The coal mining town and industrial centre of Katowice in Silesia will host the next UN climate summit COP24 in 2018. Photo: CC pixabay.
17 Nov 2017 | Kerstine Appunn

Poland's Katowice COP: Next coal country hosting UN climate talks

The Bonn climate summit of 2017, a short way from Germany’s largest coal mining district, is almost over. But the COP will reconvene next year, 1,050 kilometres away from Bonn in Katowice, another traditional coal mining area located in Upper Silesia, Poland. Altough Poland and Germany have a high use of coal power in common, their approaches to finding climate friendly solutions often differ. Will the Polish presidency put its weight behind an ambitious Paris rulebook or will the host try to safeguard its ailing coal industry?

Marcin Krupa, the mayor of Katowice, when asked about the outcome of COP24 in his town, said he would welcome a decision “reflecting the Polish energy problem and its dependence on coal”.

Katowice, in Upper Silesia, is an industrial hub and coal mining city, meaning the second COP in a row will be held very near working coal mines. As Bonn, the technical host of COP23, has found in the past two weeks, this invites constant criticism from civil society, pointing out that coal mining and burning is hardly conducive to the Paris Agreement’s overall target of keeping global warming to well below 2°C. But small island states have also become increasingly vocal in their demands to industrialised countries such as Germany and Poland to phase-out the most CO2-intensive fossil fuels. Or, as President Hilda Heine, of the Marshall Islands, put it: “We are just two metres above sea level. For Germany to phase-out coal and follow a 1.5°C pathway would be a signal of hope to us.”

Negotiating a “Katowice Accord”

At COP24, the Polish presidency will follow in the footsteps of this summit’s Fiji presidency. It will be responsible for completing the Paris rulebook - the implementation guidelines of the Paris Agreement which have been prepared at the Bonn COP but will need to be worked on throughout 2018 and finalised in Katowice. The rulebook will finally require a COP decision, approved by all parties to the Paris Agreement. If this succeeds, it will receive a name, such as “Katowice Protocol”.

“In Katowice Poland will have to use clever negotiating tactics to make sure that we will finish the Paris rulebook as planned. At the same time we’re hoping for a strong signal for transformation into a climate friendly society and that Poland will use this aspect of the conference to accelerate this process at home,” Karsten Sach, head negotiator of the German delegation at the COP, told the Clean Energy Wire (CLEW).

In the COP high-level plenary in Bonn Polish environment minister Jan Szyszko said: “Next year, the Katowice work programme package, ensuring full implementation of the agreement, must be adopted. The negotiations, meetings, and talks about global warming cannot stop it. Implementation and action can.”

Though the Polish host is keen on having Katowice imbedded into the global climate regime, observers still worry how the government’s overall pro-coal line will influence the talks.

“We’ve seen in Bonn that the Polish delegation has put obstacles in the way of subjects like the Talanoa Dialogue and the question how countries can become more ambitious next year,” Sven Harmeling, Climate Change Advocacy Coordinator (CARE International) told CLEW.

Stefan Krug, Political Unit Director of Greenpeace Germany, said: “We saw at COP19 in Warsaw 2013 that the Polish presidency maintained its position of a neutral host to the summit and they will assume that role again – but COP 24 will need a progressive presidency, not only a neutral one. They also made it clear that Poland wants to continue to burn coal for the foreseeable future.” 

A troubled relationship with EU climate action

Poland has long been a problem child of the EU when it comes to implementing harsher climate targets. In 2012 it vetoed the EU’s low carbon roadmap and again opposed the 2030 climate targets of 2014.

“We know from the past years that Poland has blocked climate policies in the EU. But Germany has also blocked many climate related issues on EU level, such as stricter rules for cars, so we can’t say that Germany has a clean record either,” Sven Harmeling told CLEW.

As the EU negotiates as a block at the climate summits, following a pre-decided agenda, the union often had to persuade the polish representative to agree to the common line. At the climate summit in Paris 2015, Poland blocked the EU’s efforts to include the word “decarbonisation” in the text, instead pushing for the less explicit “carbon neutrality”. At COP23 in Bonn, the country continued to oppose the concerted effort of the EU to ratify the Doha Amendment to the Kyoto Protocol, which enforces pre-2020 climate mitigation efforts. This was done even though the ratification is a purely symbolic gesture since the EU has already included the new Kyoto climate targets in its policies.

The move did not keep Polish environment minister Jan Szyszko from hailing his country’s success in surpassing the Kyoto I targets at a press conference. Although approached repeatedly by CLEW at the climate summit in Bonn, the minister didn’t answer questions on his delegation’s negotiating positions, plans for COP24 in Katowice or Poland’s position on coal power.

Polish understanding of “carbon neutrality” and plans for Katowice COP

Poland has, so far, always eventually come around to participating in global climate action treaties. “I don’t see any actions to effectively deny climate change or stop global mitigation efforts,” Joanna Maćkowiak Pandera, President of Forum Energii, a think-tank in Warsaw, told CLEW.

Other observers point out, though, that Poland may use the language from the international agreements but interpret it differently at home. In its official aide-memoire for the Katowice COP, the country’s government stresses the aspects of the Paris Agreement which state that all parties can follow “a self-determined pathway for achieving their own objectives in a climate-neutral manner”. The government has issued proposals to reach greenhouse gas neutrality by creating “forest carbon farms” while the country continues to burn coal.

Innovations that Poland intends to share with the global community at COP24 are the sequestration of CO2 by ecosystems and the clean coal research undertaken in Katowice, a government paper handed out in Bonn states. A Polish side event in Bonn, on cost-efficient green technologies, showcased projects, including energy-efficient housing, waste recycling, agro-biomass, solar PV and ReduxCO – green technology for fossil fuels.

The Polish Climate Coalition, a network of environmental NGOs, pointed out this week that while Polish ministry representatives are giving their support to the implementation of the Paris Agreement in Bonn, other members of the government were working on a new set of coal subsidies that could be adopted next week.

“The polish public is not really interested in climate policy,” Wojciech Jakóbik, editor at Polish publication BiznesAlert told CLEW. People are however concerned with the questions of energy security and energy economy and thus the energy sector’s “addiction to coal”.

A coal phase-out is not on the horizon in Poland but things are starting to change on the ground, both Stefan Krug and Joanna Maćkowiak Pandera said. At the same time, increasing public concern about smog and air quality are putting pressure on the government. The government was officially still very supportive of the coal sector in Poland, but the economic problems of the industry meant that other solutions were getting more support.

Germany’s state secretary in the environment ministry and head of the delegation, Jochen Flasbarth told CLEW: “I really see some movement in Poland towards a more climate compatible direction in their energy supply.”

Locally mined coal in Poland is becoming more expensive – the deposits are located too deep underground, labour costs are gradually increasing and, with stricter environmental standards, the business is becoming less profitable despite state subsidies for the sector. These are largely the same reasons why Germany is phasing out hard coal mining for good in 2018. Hard coal production in Poland has decreased from 120 million tonnes in 1990 to 60 million tonnes in 2015, the country has turned form net exporter to a country with an even coal trade balance. This winter, the state owned coal trader Weglokoks will for the first time accept coal shipments from the US.

Lignite mining in Poland is still profitable – as it is in Germany - and the country is even considering opening two new mines in Legnica and Gubin.

“It was not our fault that after the second world war we were enslaved and could not build nuclear power like France, which was on the “correct” side of the iron curtain […] Consequently, 100 percent of our energy was based on coal,” Poland’s Deputy Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said this week.

He added that Poland was “moving away from coal the fastest in Europe”.

Photovoltaics and offshore wind were promising renewables in Poland but what was needed now was a clear government strategy setting concrete frameworks for energy policy in the future, Maćkowiak Pandera said.

The government will publish a new energy policy agenda in December 2017.

Germany and Poland – much (coal) in common but little agreement on solutions

Poland and Germany, despite facing similar problems in the coal sector, are frequently at odds when it comes to finding solutions.

Eighty-four percent of Poland’s power comes from coal, compared to 40 percent in Germany. Germany’s total emissions from the power sector are larger, however, at 347 million tonnes compared to 160 million tonnes in Poland (both in 2014).

“When it comes to energy transitions this makes Germany and Poland the two most important countries in Europe,” Maćkowiak Pandera said.

But substituting nuclear and fossil power with renewables as advertised by Germany is often criticised in Poland. “Some in Poland believe that Germany only wants to sell its renewable energy technology,” Stefan Krug at Greenpeace said. Critics of a transition to renewable sources were spreading myths about black-outs and unreliability of renewable energies.

Journalist Wojciech Jakóbik said that many articles were debating the right kind of energy transition for Poland at the moment. “A mix of renewables, gas and coal is rivalling with nuclear power as a solution.”

Poland also has reservations about its neighbour’s energy transition because of a phenomenon called loop-flows, a deficiency in German north-south grid connections that has resulted in grid stability issues in Poland. “What we need are coordinated energy transition efforts between Poland and Germany because our energy markets are already connected,” Maćkowiak Pandera said.

Nevertheless, Germany is interested in a good relationship with Poland, particularly in the year of the COP. “We don’t always agree on everything but we have a relationship of trust with the Polish government that we will use to find common ground for the negotiations in Katowice,” German negotiator Karsten Sach said.

Sate secretary Jochen Flasbarth, added: “The Polish know that they have a great responsibility for the conference in 2018, and they will live up to it.”

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