Jerzy Buzek: ‘Let’s not be hypocrites’ about coal

Jerzy Buzek

Jerzy Buzek [European Parliament]

Poland should continue relying on coal but only at the condition that it uses the newest technologies, says Jerzy Buzek, as COP21 enters its second week.

In an interview with EURACTIV Poland, the former Polish premier also declares himself “an ardent supporter of nuclear” as a clean energy source.

Jerzy Buzek is Chairman of the Industry, Research and Energy Committee in the European Parliament. He served as Poland’s prime minister between 1997 and 2001.

Buzek was interviewed by EURACTIV Poland’s Editor-in-Chief, Karolina Zbytniewska.

What result will be considered as a success of COP21, the climate conference which is taking place right now in Paris?

An effective and legally binding global agreement, which will include the world’s largest emitters of greenhouse gases – such as Brazil, China, India, and the USA.

Is such an agreement even possible?

Yes, it is. What will be unfortunately harder to reach is an agreement on the level of emission cuts, so that they both will sufficiently hamper the global temperature increase and be acceptable to all stakeholders.

The world’s largest emitters may opt for solutions and declarations of lower standards than the European Union. And if there are no commitments on a level similar to the EU’s, our European chemical, steel cement and glass industry will suffer deeply. We will continue to lose jobs, especially in energy-intensive consumer sectors, because in order to limit the production costs, the high emitters will move their business to the countries which will follow a less ambitious climate policy.

The European Union will actually reduce its emissions through the decline in production, but consumption will stay the same. And it means increasing import of goods and services.

So is outsourcing the same as greenhouse gases emissions export?

It is even worse, on a global scale it means increasing the emissions, not decreasing them! Europe is losing its competitiveness and work places and still Europe it results in more emissions, not less! Therefore, everything has to be done to achieve legally binding agreement in Paris, which would include specific commitments from stakeholders. It should also include two main goals: the first one is climate protection. Today, even the ones who had doubted it in the past, now are convinced that the global warming is indeed dangerous and carries enormous costs of eliminating its negative effects.

The second goal is providing some support for the developing countries in eliminating the negative impact of the climate change on the environment. When it comes to support from the developed countries, the expectations of the developing ones are colossal and it is unclear whether they can be met at all. But in the developing countries, there is not only a need for limiting emissions that are the side effect of rapid development, but also a need to mitigate the changes caused by the climate change which had already occurred.

Is prevention cheaper than cure?

It is cheaper and better. It is not mentioned often, but as a side effect of global warming, thousands of Pacific Islands are disappearing and their inhabitants have to seek new places to live. Climate migration is already underway. Although today it is far away from Europe’s borders, we will have to face it one day. Rapidly developing Brazil,  one of the top emitters is also suffering from the global warming which is destroying the Amazon Jungle and the savannahs of the Brazilian Highlands. Deforestation is both the cause and the effect of the most of the greenhouse gases emissions in Brazil.

France is determined to make the Paris summit a success. President Hollande’s climate lobbying, which has led to a joint declaration with China’s President Xi Jinping on “determination to cooperate” to bring about the COP21 success, seems to be effective. But will the COP21 succeed?

While the climate negotiations are just beginning, we have to stay optimistic. I do not dream of a signing detailed agreement by all the countries there, but I hope for at least the signature of the major emitters. Not only it will secure a better climate protection but also it will not deprive the European industry of its competitiveness. The solution for the issue of global warming is not Europe’s chase for a green change, but the international cooperation with Europe as a leader.

But Europe’s ambitious climate policy will reduce the total level of global emissions, though, as we know, it could be even a bigger reduction if more countries adopted similar policies.

The European Union will not save the climate alone. Itself, the EU is responsible for around 10% of the total greenhouse gases emissions. Just to compare, China produces 24% of them, the USA – 15%, and India – 6%. The EU’s planned reduction of 30-40% is just a 1% change on a global scale. Therefore, I have proposed an amendment to the European Parliament’s statement for COP21. I wanted for the EP to promise to revise our climate targets if the Paris Conference ends with an unsatisfying agreement [the amendment was rejected by a vote – Ed.].

How does the Polish coal-focused energy policy correspond with the European climate policy? 

We have witnessed a huge technological transformation in the coal industry. New generators cut the greenhouse gases emission back by 30%. If we keep relying on coal but use the newest and clean technologies, we will be able to easily reduce our emissions. The CCU Technology (Carbon Capture and Utilisation) is already being used in production of methanol. The CCU systems are also already in use in the United States.

Nevertheless, the coal sector is heavily polluting. Coal is a non-renewable source of energy, and the new technologies are very expensive.

The investments will quickly pay for themselves, especially given the fact that we are also moving away from less efficient use of coal. Currently, we are able to extract only 30% of energy in coal.

Poland is also considering building a nuclear power plant, while Germany shuts down such plants en masse.  

I am an ardent supporter of nuclear energy. It leads to a technological leap, technological development in countries which use it. Moreover, it is also an emission-free source of energy.

It is not completely emission-free, though. Radioactive uranium used in plants is transported from distant corners of the world. The depleted atomic fuel is being stored underground and it remains radioactive for hundreds of years. Moreover, human error can cause much bigger destruction than, for example, someone pushing a wrong button on a wind farm.

The truth is, there are no perfect source of energy. Each one has its flaws and every way of producing energy we use now has some side effects. Biomass production limits the area of arable lands that could be used for food production, and its burning creates some emissions which, according to some research, are more harmful than emissions from burning coal. As for solar power – a proper way to dispose of solar panels will be a significant challenge 30 years from now. Moreover, most of the panels are imported from China and their transportation to Europe is also not emission free. Additionally, by using this source of energy, we will make ourselves dependent on China, as it controsl 90% of the panel production.

Moreover, when it comes to renewable energy sources, no attention is paid to the power transmission costs. For example, how much does it cost to transmit solar energy to a wind-dependant country where the wind has just stopped blowing? Another issue is our current lack of capability to store energy from renewable sources.

We also need to factor in gas generation costs for the times when there is neither wind nor sun, as renewable sources of energy need the traditional generators as a backup. And we do not have much natural gas in the European Union and thus we have to spend an enormous amount of money to import it from the Russian Federation. Or the United States, if the EU-USA trade negotiation, which I am part of, will succeed.

Going back to nuclear energy, the security level of nuclear generators has significantly improved. Nowadays, we already have reactors of the third and third and a half generation, which are totally safe from human errors. These kind of mistakes may only, in the worst case scenario, shut down the reactor. And this is the reason why eco-friendly Finns, Czechs, Slovaks – and soon Lithuanians – have such plants.

Considering pros and cons of different energy sources, which ones should become a basis for the Polish energy policy?

I am a huge proponent of renewables and the atom, but only when they are used in parallel to other locally available energy sources, given the latter are used in healthy and eco-friendly way. Therefore, I believe that Poland should rely on coal, as a source we have an abundance of. But there is one condition – we need to introduce the newest technologies in order not to pollute the environment, emit greenhouse gases and waste the energy potential of coal.

Due to the Polish dependence on coal, the country is perceived in Europe as an opponent of an common, environmentally conscious European policy.

It should not be so, as we will be actually cutting down the emissions thanks to the new technologies. And it is already happening: in the years 1988-2014 Poland reduced its emission by 30%, compared to 20% achieved by the EU in the same period. By developing clean coal technologies, as we are doing in, for example, the Clean Coal Technologies Centre in Katowice, we gain knowledge and experience that we can share with other countries that will keep using coal for many years to come, such as India or China.

Furthermore, let’s not be hypocrites: Germans are building up additional coal plants to support their renewable energy sector.

Still, it is easy to appreciate German ambitions with regards to their national greenhouse gases emission. They are the European leader in this respect, similar to what you believe the whole Europe can one day become on the global scale. But what if Europe fails to convince the world to the fair, legally binding agreement at the Paris conference? What will we do next?

In such case, we must keep our European industry working, as well as the jobs associated with it. If industry moves out, the emissions will increase much faster, as the factories will be moved to the countries that have not adopted such sharp emission standards as Europe did.

However, let’s keep our spirits high. We need to do everything we can to achieve a good agreement that will lead to a constructive and global fight against the global warming. 


Life Terra

Funded by the LIFE Programme of the EU

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