Coal is king in Poland, the EU’s top producer, and Warsaw is poised for a fight to keep burning as much as possible in power stations, feeding its economy despite the pollution.
Sitting on an estimated 140 years’ worth of coal reserves, Poland is on tenterhooks ahead of Brussels’ announcement Wednesday of final proposals for how the EU’s 27 member countries will have to shoulder the burden of slashing 20 percent of the bloc’s greenhouse gas emissions by 2020.
“We hope the European Commission is taking into account the fact electricity production in Poland remains and, unfortunately, will remain based on coal burning, which is a polluting technology. That’s a Polish specific, and there’s no getting away from it,” Environment Ministry spokeswoman Elzbieta Strucka told AFP.
Poland, which has a population of 38 mln, generates 96 percent of its electricity in power stations fired by coal, much of it from the country’s still-plentiful Silesian reserves in the south.
In contrast, the proportion in neighboring Germany is 60 percent, and in France, 10 percent.
Coal miners were the aristocrats of Communist Poland’s working class and despite losing some of their privileges since its collapse in 1989 they still remain influential and command both respect and fear among politicians when they hit the streets with protests.
“Poland won’t be in a position by 2020 to make significant changes to this dominant technology,” said Wladyslaw Mielczarski, an expert from the European Energy Institute think-tank.
The 2004 EU entrant currently lacks the financial resources to upgrade to less-polluting fossil-fuel power stations nor is it ready to launch a program for the construction of nuclear plants, said Mielczarski.
“Poland also lacks the right conditions to be able to develop wind power and hydraulic plants,” he added.
Alternative energy sources and energy-saving programs nonetheless represent the country’s best chance to change tack fast, according to Andrzej Kassenberg, head of Poland’s Institute for Sustainable Development.
“The Communist era left us with an industrial base that wastes an incredible amount of energy. But whenever we’ve actually done a real economic calculation of the costs, and shut down or upgraded the most polluting plants, Poland has achieved real results,” he stressed.
Poland was able to more than meet its Kyoto Protocol obligations to curb emissions of carbon dioxide – one of the main gases held responsible for global climate change – largely thanks to the closure of a swathe of polluting, Communist-era industrial behemoths during market economy reforms after 1989.
The country’s emissions are now 32 percent lower than in 1988 – surpassing the required six-percent cut – despite a tripling of the number of vehicles on the road amid growing wealth since the fall of communism.
But the EU’s executive body, the EC, wants Warsaw to do even more.
In March 2007, the Commission gave Polish heavy industry a carbon dioxide emission quota of 208.5 mln tons for 2008-2012, almost 27 percent lower than Warsaw had requested.
Like several other ex-Communist EU nations which joined the bloc in 2004, Poland complained that Brussels’ calculations had failed to take into account the needs created by rapid growth – the country’s economy is expanding by around six percent a year, keeping Poland near the top of the EU table.
As a result, Warsaw last year launched a lawsuit at the European Court of Justice to contest its quota.
“Poland has growing energy needs and should have the right to a higher quota,” said Environment Ministry spokeswoman Strucka.
With producers required to buy pollution permits under the EU’s carbon-trading system if they want to exceed their quotas, the ministry is forecasting electricity prices could balloon by 18 percent by 2012.