License: All rights reserved. Credit: Christine Ottery

Q&A: Poland, coal and the climate summit

Christine Ottery
EU Energydesk editor. Previously worked for the Guardian and New Scientist.
License: All rights reserved. Credit: Greenpeace

Climate change talks have begun in Warsaw, in what is seen as a key Conference of Parties (COP) on the way to reaching some kind of  global climate change agreement in 2015.

Yet the Polish Government, led by Prime Minister Donald Tusk, might appear awkward hosts for a global climate summit.

The PM is an unapologetic fan of coal, which is currently Poland's dominant energy source, yet he insists he is committed to global action on climate.

Here we take a look at the background to what some have dubbed the 'coal cop'.

OK so why the 'coal cop' moniker?

Other than the fact that nobody can resist an alliteration? 

Before negotiations even started Poland came under fire for its handling of this, the 19th COP presidency, including what some NGOs claim is an inappropriate emphasis on coal production and burning. Stress points included:

1. The 'Coal and Climate Summit' run by the World Coal Association and the Polish Ministry of Economy, on 18-19 November, is in the second week of COP19 - and has sparked controversy.

2.  Twelve 'corporate partners' are sponsoring the summit including energy companies that operate coal-powered plants.

That said given that reducing coal use is the starter for 10 of tackling climate change having a bunch of coal executives 'in the room', or in another room nearby, may not be such a bad thing. 

Are the hosts really 'pro-coal'?

Speaking ahead of the summit Poland’s centre-right prime minister, Donald Tusk, told Polish media: “The future of Polish energy is in brown and black coal, as well as shale gas.” 

In a sense, that is not surprising, the COP hosts are heavily reliant on coal - some 90% of its energy comes from coal.

That's a lot of coal - what does that mean in emissions terms?

Well, since you asked... 

Poland has a total 56 coal-fired plants in operation, emitting a total of 167 Mt (Megatons) CO2 in 2010.

Top of the list is Belchatow coal power plant, the largest source of CO2 emissions in the EU, and the 5th largest in the world. It spewed out 30 Mt (megatons) of CO2 in 2010, according to E-PRTR figures.

Top five coal-powered plants in Poland by CO2 emissions

plant name 
parent company status CO2 emissions (tons/annum) 
PGE Bełchatów
- operated in 2010 30,000,000
Toruńska Energetyka Cergia SA – EC1 EC Wybrzeże S.A. operated in 2010
Elektrownia "KOZIENICE" S.A. ENEA Spółka Akcyjna operated in 2010 11100000
PGE Turow - operated in 2010 10600000
Elektrownia "RYBNIK" S.A. - operated in 2010 8230000


And Mr Tusk wants to build more, is that right?

Poland has big plans to invest further in its coal infrastructure which happen to far exceed those of of any other EU member state.

There are a dozen coal power plants planned, which represents an additional third of Poland’s CO2 emissions most of them are being built by the Polish state owned firm PGE.

In fact, there is evidence the government is keener on the plants than the coal giant. 

When PGE cancelled its extension to the Opole project (see below) saying it would be unprofitable Mr Tusk responded that he would find "ways and means" for it to go-ahead and eventually secured investment from a state fund.

“Coal will again find its place in the Polish energy mix,” Tusk said. “It’s not about business for the company but the national interest of all Poles.”

Top 4 planned coal-fired power plants

plant name 
parent company Capcity MW status CO2 emissions (tons/annum) 
PGE Gubin 
PGE 4400   planned
Legnica   4400   planned 27312816
Kulczyk Investments Polnoc
Kulczyk Investments 2100   planned
PGE Opole 5 & 6
PGE 1800   planned, uncertain 9328000

The Gubin and Legnica plants would rank as Europe’s second and third CO2 sources after Belchatow.

So is coal the only option?

Depends who you ask.

The government doesn't appear to think it has many alternatives, in fact, they are so hesitant to invest in renewables the EU has taken legal action against them for failing to meet the conditions of the 'renewable directive'. 

Shale gas may come through - but then again, with three US firms pulling out, it may not. A report by Greenpeace drawing on research by a coalition of renewable energy bodies suggests Poland could halve it's coal consumption by 2030 through (unsurprisingly) greater investment in renewable energy. It's fair to say Poland has a fairly different approach to its neighbour, Germany.

So what does all this mean for the talks?

We don't know. 

Poland has a history of blocking climate deals. In 2009, Poland obstructed an agreement on how EU member states should pay for a global climate change deal ahead of the Copenhagen COP. In 2011, Poland was accused of stymying an EU effort to set a higher target for cuts in CO2 emissions in the European Commission's energy roadmap to 2050. And in 2012, Poland thwarted high targets in the roadmap for a second time.  

On the other hand the hosts often want to ensure a successful summit on their patch, and they certainly know a great deal about the industry many delegates want curtailed. 

According to Maria van der Hoeven, executive director of the International Energy (IEA), reducing emissions from coal requires energy efficiency policy and "the biggest hope for reducing emissions from coal may come from policies that encourage its replacement by lower-emission energy sources."

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