Less than six months before Poland hosted more than 10,000 delegates for the UN’s climate talks, Donald Tusk, the prime minister, was in the south-western city of Opole showing where his priorities really are.
He was there to shepherd through an agreement to spend 11bn zlotys ($3.5bn) building an enormous 1.8GW coal-fired power station that Polska Grupa Energetyczna, the country’s leading utility, was so reluctant to build that Mr Tusk had to browbeat Krzysztof Kilian, then chief executive, into going along with the project.
“We are now in the process of shaping the energy mix in which coal will again find its place,” Mr Tusk said during the signing ceremony. “It is important that coal produces energy, that people have work and that Poland has enough energy.”
Poland is under growing pressure from the European Union and elsewhere to move decisively away from coal, which provides about 90 per cent of the country’s electricity. However, there are few immediate alternatives. Natural gas, a much cleaner fuel, is unpopular because most of it has to be imported from Russia. Meanwhile, hopes of a native shale gas industry have failed to materialise until now because of -financial, regulatory and geological hurdles.
The Polish government is still planning on building a nuclear power plant but the original plan to have it running by 2023 looks optimistic. About 10 per cent of Poland’s electricity comes from renewables.
“Coal will be present in Poland’s energy mix for decades to come,” says Agata Hinc, managing director of DemosEuropa, a Warsaw-based think tank. “The road away from coal will be a long and difficult one.”
The country’s ties to coal were put on international display during the UN climate summit, when the Polish capital also hosted an international coal summit, to the fury of environmental groups.
“Organising the coal summit at the same time that delegates are negotiating reductions in greenhouse gases shows where the Polish government’s priorities really lie – it is much more committed to coal than to combating climate change,” says Katarzyna Guzek of Greenpeace Polska.
The effort to shift from coal has been negligible. In fact, driven largely by price, the country is moving away from hard coal to even more polluting brown coal, or lignite.
In Belchatow, about 160km southwest of Warsaw, enormous excavators rip into soft brown coal, sending lignite mixed with the remnants of 20m-year-old wood flying as it pours on to a high-speed conveyor belt at the bottom of the enormous open pit mine.
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