Greens outraged over Polish ‘clean coal’ push at UN climate summit


Poland has been starkly criticised for organising an ‘International Coal and Climate Summit’ to run parallel with the COP19 UN climate change conference it is hosting in Warsaw this November. 

A Warsaw Communiqué issued jointly by Poland’s Ministry of the Economy and the World Coal Association (WCA) last week proposed a 'clean coal' strategy to fight climate change, relying on what it calls 'high efficiency, low-emissions coal combustion technologies'.

The International Coal and Climate Summit that follows is nominally being hosted by the WCA but will take place at the Economy Ministry, which is endorsing the meeting with its logo. It will also be addressed by Poland's deputy prime minister and several government officials.

“The Polish government is transforming something of international importance into a lobby opportunity for coal, the very energy which destroys climate the most,” Claude Turmes, the MEP and vice-chair of the European Parliament Green group told EURACTIV.

“It is outrageous,” he went on. “Poland is abusing its position in a vast cynical diplomatic exercise to derail the international climate negotiations and, done by a European member state, I think it is really an attempt to destroy solidarity inside the EU.”

He called on EU governments and the European Commission not to accept Poland’s handling of the UNFCCC summit, in a nod to growing irritation at Warsaw.

According to an unofficial briefing ‘non-paper’ for the last informal meeting of EU energy ministers, which EURACTIV has seen, Poland is opposing proposed 2030 climate and energy targets for the European Union, running counter to what a majority of countries have been calling for.

Adding insult to injury for environmentalists, the COP summit will also be sponsored by firms whose green credentials have been questioned, such as the steel giant Arcelor Mittal, the German car company BMW, and Poland's International Paper.

“It is probably a statement by the Poles of thumbing their noses to responsible climate policy and to EU policy as well,” Jason Anderson, WWF’s head of European climate and Energy told EURACTIV.

Many businesses were working to reduce their carbon emissions, he said. “It just so happens that they’ve ticked a lot of mainstream and often high-emitting companies that are not the most progressive in Europe.”

Industries 'here to stay'

But the Polish environment minister, Marcin Korolec told EURACTIV that he found environmental complaints about the coal and climate summit "very strange, if not worrying".

"To people questioning involvement of energy intensive industries at COP I have little understanding," he said. "Where is the most potential to reduce greenhouse gases? And these industries are here to stay. We want windmills and they are made of steel."

Business had to have a seat at the climate table, he stressed: "During [the] Polish COP Presidency there is no place for confrontation, isolation and selection. We worked hard to get to democracy and [the] market system and want to use this experience during COP."

Warsaw’s alternative coal and climate summit also received financial support – by Peabody, the world’s largest private sector coal company and GE Mining – and it is being partnered by Euracoal, the European coal association.

The meetings themselves will focus on “high-efficiency low-emissions coal technologies, global progress on CCS (carbon capture and storage) demonstration and the role of coal in the global economic development.”

Environmentalists contend that this latter comes at an unaffordable climate cost, while Poland’s has not distinguished itself with support for CCS at the European level.

Underground gasification

‘High-efficiency’ or ‘clean’ coal usually refers to coal produced from the process of underground gasification, or the burning of it underground to produce gas.

As a Greenpeace investigation detailed, a study by the US Department of Energy found residual groundwater contamination 16 years after a mere five-day gasification process.

Any ameliorating effect that the process could have on at least 70% of coal’s CO2 emissions is also disputed. “Clean coal is a climate killer full-stop," Turmes said.

But there was surprising support for the Polish summit from Yvo de Boer, a former UNFCC executive-director and the current climate advisor to accountants KPMG.

De Boer told EURACTIV that because of its dependence on coal, transitioning to a clean energy economy could have major economic impacts for the country.

'Better inside your tent pissing out than outside pissing in'

“This is a predicament that has been too often ignored or pushed to the background in the EU’s efforts to come to agreement on climate targets,” he said. “The fact is that Poland is an important member of the EU and that therefore, ways need to be found to make it part of the solution rather than part of the problem.”

Coal would be an important part of the energy mix for countries such as Poland, China and India for decades to come, and reconciling this with the global necessity to reduce emissions would be “a very complicated circle to square,” he said.

“As General MacArthur said, it is better to have [Poland] inside your tent pissing out, than outside pissing in,” he quipped.

Another unexpected attendee of the coal and climate summit, Baroness Bryony Worthington, the founder of the environmental group Sandbag, said that the conference showed that Poland was taking climate change seriously, or at least that it was worried by the momentum of moves to clean energy.

“It is important that they hear a voice strongly advocating for action on climate change and I want them to understand that if they can commercialise CCS, coal can have a future but it will have to come with tougher support mechanisms,” she said.

Poland was “not showing any interest or desire in hearing that message,” she conceded, “but we have to keep saying it loud and clear.”

Hopes for CCS were dealt a blow by Norway's decision last week to scrap one of the only such planned operational plants in Europe – in Mongstad – because of cost over-runs and delays. These have also plagued other potential EU demonstration projects.

But analysts at the International Energy Agency see few other options for containing the world’s accelerating carbon emissions, if dangerous global warming is to be averted.

The EU has a legally-binding goal for 2020 of reducing its carbon dioxide emissions by 20% and increasing the share of renewables in the energy mix by the same amount, both measured against 1990 levels. A voluntary target of a 20% increase in energy efficiency is also in place.

Poland, which derives some 90% of its energy from coal, has dragged its feet on these targets and fervently opposed any expansion of the EU’s climate ambition.

In 2012 the Central European Energy Partners (Ceep), which was founded by, and is mostly made up of, state-owned Polish energy firms, organized the annual European coal industry conference in Brussels.

The year before that, controversy broke out, when EURACTIV revealed that the then-Polish EU presidency’s logo appeared on posters advertising the Second Coal Days conference.


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