Can Poland end its toxic relationship with coal?

Poland, host of the upcoming COP24 climate conference, has long had a love affair with coal. Can it say goodbye and commit to renewables?

Poland's love affair with coal goes way back. For decades coal was the favorite for energy: mined locally, and cheap. In those days, the environment was pretty low on the agenda.

But things are slowly changing.

When the Iron Curtain fell in 1989, coal made up almost 100 percent of Poland's energy mix. Nearly 40 years later, in 2018, the country turned to other sources for 20 percent of its power — now its wind power operators boast that Poland has more installed turbines than Denmark.

The official plan is to reduce the share of coal in Poland's energy mix to 60 percent by 2030. For a country that has long relied on coal as the backbone of its economy, that entails a dramatic transformation. 

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Yet, with coal reserves in existing mines running low and most power plants due to retire well before mid-century, environmentalists argue the target is actually a renewed vow of commitment to a relationship long turned sour.

Infografik Energiemix Polen EN

Propping up an ailing industry

Coal-fired plants in Poland have long relied on subsidies. According to the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD), low-quality coal and very old power plants — 30 years old, on average — mean the sector needs help to turn a profit. 

2017 report by Warsaw-based think-tank WiseEuropa shows that from 1990 to 2016, Poles paid about €2 billion ($2.28 billion) each year to support the coal sector. Adding in costs related to health and climate, it's estimated each citizen paid almost €450 per year on average.

And now, carbon prices — which tripled over the last year alone — are starting to make pumping out all that pollution a lot less affordable.

Meanwhile, the price of renewables is falling, making them cost-competitive.

These days, it's not enough to ensure the power supply is cheap and reliable. Climate protection must be a third, central pillar of energy policy. "With renewable costs coming down, we can achieve all three of them at the same time," Monika Morawiecka, head of strategy for PGE, Poland's largest energy company, said.   

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Pressure for change

Poles protesting their country's filthy air and climate sins have helped spur this change of focus. And unhappy customers have perhaps done even more.

Morawiecka says a PGE buyer that exports energy globally told her: "You know, clients are asking me politely — but in few years they will demand that I have my carbon footprint managed. And if not, they will stop buying from me."

But while energy providers are changing their ways for economic reasons — and in response to the European Union cracking down on air pollution and piling on the pressure over climate targets — environmentalists say the government needs to act.

Anna Ogniewska, an energy expert with Greenpeace Poland, doesn't pull her punches. "Practically speaking, what Polish government is doing is mainly supporting coal," she told DW.

Poland makes the right noises about green energy to the EU, Ogniewska says, but back home it's planning new coal mines and power stations, and not doing nearly enough to encourage the growth of renewables.

Infografik Karte Kohleausstieg Europa EN

A lingering goodbye

Still, Poland might be forced to break up with coal — whether it feels ready to say goodbye or not. Because lignite (or brown coal) reserves from operating mines are expected to run out by 2030. Hard coal might last a little longer, but not much.

And Polish society is already showing signs of moving on. Once a standard profession, coal mining is not as popular as it used to be. According to Patryk Bialas, energy adviser at the Euro-Centrum technology park in Katowice, Poland's young people now prefer to work in the renewable energy sector.

With coal on its way out and energy demand growing 1.2 percent a year, clean energy is a must for the future, and the country needs to plan accordingly.

Onshore wind power has nearly doubled since 2013, and power production from gas has already increased by 20 percent in 2017 compared to 2016.

Poland's draft energy policy for 2040 sets a target of 21 percent of renewable energy sources in final energy consumption by 2030. Yet it ends support for onshore wind power.

Data visualization ENG energy consumption European countries

The search for alternatives

Gas is cleaner and more flexible than coal, making it a better partner for fluctuating renewable energy. But because most gas is imported from Russia, Michal Kurtyka — president of COP24 and secretary of Poland's environment ministry — says diversifying the energy supply is crucial.

"This is why Poland is partnering with Norway and Denmark," he said. The Baltic Pipe Project will allow transport of gas from Norway to the Polish markets.

Offshore wind power is also part of this equation. PGE, the largest wind investor in Poland, is developing three offshore wind projects, the first to be ready by 2025.

According to the Foundation for Sustainable Energy, Poland's installed offshore wind capacity in the Baltic Sea could reach 4 gigawatts (GW) by the end of 2030 and 8 GW by the end of 2035.

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Solar energy, meanwhile, is new on the Polish scene but could cover summer peaks in energy demand when people across the country switch on the air-con.

Yet Greenpeace says there are still restrictions on building wind and solar infrastructure, and not much in the way of policy to support it.

Beyond that, a move to renewables is a major political risk. The government is deeply concerned about losing votes from the Silesia mining region, which are among the most decisive for national elections.

Nuclear power is supposed to also have a privileged place in the energy mix. In 2040, it should make more than 15 percent of Poland's electricity generation. But how, remains a mystery.

Keeping up with the neighbors

Instead of supporting renewables, the government's main strategy is built around carbon neutrality — achieving a balance between emissions and carbon sequestration, mainly through experimental carbon capture technologies and sustainable forest management. 

And there is another factor keeping Poland wedded to coal: peer pressure. Poland shares a love of coal with its neighbor Germany.

While Poland is typically portrayed as polluting and coal-dependent, its neighbor has long been hailed as a green leader. In fact, Germany has been the pioneer of the Energiewende. But that green image has been tarnished as the country struggles with its own coal phaseout.

If Germany keeps using coal, Poles argue, why shouldn't they?

Germany and Poland are still the biggest producers of coal-fired power in the EU. But Germany has greatly expanded its renewable energy capacity, and is actively grappling with the social and economic impacts of breaking up with coal.

Poland is following this process with interest, Morawiecka said.

Demanding a coal phaseout: In the thick of Hambach

Hambi stays: Local slogan, global movement

At least 6,000 people gathered in the heart of western German coal country Saturday to demand an end to coal use. People from around the world joined forces with a local movement that started back in 2012 with a handful of activists trying to stop the expansion of a brown coal mine and save the last 200 hectares of the millennia-old Hambach Forest. The message was clear: Coal is a global problem.

Demanding a coal phaseout: In the thick of Hambach

Old and young stand together

The protestors spanned many ages and walks of life. There were young activists dressed in wigs or hazmat suits, but also families and the elderly. People with reduced mobility followed the march at their own pace. A nine-year-old boy was keen to voice his view on the dirty fossil fuel, telling DW he was worried about his future but expected the authorities to do the right thing and give up coal.

Demanding a coal phaseout: In the thick of Hambach

Time for action

Demonstrators split up, some continuing the authorized protest while others took direct action to block coal infrastructure. A hundred people tried to stop the diggers at two nearby coal mines; close to 40 people were arrested. Trying to reach the train line, another 1,000 protestors ended up on the nearby A4 highway, resulting in around 250 arrests. Both the diggers and traffic were stopped.

Demanding a coal phaseout: In the thick of Hambach

Next stop: Coal transport lines

A third group was determined to block the railway transporting coal from the Hambach mine to the three power plants where it is destined to be burned. They had their work cut out, with police attempting to block the activists from approaching the railway. In the end they had to change their route several times, running through fields and navigating dense forest to reach their target.

Demanding a coal phaseout: In the thick of Hambach

A tense ride

On route to the rail lines, there were no major clashes with police but the atmosphere was extremely tense. Police officers on horseback followed protesters up to the edge of the forest, preventing them from changing course. Outbreaks of nerves rippled through activists and horses — without it being clear who triggered what.

Demanding a coal phaseout: In the thick of Hambach

The path narrows

Once the protesters entered the forest, the situation became more fraught. They had to walk carefully to avoid tripping over branches while dodging the police — who physically shoved them as they approached — or each other as, from time to time, the crowd suddenly surged without warning.

Demanding a coal phaseout: In the thick of Hambach

Sticking close together

In the midst of the chaos, activists called for calm, shouting to one another to stick together and remain peaceful. They held on to each other so no one would fall, get lost, or get caught by the police. Others conferred over the best route to proceed toward the rail line.

Demanding a coal phaseout: In the thick of Hambach

On target

Eventually, thousands of protesters arrived at the rail lines. Police officers initially tried to prevent them from climbing down on the tracks, but they were outnumbered. Activists had hung guide ropes down the slopes beforehand, but most people simply slid, ran or tumbled down the bank. Within just a few minutes, the railway was engulfed in a crowd of protestors.

Demanding a coal phaseout: In the thick of Hambach

Sit-in for a break

After an exhausting two-hour scramble, protesters sat down for a rest. The weather was bitingly cold, but there was an air of cheer as the crowd made itself comfortable on the tracks. For now at least, the energy companies couldn't transport coal from mines to their power plants — a victory celebrated under the watchful eyes of police on the hills above.

Demanding a coal phaseout: In the thick of Hambach

A 24-hour victory

The police warned that the direct action was illegal, and offered protesters the chance to abandon their blockade without penalties. But most stayed put overnight. Organizers said their protest blocked coal infrastructure for around 24 hours — which they judged a success. The last 50 to leave the protest had chained themselves to the tracks and had to be forcibly evicted one by one.

Gianna Grün created the data visualization in this story.

Travel expenses to Poland for Irene Banos Ruiz were covered by Clean Energy Wire and Forum Energii. 

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