In Coal Belt, Poles Resist Europe on Clean Energy ; Country Works to Block Efforts to Tighten Control of Greenhouse Gases

By Danny Hakim; Mateusz Zurawik | International Herald Tribune, November 2, 2013 | Go to article overview

In Coal Belt, Poles Resist Europe on Clean Energy ; Country Works to Block Efforts to Tighten Control of Greenhouse Gases


Danny Hakim; Mateusz Zurawik, International Herald Tribune


A fossil-fuels holdout, Poland has actively worked to block the European effort to control greenhouse gas emissions.

They call it Poland's biggest hole in the ground.

The coal mine here is more than eight-and-a-half miles long, nearly two miles wide and as deep in parts as three football fields. Enough coal comes out of it to fuel Europe's largest coal-fired utility plant, whose chimneys loom in the distance.

"The entire world population could fit in this hole," Tomasz Tarnowski, an administrator here, said in a bit of proud hyperbole as he led a group of reporters on a walk near a towering mound of brown coal, or lignite, about halfway into the mine.

Poland is Europe's coal king, with more than 88 percent of its electricity supply coming from coal, and Belchatow is its leviathan, and also the largest emitter of carbon in Europe. (There's no "belch" in Belchatow -- it is pronounced bel-HOT-oof.)

This month, a United Nations conference on climate change will be held in Poland, a location that many environmental activists consider the least appropriate choice they could imagine. And while the European Union has mapped out ambitious clean-energy goals meant to reduce the greenhouse gases linked to global warming, Poland has been its fossil-fuels holdout.

Within the European Union, Poland has been increasingly active in trying to block more aggressive regulations to curb climate change, in contrast with Germany, for example, which has bet its energy future on clean, renewable technologies like wind and solar. Poland has also sought to beat back proposals against hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a means of unearthing natural gas that much of the European Union -- with the notable exception of Britain -- warily regards as an environmental hazard.

At home, Polish officials have shown little inclination to end their infatuation with coal, saying their country cannot afford to convert to alternative sources of energy quickly. As if to prove a point, the coal industry has scheduled its own climate summit meeting in Warsaw this month, running concurrently with the United Nations' conference.

All this is happening even though Polish citizens have recently taken to the streets of Krakow, protesting the city's poor air quality.

Asked for his own view on climate change, Marcin Korolec, the environmental minister, said in an interview, "I am not skeptical about climate change; I am skeptical about some European ways of how to address it." He said his country had made progress in reducing carbon emissions but added that Europe was moving too far ahead of other parts of the world on the issue. "This concept of leading by example is not delivering," he said of Europe's approach. "Leading by example, you cannot renegotiate."

Poland's coal strategy has implications both for the Poles and Europe more broadly. Six of the 10 European cities with the highest concentrations of particulate matter are in Poland. They include Krakow, which is ranked third over all, behind the Bulgarian cities of Pernik and Plovdiv, according to European government data. Particulate matter consists of tiny airborne droplets or gas particles that come from smokestacks and tailpipes, or from burning wood or coal for home heating. It can lead to a variety of health problems. While large cities like Krakow and Zabrze do not have levels on par with the extreme pollution of Beijing, they are well past concentrations deemed safe by health experts.

But the center-right government, which gained power in 2007, has not changed its energy course. Prime Minister Donald Tusk said in September that coal was a basis of the Polish economy. The main opposition party, Law and Justice, is even further to the right, led by Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who has said that carbon dioxide has no impact on the climate and that any regulations on climate are written only to force Poland to buy expensive technologies.

The left, which might be more open to environmentalist positions, has little voice in the matter, having been in disarray for several years after a series of corruption scandals. …

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