoir would reduce the entropy of the reservoir, and with no colder reservoir, the engine has no way to compensate by increasing the entropy anywhere else. Therefore we know for certain that the engine will disappoint us. It will never be able to do any work.

Flow of heat from a block of ice to lukewarm water would also result in a DECREASE of the total entropy. To repeat, this is because the entropy change differential due to heat transfer to or from a reservoir is inversely related to the temperature at which the transfer occurs. Therefore the LOSS of entropy by the ice would be greater than the GAIN in entropy by the warm water, resulting in an overall decrease in entropy.

Once again: Expecting an ambient heat engine to do any work, with only one heat reservoir, is exactly equivalent to expecting a teapot to boil water by absorbing heat from a block of ice. Anyone who claims to be developing a "prototype" of such an engine is only developing a pretense, and nothing more.

The Second Law of Thermodynamics makes no exception for the charlatans of the world.

Paul M.
Paul M.

The only crisis you remaining climate blame believers have to worry about is how your grand kids will explain how at the mere grunt of a meaningless consensus of "maybe a crisis" and "could be a crisis" was good enough to condemn them all to a global climate crisis.

"But mommy I can't find one IPCC warning that agrees on anything beyond "could be a crisis" so why are YOU telling me it WILL be a crisis when science has not?"

Abhimanyu Singh
Abhimanyu Singh

@paul bedichek well you said that nuclear reactor are better than coal well indeed they are but you must not have not forgotten the Chernobyl disaster well there are other alternatives like wind turbines or tidal energy etc. Please think over it

cynthia t.
cynthia t.

@Jonathon A. you know, everyone on this planet has a share of CO2 increase in the atmosphere. The thing is that we all need to take action from simply OURSELVES, and that "we" includes Poland citizens. Just don't overlook any possible change that may occur.

paul bedichek
paul bedichek

@Keyto Clearskies Yeah we know the second law.You must be responding to a different post,but I've seen those kooks hyping impossible machines,ignore them. BTW the second law is why FHR's are so important..they are high temperature so are more efiecent  and the heat can be used industrialy,plus they can use the Rankine cycle with a GE turbine .

Recent Energy News

See More at The Great Energy Challenge »

The Big Energy Question

Share Your Opinion »

The Great Energy Challenge

The Great Energy Challenge is an important National Geographic initiative designed to help all of us better understand the breadth and depth of our current energy situation.

Energy News, Blog and Interactive Features »