Can Poland Be an Effective Champion of Brussels’ Emissions Policy?
17 June 2011, Transitions online
A Warsaw at odds with the EU will soon lead the bloc in climate-change talks.
WARSAW | A sleepy rural landscape of trees, grasslands, and fields surrounds the town of Zloczew in central Poland. It’s a quiet place off major roads where good jobs are scarce. But in a few years, this farming region could be transformed because Zloczew sits on the edge of one of Europe’s largest deposits of brown coal.
The state-owned Zloczew deposits are an important guarantee of energy security in Poland, where coal is plentiful. In 2009, Poland produced nearly 150 million tons of it, making the country the world’s ninth-largest producer, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Coal is used to generate more than 90 percent of Poland’s electricity.
Meanwhile, a growing GDP and rising standard of living mean the demand for energy is set to rise. It’s questionable whether this demand could be met by the still-infant renewable energy industry, while Poland’s first nuclear power plant won’t start operating before 2020.
But the country’s reliance on coal departs from the EU’s efforts to fight climate change, and soon that conflict could play out on an international stage.
On 1 July, Poland will take over the presidency of the Council of the European Union, usually, but not quite accurately, referred to as the presidency of the EU. Among its duties will be to represent the EU at the 17th UN climate change talks in Durban, South Africa, in November and December.
In doing so, however, Warsaw will stand to represent what it thinks is a misdirected and harmful policy.
There’s a fundamental disagreement between Poland and the European Commission, the EU’s executive body, about the climate change policy’s key tool, the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions from industry.
“I don’t think that the Polish presidency is going to help reach an agreement [in Durban]. For the global temperature not to grow by more than two degrees Celsius by 2020, as compared to pre-industrial level, the EU should reduce its emissions by more than 20 percent by that time. Poland is against this commitment,” said Kuba Gogolewski, energy campaigner at CEE Bankwatch, a watchdog group that monitors development investments by international public financial institutions.
At the heart of the debate lie questions about the wisdom of the EU’s drive to cut carbon emissions, which critics say poses a danger to the Polish economy. Deputy Prime Minister Waldemar Pawlak suggested recently that the country should take the EU to court over the matter.Breaking the protocol that discourages EU officials or countries that hold the presidency from speaking for themselves rather than the union, EU Budget Commissioner Janusz Lewandowski told the European Economic Congress in Katowice in May, “As a coal-based economy, Poland is on a collision course with the over-ambitious goals of the EU. A fast move away from a coal-based energy sector would be lethal to Poland.”
The economic viability of new power plants in Poland will depend largely on the price their operators – typically state-owned power utilities – will have to pay for carbon dioxide emission permits. That price, in turn, is determined by the EU Emissions Trading Scheme, which also regulates how many permits major industries are entitled to receive for free from governments.
From 2013 until 2020, however, free permits will be gradually phased out. Afterward, permits will be available only through auctions, and their prices are expected to rise.
While some existing power plants, as well as those about to be developed, could be allocated free permits, which of the new installations will get how many free permits is subject to a fierce debate in Poland now.
“Given pollution pricing introduced under climate controls, Polish domestic coal has become a major liability,” Mark Johnston, senior policy adviser at WWF’s European office, wrote in the European Voice this month.
Krzysztof Zmijewski, director of the National Emissions Reduction Program Board, a think tank that advises the Economy Ministry, said the EU approach to coal will hit the Polish economy while doing little to curb global emissions.
“Current EU policy doesn’t lead to mitigation of climate change, but to migration of CO2-intensive industries to countries with less stringent environmental regimes,” Zmijewski said. “A question hangs in the air if the EU climate change policies are aimed at reducing CO2 or maybe phasing out coal. These are not the same goals.
“You can use coal to obtain energy at a much lower emissions
rate, like coal gasification for example. Does the EU support such solutions? No,” he added.
Officials in charge of EU energy policy disagree.
“It is simply not true that the EU doesn’t support low-carbon solutions. The European Commission financially supports the development of low-carbon technologies, including technologies to substantially reduce CO2 emissions from fossil fuels,” commission energy spokeswoman Marlene Holzner said.
In an interview, WWF’s Johnston said the EU is trying to help countries continue to use coal in a cleaner way. “The scale and urgency of climate change requires emissions from all large-scale fossil power generation to be at or close to zero in 30 years or less. [Carbon capture and storage] is essential if coal use is to continue. That’s why the EU is helping coal regions to speed up the development of this set of pollution control technologies.”
Holzner said the EU has put 1 billion euros into six “clean coal” demonstration projects, including 180 million euros for a project at Belchatow in Poland, one of Europe’s largest power plants and carbon emitters.
Other EU funding sources include 2.35 billion euros over six years, ending in 2013, for research and development of non-nuclear energy programs and an innovation initiative worth 700 million euros over the same period.
How much funding will be allocated to support clean coal technologies after 2013 is not clear as the EU’s next budget has not been approved.
Meanwhile, Zmijewski said, Poland can do little apart from adding new coal-fired capacity and making sure that as much as possible of it gets free emissions permits.
He said that about 7,000 megawatts of new capacity will go online in Poland in the next few years with free emission permits. In roughly the same time, about 3,200 megawatts will be retired.
According to CEE Bankwatch, each new coal-fired power plant undermines EU efforts to mitigate climate change.
“Such a presidency leader doesn’t lend credibility to the EU’s aspirations to lead the attempts to curb climate change,” Bankwatch’s Gogolewski said.
But Johnston predicted Poland would not embarrass itself or the bloc. “Though surprises cannot be ruled out in international talks on any topic, the council presidency and commission are duty-bound to represent the union’s agreed overall position. There is no particular concern about Poland being in the chair for the EU during the second half of this year,” he said.
Besides, Johnston said, Poland has options and does not necessarily have to be at odds with EU energy policy.
“Poland can and will meet its energy needs among many options,” he said. “Saving energy has by far the biggest potential but remains underused. The share of renewables and gas will steadily grow. Also, Poland remains free to authorize new-build coal [plants] provided that the resulting emissions are controlled or paid for.”
Others predict a more dire scenario. “China, India, and the United States are opposed to CO2 reductions, so a one-sided decision to reduce CO2 emissions in the EU will be globally neutral to the climate while bringing dire consequences to European industry,” Jerzy Podsiadlo, CEO of Weglokoks, one of Poland’s major coal producers, said at the European Economic Congress in May.
Theme: Energy & climate