Poland Hosts Climate Talks, While Boosting Coal Industry

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.

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.