Climate Justice & Sustainability

Politics and Power Stations: Why is Poland l’enfant terrible of European climate policy?

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In 2012 the 18th Conference of Parties (COP18) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) took place in Doha, Qatar. During the conference agreement had been reached to extend theKyoto Protocol(KP) to a second commitment period, and further steps taken on a road to a global commitment limiting CO2 emissions, to be signed in 2015. The summit also confirmed Poland as host of the next talks, due to start in less than a fortnight.

The role of Poland in climate negotiations from COP18 to COP19.

During the previous conference in Durban in 2011, parties had agreed that the binding global agreement to reduce CO2 emissions will be reached in 2015, so we couldn’t have expected any groundbreaking deal from COP18 in 2012. The major issue that needed to be resolved was filling the interim period between the end of first Kyoto Protocol commitment period (2005-2012) and the moment when future agreement (to be signed in 2015) is supposed to take effect (from 2020). To do this, the agreement on extending the Kyoto Protocol to second commitment period (2013-2019) was needed.

Disagreement between Eastern Europe on the one side and European Commission, developing countries and environmental NGOs on the other - over the issue of unused CO2 emissions permits (AAUs) was one of the bones of contention. Poland has a huge surplus of emissions permits from the first KP commitment period and insisted on transferring it to second (2012-2019) and future (post-2020) commitment periods. Although this surplus does not come from mitigation efforts but is a result of transforming from communist to capitalist economy (polish CO2 emissions fell over 30% in the ‘90s due to restructuring of big industry), Poland strongly opposed forfeiting it and insisted on full carryover. Environmental NGOs have argued that such a huge amount of surplus available on the market will

  1. lower its price,
  2. remove economic incentive to limit emissions,
  3. and thus seriously hinder the efforts to limit global CO2 emissions.
Marcin Korolec. Credit
Marcin Korolec. Credit

During COP18 Poland was under strong international pressure. The Polish stance on the transfer of AAU surplus was opposed by a coalition of environmental organisations (Climate Action Network) from the first days of the talks. Many actions were undertaken to exercise pressure on Poland, but Polish Minister of Environment, Marcin Korolec, remained calm and confident. The European Union as a whole was also heavily criticized by NGOs for “being bullied” by Poland and failing to raise its ambition.

Not until late afternoon on December 8th, almost 24 hours after the conference was scheduled to have ended, agreement on AUUs issue has been finally reached. The final compromise allows Poland (and other countries that signed the second commitment period) to keep its surplus, but makes it to a large extent unsellable - each potential buyer can only buy a maximum of 2% of other country’s surplus and all of the potential buyers have already declared they have no intention of buying it. However, this is only a political declaration and it is not binding. The surplus will be also transferred to post-2020 commitment period, and Poland has already declared its hopes to sell the surplus then.

Challenges lie ahead for Poland - as a host of COP19 it will be in the spotlight and has to prove its organizational skills and commitment to fight the climate change. But the true challenge is faced by the EU negotiating bloc and global environmental NGOs and movements - convincing the polish government to raise its mitigation efforts will be a hard task. Its intention is not to raise its ambition, but to keep the status quo and ensure polish economic interests are protected. Polish environment minister, Marcin Korolec, is very frank about it and speaks openly in various interviews in polish media:

„We have applied to host COP 19, so that we could have better negotiating position and have more ability to convince Europe to our ideas”.

To understand this Polish negotiating position one has to understand Polish mentality and economic reality. Poland has always perceived itself as a developing country - in transition from communism to capitalism - and always compared itself to Western Europe. The level of development of Poland has drastically changed over the last 10 years. In 1999 we joined NATO, in 2004 the EU - symbolically marking the transition from developing to developed country. And we have shifted from aid recipient to donor. But the mentality is not there yet.

Poland sees development and environment protection as contradictory. We look up to Western Europe, saying “We want to be as developed as them, and they are trying to slow us down”.Poland’s stance resembles the position of rapidly industrialising economies, such as India and China - “the West” had its opportunity, now it’s our time to develop and we should have full right to it.

The second important factor is the fact that over 90% of polish electric energy comes from coal - the dirtiest energy source and most of the energy companies are at least partially state-owned. In consequence, coal-powered energy producers constitute a powerful lobby with strong influence on government and current policy. Moreover, Poland has large natural reserves of coal, which is important factor in our national security. In Poland climate and energy policy are strictly entangled and you can’t talk about one without the other.

Bełchatów Power Station. Credit: Leszek Kozlowski
Bełchatów Power Station. Credit: Leszek Kozlowski

The Polish Minister of Environment can have such anti-climate position only because he has full support of large parts of polish society. Trade unions and ordinary citizens are concerned that commitment to reducing CO2 would lead to huge layoffs in the energy sector and would see a rise in energy prices. Coal is also seen as an energy source that allows more independence from unpredictable Russia (whereas coal can be obtained domestically, gas is mainly imported from Russia, which can turn the valve on and off depending on political decisions). Fighting against climate change and environment protection is widely perceived as a luxury we can’t afford when there are much more pressing issues - development, economic interests, energy security. And the Ministry is able to sells its obstructions and strong stance against raising ambitions internally as a success of Poland in defending our economic interests from pressure of European bureaucrats and lobbyists.

Many of these claims are actually myths: We import vast quantities of coal from Russia, as it is cheaper than Polish coal! And Polish coal is becoming less and less competitive on international market. Employment in coal energy sector is only around 170,000 people and if we invested in renewables, we could double it. And of course, renewables improve energy security as the sun, water and biomass are not imported from Russia. But convincing Polish society about this is a long and painful process. Yet more and more experts claim that trying to run against the European current can be detrimental to Polish economy in the long run.

If we want to advance polish negotiating position towards more flexible and climate-friendly, we need to break this narrative instead of just reinforcing it by putting external pressure. We need authentic, bottom-up climate movement, we need support and incentives for renewables and finally - Europe needs to send a strong political signal that Polish energy security issue is also European energy security issue.

The next Conference of Parties (COP19) will take place in Warsaw (capital of Poland) on 11-22 November this 2013. Poland has shown that nothing has changed in its position - once again it has weakened the EU position in the run-up to the COP19. I have a strong feeling this COP won’t bring any breakthrough in the negotiations, but it will be very important to internal debate on climate change in Poland - Polish negotiating position in the long term will depend on the ability of civil society, activists and international NGOs to break the dominating narrative and establish a new one in which Poland’s advancement is a key to changing international climate politics. We need to convince Polish society that climate change is real and pressing issue and that mitigation efforts are not against our national interest.

Please note that some of the linked references and articles are in Polish.

Featured Image Credit:Tomasz Krzykała