The burning of Poland’s coal, by far the most polluting of fossil fuels, provides more than 75% of its electricity.
But in a country where coal has been king for years and in which mining lobby groups and trades unions have traditionally wielded considerable economic and political power, change is on the way.Under policies recently announced by the Warsaw government’s climate ministry, the aim is to reduce coal’s share in electricity generation to between 38% and 56% of the total by 2030 – and to between 11% and 28% by 2040.
The government says it will make big investments in nuclear power – with the first energy being generated by 2033 – and in installations for the import of liquefied natural gas. Meanwhile a pipeline importing natural gas from Norway is due to be completed in late 2022.
There’s also a big push into renewables – a part of the energy sector which till recently has been largely ignored by Poland’s rulers. At present the country has only limited onshore wind facilities and none offshore. A national energy and climate plan announced in July this year envisages large-scale development of offshore wind energy.
“The Baltic Sea offers some of the world’s most favourable conditions”, says Janusz Gajowiecki, president of the Polish Wind Energy Association. “The planned construction of 10GW offshore is just a first step … Poland has a chance to become a leader in the Baltic Sea with a potential (of generating) up to 28GW by 2050.”
Whether Poland will achieve its energy targets depends largely on the country’s politics – and on how much pressure the European Union is willing to exert on what has been one of the largest and fastest-growing economies within the bloc.
Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party is a conservative body, strongly resistant to change. It is heavily dependent on coal-mining communities – particularly in the coal-rich region of Silesia – for shoring up its power base.
More than 80,000 people are directly employed in the country’s coal industry. Belchatow power station in central Poland is among the world’s biggest coal-fired energy plants.
“The Baltic Sea offers some of the world’s most favourable conditions [for offshore wind] … Poland has a chance to become a leader in the Baltic”
Poland has refused to give its support to an EU-wide plan to go carbon-neutral by mid-century: Warsaw says taking coal out of the country’s energy mix is unrealistic – and far too costly.
“The cost of this idea rises to hundreds of billions of dollars”, a senior energy adviser told the Financial Times. “Politicians trying to proceed with such a process, they are not living on the ground.”
Warsaw says its energy security is a priority: it particularly wants to avoid any dependence on Russia for its power supplies.
Government plans to either open new mines or expand existing ones – open-cast lignite facilities which are a main source of climate-changing greenhouse gases – are being met with strong opposition both within the country and by Poland’s neighbours.
The industry is also coming under fire from health experts concerned about one grave consequence of Poland’s coal: some of the worst air pollution in Europe.
A report by the World Bank says Poland has 36 of the 50 most polluted cities in Europe, and estimates that bad air quality is responsible for more than 44,000 premature deaths there each year.