A few hundred miles away from the COP in Glasgow and the increasingly frantic negotiations aimed at avoiding climate catastrophe, another major climate-related event has been unfolding in the more formal and subdued surroundings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in Luxembourg.
In what is described as the first case of a European Union state suing another on environmental grounds, the Czech government is taking Poland to court over the operation of a vast open pit coal mine close to the border separating the two countries.
The Turów mine, which stretches over an area of more than seven square miles, is located on Polish territory at the centre of Europe, a point where the borders of Poland, the Czech Republic, and Germany intersect.
Lignite—the most polluting form of coal—is mined at Turów, feeding a nearby state-owned power station which produces more than 5% of Poland’s electricity. The Czech government says the mine is poisoning and draining water resources in its territory and causing serious air pollution.
People living in villages on the Czech side of the border say the mine pumps 40 litres per second of water from beneath their lands and water levels are sinking fast.
A Czech villager told the BBC the water level at one local well went down by eight metres in one year.
“There is one common well in our village and all the houses are connected to it. If the water disappears from this well then our village will dry out in one moment, because we have no other possibility to get water.”
Poland is the second-largest producer of coal in Europe, after Germany, and depends on coal for more than 80% of its energy supplies.
At the Glasgow COP, Poland initially signed up to the Global Coal to Clean Power Transition Statement, committing signatory economies to phase out coal—by far the most polluting of fossil fuels—by the 2030s. Only hours later, Poland went back on this agreement, saying it would not exit coal use until 2049, a date which environmental campaigners say is far too late to avert climate meltdown in Poland and elsewhere.
Arguments between Prague and Warsaw concerning the Turów mine have been going on for years.
Earlier this year, the ECJ ordered Poland to suspend operations at the mine until the case between the two countries had been thoroughly examined.
Warsaw refused, saying coal produced at Turów was vital for the country’s energy needs. It also said the livelihoods of thousands of miners would be threatened. As a result, the EU imposed fines of €500,000 per day on the Polish authorities.
Though numbers employed in Poland’s coal industry have declined over the years, miners’ unions, often with ties to the country’s old Solidarity movement, wield considerable political influence on Warsaw’s right wing government.