Published on December 4, 2018

Poland’s harmful duplicity on Just Transition

, Izabela Zygmunt (PGN, Bankwatch)

Katowice - Poland's championing of Just Transition at the climate conference in Katowice is disingenuous. Back home, this government strongly resists the country's transition away from coal.

Photo: Quinn Dombrowski (CC BY-SA 2.0)

At the COP24 climate conference in Katowice which starts this Sunday, Poland will invite world leaders to adopt a ministerial Solidarity and Just Transition Declaration. The document calls for a fair deal to be offered to workers and communities in regions that now depend on fossil fuels as they move towards clean energy models. It also emphasises the potential of green jobs and the benefits they can bring, especially to developing countries, and highlights the importance of participatory and inclusive dialogue when planning the transitions.

The current text differs considerably from the draft originally proposed by Poland, which appeared to prioritise preserving coal jobs over protecting the climate and did not mention climate justice or developing countries at all. While the latest draft may be a result of international negotiations and an attempt by the Polish government to keep its credibility as the COP host, the new text is in clear contradiction with the basic position of the Polish ruling party on the future of the energy sector: over-reliance on coal for decades to come.

Ten days before the climate summit, the Polish government unveiled its new draft energy strategy to 2040 which immediately raised eyebrows as it plans for a phaseout of onshore wind power by 2035, and provides that Poland will still produce 60% of its energy from coal in 2030.

In an unusual move, the Polish Ministry of Energy has even issued its own position ahead of the COP24, which echoes the Polish mining unions’ demands for a revision of global climate policy and objects to increasing the EU emissions reduction targets.

In front of domestic audiences, the Polish government explains its refusal to say goodbye to coal through a need to protect the jobs and livelihoods of the nearly 80.000 miners still working in the sector, most of them in Silesia. This argumentation finds echoes among Poles who still remember the trauma which Silesia , Poland’s main mining region, suffered in the 1990s when many unprofitable mines were closed – without an alternative plan for the communities affected and without adequate social safeguards – which led to disastrous social consequences.

Yet the Polish government, backed by the powerful coal lobby, presents a distorted picture to its own people. In reality, the coal mining sector in Poland is hardly able to provide a decent future for the workers and communities, and miners I have spoken to in Silesia are aware of that. Silesian coal is expensive to extract, mines’ long-term profitability is uncertain, Poland is importing increasingly more coal from Russia, and coal-dependent utilities are struggling to make a profit while keeping energy prices for households within politically acceptable limits. Additionally, bad air quality in Poland has become a potentially explosive social issue.

The end of coal looms on the horizon, whether the Polish government admits it or not. In the Visegrad region, Poland’s neighbours have started taking note. The Hungarian government recently said its preferred coal phaseout date was 2030, Slovakia announced an earlier than planned end to coal mining subsidies for 2023, and Czechia is running a successful national programme (RE:START) to help its three coal mining regions develop away from coal.

The timing is right for a start of the transition in Poland: the country’s low unemployment and a shortage of labour present a good macroeconomic window of opportunity to smoothly transition a large workforce to other sectors. If Poland misses this opportunity now, it may face another 90s-style wave of sudden, unmanaged mine closures in a couple of years from now – and the miners will pay the price again.

As the world leaders sign up to the Silesia Declaration on Solidarity and Just Transition in Katowice, they should insist that Poland, which proposed this declaration it in the first place, now take it seriously.

What the Polish government needs to do is admit the end of coal is coming and start to prepare the transition together with the coal workers and communities. Money now wasted on propping up an ailing coal industry needs rechannelling towards a real Just Transition. No miner who knows the situation in Silesia can be fooled by Declarations on paper not backed up by action.

Izabela Zymunt is CEE Bankwatch Network’s National Coordinator for Poland.