Poland may be shifting ever so subtly to embrace a post-coal, post-carbon future, just as the city of Katowice in the heart of the country’s coal-producing region begins preparations to host next year’s United Nations climate change conference.
The conservative Law and Justice party “was brought into power by a wave of radical climate skeptic rhetoric and declarations that Poland would remain a mining nation,” writes Krakow-based journalist and clean air campaigner Michal Olszewski on The Energy Collective. “But in recent months, there have been signs that its politicians intend to change the country’s energy portfolio.” The party isn’t about to explicitly walk away from its 2015 campaign promises to defend Poland’s coal mining sector. But “what matters is that, in the energy sector and among politicians, the idea is beginning to build up steam that a Poland built on coal is a myth, and ever-farther removed from reality.”
The first sign of change was when “Europe’s biggest black coal producer, Polska Grupa Górnicza, announced it was discontinuing retail sales of coal slurry and flotations,” Olszewski recalls. Those products accounted for 2.5% of the company’s annual revenues, but sales to municipalities will end and remaining stocks will be burned, as environmentalists have recommended.
“This gesture is highly significant because it counts as an act in favour of smog reduction,” Olszewski explains. “Slurry and flotations are responsible for the high levels of air pollution in Polish cities, and withdrawing the cheapest coal types may reduce the current demand for coal (including for higher-quality coal). Other coal companies intend to follow in PGG’s footsteps.”
But it didn’t end there. Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki signed a ban on most coal furnace sales. The country’s Supreme Audit Office issued a report documenting more than US$18 billion in mining sector subsidies between 2007 and 2015. And over the longer haul, Law and Justice appears to be recognizing that it can’t build a long-term energy self-sufficiency strategy on black coal and lignite reserves that are set to run out in 20 and 30 years, respectively.
“The crisis in the mining industry and keeping coal as the main raw material for power stations and CHP plants has led to a situation that analysts have long been warning of: the ability to avoid energy supply deficits is becoming dependent on coal imports,” Olszewski writes. Now, Energy Minister Krzysztof Tchórzewski has announced the country will only build one more new coal plant before pivoting to a supply mix that could include natural gas, nuclear, or wind.
“Not so long ago, this same minister was arguing that coal was a Polish treasure and that renewable energy sources were not cost-effective.”
It’s not be a full-scale, turn-on-a-dime transition off carbon. But Olszewski still sees the latest news as a “clear signal” of an impending turnaround.
“If the most die-hard advocate of the coal industry is furtively backing away from his own claims, it is a sign that we are genuinely unable to maintain the traditional energy model,” he writes. “It is just a shame that Polish politicians took so long to kick down a door which has long been unlocked.”