Published on February 13, 2019

A bigger stake than coal

, Izabela Zygmunt (PGN, Bankwatch)

Given what we know so far about the disastruous effects of climate change, a political programme calling for the end of coal is hardly radical – rather, it’s the absolute minimum. This is especially the case since the energy tranformation, if conducted well, can bring Poland many benefits outside the energy sector, too. That’s why public debate should be focusing on how to make the transition, not on whether it should be happening at all.

Up until now, the position of Polish politicians on the issue of climate change has involved naively negating the threat, short-sightedness, the inability to correctly define what’s in the national interest and an irresponsible openness to the lobby of power sector incumbents. Similar attitudes among political leaders across the world have led us to where we are today: on the edge of the precipice.

But 2019 has brought to the fore the first braver voices among the Polish political mainstream. In the beginning of January, PSL (Polish People’s Party) presented its vision of a radical restructuring of the energy sector by moving away from coal to decentralised, renewable energy sources. One month later, a new political party of Robert Biedron (called ‘Spring’) promised the closure of Polish coal mines by 2035.

In this way, decarbonisation has turned from a topic promoted only by the Greens and other marginal political forces, into one at the center of public debate – and so a target of criticism too.

From the point of view of climate protection, abandoning energy production from coal in the next 10-15 years is the absolute minimum of what needs to happen. Obviously, the start of this process is not the closure of coal mines, but promoting energy efficiency and energy production from renewable sources. In that sense, Biedron’s promise is not radical; it is obvious. But the realisation of this promise in a way that is socially responsible will require a radical change in our manner of thinking and political practice. Herein lies the challenge for Biedron’s party, whose fundamental promise is to change the manner of doing politics itself, going beyond changing various aspects of public policy.

An important test will be how miners will be treated in the whole debate about the end of coal. Spring, Biedron’s party, promises creating 200,000 new jobs in the renewables sector, which is not unrealistic. Taking into account that retrofitting nearly close to 50% of all dwellings will be key to the transformation in Poland, and that currently there’s a shortage of more than 100,000 jobs in the construction sector, lack of work places should not be a big problem. What remains to be seen is what kind of jobs they will be: whether they will be well remunerated, stable and unionised jobs. Additionally, it will be important to see whether these new workplaces could be distributed geographically in such a way that they are available to former mine employees, particularly those from Silesia.

On top of that, one cannot reduce mining jobs to just a way of making a living. This is an entire lifestyle, tradition and cultural identity for many people. It is not enough to simply replace the old jobs with new ones. Such a technocratic approach would be perceived as a negation of the values mentioned above and as a blow to the dignity of miners and other people attached to the mining tradition of Silesia. In Poland, we are unfortunately used to the idea that socio-economic transformations come with ‘unavoidable human costs’ and, in the past, politicians found it easy to just count entire social groups as losses, if they didn’t match the new model.

This time it could be different. There is an entire vision of Just Transition,which implies that the manner and timeline of exiting coal are agreed as a result of a broad dialogue involving all interested parties – including, obviously, miners, but also local and regional authorities, non-governmental organisations, university representatives and education authorities, coal and non-coal industry representatives. Making decisions in this manner makes it possible to take into account the needs and interests of all members of a given society. It allows to move towards a compromise, which doesn’t harm anyone and does not artificially create internal divisions in coal regions.

Is such a dialogue even possible in Poland? If those in power change, will we see top-bottom imposition of decarbonisation instead of top-bottom imposition of coal, as we have had until now? Or maybe it is possible – finally – to create a new political practice, based on a bottom-up search for a wide compromise and the respect of the interests of all concerned parties? As a society, are we able to exit coal while also maintaining respect for those who, for over one hundred years, dag out coal at the expense of their own health or even lives? Will it be possible to invite them to the table as equal partners, in spite of their weaker economic and political standing? This is a key question with implicatins beyond the area of energy transformation. If it is possible to exit coal via a democratic and participatory process, which respects everyone not just the most powerful, this will be a very valuable political experience and an important step in fixing our not too healthy political culture.

Such a change would be important, but it wouldn’t be the only wider benefit brought about by a well-conducted energy transformation process. The decarbonisation of the energys sector also involves a paradigmatic change: from a system based on huge units to a decentralised system in which means of energy production can be owned not just by big companies but also small and medium enterprises, local governnments and individuals. In this way, profits from energy production will be distributed much more widely.

A new European legislative package titled ‘Clean Energy’ grants active consumers and energy communities the right to produce energy both for their own needs and for profit. This is an enormous opportunity for the development of municipalities, businesses and families. They could at least in part become independent from prices and conditions dictated by the big industry and develop clean and local energy systems, which allow to keep profits in local communities instead of draining them away into the pockets of big players.

Does such a scenario stand any chance in Poland? This will depend on political decisions. EU legislation needs to be transposed into national law, which can be done in the spirit of the European energy reform or further from it. Plus, in Poland, it is necessary to remove the various regulatory barriers which are blocking the development of community energy, starting with the regulations on the location of wind turbines or the absurd ban on founding energy cooperatives in cities. The development of local energy is a massive chance for Poland and local authorties are aware of this. But we can be sure that the big players will strive to cover this up by diverting the discussion towads, for example, the building of a new nuclear plant.

In the end it is worth mentioning one issue that is already very well known. Yes, clean air is also at stake in the energy transformation. While it’s an oversimplification to blame coal mines for smog, it is worth noting that the Ministry of Energy delayed the implementation of quality standards for household fuels in order to protect the interests of mining companies.However, we will not have clean air in Poland without a deep transformation and decentralisation of the entire energy system. When each person in any part Poland will be able to cheaply produce their own energy, they will be able to afford clean heating.

When politicians today speak about exiting coal, it is worth reminding everyone that this is not really a choice between maintaining the comfortable status quo or accepting a difficult challenge. The current Polish status quo on coal is anyway unsustainable for many reasons, including rising emission costs, catastrophic air quality for which the obsolete, coal-based residential heating systems are primarily responsible, Poland’s increasing dependency on coal imports, and depletion of own resources.

So it is a mistake to think about moving away from coal in terms of the costs associated with it or to see it as a sacrifice. Maybe a few years ago we could still fool ourselves that coal gives us energy security and cheap energy, but today it is clear for everyone that that kind of thinking was based on false premises and short-sightedness. It’s worth finally realising that the energy tranformation will not only rid us of the costs of coal dependency, but also bring additional benefits: stimulating regional development, better health for citizens, and perhaps even improving the state of our democracy. Whether the energy tranformation will bring these positive changes depends on the manner in which it will be implemented. And it is precisely this topic, of how to move away from coal – not the question of whether to do it or not, which should be the core of debates on coal and energy in this important year with two elections.

This article was originally published in Polish by Polish daily Rzeczpospolita.