“It’s astonishing that they’ve done this,” Green MEP Bas Eickhout told EurActiv.
“It’s not helping the EU’s efforts in Durban. The presidency should be playing an important role but instead, this is absolutely weakening the EU’s position in Durban, and the Polish presidency is to blame.”
NGOs were equally outraged. “We find it shocking that while EU diplomats are trying to find solutions for the climate crisis in Durban, the EU's presidency decides to support a private interest lobby for the most polluting of all fossil fuels,” said Wendel Trio, the director of Climate Action Network Europe.
The European Coal Days conference was organised by Euracoal - the European Association for Coal and Lignite - which aims to promote the use of coal energy, despite growing awareness about its climate impact.
In 2009, coal was responsible for 43% of global CO2 emissions, according to the International Energy Agency.
Yet in the Euracoal conference's promotional literature, the Polish presidency logo appears alongside those of the right-wing European People’s Party, the coal-rich Silesia region, and the Central Europe Energy Partners (CEEP), an alliance of mainly eastern European energy utilities.
Last year the conference only received the patronage of the European People’s Party.
Renata Bancarzewska, the energy spokesperson for the Polish Permanent Representation to the EU, told EurActiv that patronage had been offered to the conference organisers before any other sponsors had been agreed, and that it would now be ‘checked’.
Euracoal was “one of the voices that are looking for solutions to effective climate change policy making in the context of low emissions technologies,” she said, adding that the European energy commissioner, Günther Oettinger, would also address one conference session.
“Plus it’s a case of some member states having coal in their energy mix,” Bancarzewsa said.
Euracoal lobbied against the draft EU directive extending the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) in 2008.
Its argument was that binding targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions “would probably lead to a drastic increase of energy prices … and a drop in the standard of living for the population, resulting from significant increases of energy prices and the delocalisation of employment outside Europe.”
Such a message is at odds with the EU’s negotiating position in Durban.
The case for binding targets
Speaking to reporters in Brussels last week, Climate Action Commissioner Connie Hedegaard said: “If there is one thing we’ve learned in the EU and that others could learn from, it’s that it helps when you agree to binding targets.”
Without binding targets for reducing CO2 emissions and increasing the use of renewable energy, EU member states might not have moved so far to meet climate goals, she said.
However, Poland, which relies on coal for up to 95% of its electricity, is seen as a strong advocate for coal interests in the EU.
The day before Poland took over the EU presidency, it was criticised for allegedly “bending the rules” to get free greenhouse gas emissions permits for 13 unbuilt coal plants.
The country then single handedly blocked attempts to firm up the EU's CO2 emissions reductions targets in line with available climate science.
A few days later, EurActiv published translated extracts from an interview in which Janusz Lewandowski, the Polish EU budget commissioner, questioned whether burning coal increased global warming, and argued that a quick phase out of coal plants would be a “disaster” for Poland.
As such, one EU official described the Polish patronage of the Euracoal conference as “not a big surprise”.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, he said that “it doesn’t deviate a lot from what we hear from the Poles [in private] but of course it’s not the best kind of event to support while we’re fighting for the climate in Durban.”