Published on October 6, 2020

Two faces of transition in Poland

, Izabela Zygmunt (PGN, Bankwatch)


An agreement recently concluded between the Polish government and Silesian mining unions, which promises support for mining until 2049, means both the miners and climate will lose. In the meanwhile, the Eastern Wielkopolska regions shows the way to an efficient and ambitious transition.

The recent agreement between the government and mining trade unions from Silesia will not prevent mine closures and layoffs, no matter the empty promises. The proposed schedule of coal phaseout, which would take as long as 30 years, is unrealistic for several reasons. First of all, coal mining in most mines in the region is already unprofitable; it depends on state subsidies for survival, which seems to be impossible under the EU regulations on state aid to enterprises. It is also not very clear who and why would buy Silesian coal for so many years ahead, when the prices of CO2 emission allowances, rising rapidly because of increasing EU climate ambition, make coal-based energy production unprofitable, while the “clean” methods of using coal proposed by the signatories of the agreement remain a pipe dream with no economic justification.

Mines will be closed faster

The mines will in reality be closed much faster than the schedule attached to the agreement anticipates, probably at dates similar to those announced initially, and to which the miners responded with strikes. However, we will not get to know any reliable and officialy confirmed closure dates of individual mines in the near future. Such basic information – needed to start an honest discussion with the miners, local government, business and social organisations, about retraining, alternative employment, creating new jobs, severance pays and pensions – is simply missing. Miners will be fooled by the illusory guarantees in the agreement, and when their mines inevitably collide with economic reality, they are likely to face sudden layoffs.

Therefore, an agreement in this form may be more harmful to Silesia than the lack of any agreement. On the one hand, it gives the false impression that there is plenty of time to take measures to protect the interests of miners, when the fact is that action should have been taken “the day before yesterday” because it’s impossible to create new workplaces and economic alternatives at a short notice. On the other hand, the agreement could hinder accessing EU funds for mining regions, as it is incompatible with Poland’s commitment to achieving climate neutrality by 2050 – and only under this condition Polish coal regions are able to get the whole amount which is allocated to them the from the EU’s Just Transition Fund. It’s worth noting that this can end up negatively affecting all six coal regions in Poland, including those which are not covered by the employment guarantees from the agreement.

Besides, just transition is not only about miners. The world is turning away from fossil fuels, because the climate crisis is now causing catastrophes and misfortunes to people, threatening future generations by taking away the chances of living in a stable world. A transition relying on the artificial prolongation of the extraction and combustion of coal can not be called ‘just’, and delaying this process in the interest of one industry group and because of the opportunism of politicians is extremely irresponsible.

Eastern Wielkopolska – a leader of change

But is there another way? The Eastern Wielkopolska region is showing that this process can evolve in a different manner. Without waiting for the government’s decisions, the region has started planning to quickly enter a future without coal. These plans were sealed with a decision made a few days ago that the new opencast mine Oscisłowo – which could have extended the coal business in the region by several years – would not come into being. The opening of this mine just a few years ago was described as the only way to prevent the region from economic catastrophe (Eastern Wielkopolska is dependent on the extraction and combustion of coal to a much greater extent than the economically diversified Silesia) – but no one belives this today.

The new (post-coal) vision for the region’s future was not enacted from above but was born over many months of dialogue among all interested parties: regional and local governments, social organisations, representatives of the agriculture and mining sectors. This process has not been easy. Nevertheless, thanks to the wide range of stakeholders involved and the honest assessments they made about the future of coal in the region, Eastern Wielkopolska finds itself today looking to the future – instead of wasting energy on preserving a doomed industry, it is focusing on planning the optimal development path for the region, diagnosing problems, searching for solutions and reaching for available financial support.

While trade unions and the Polish government are busy creating in Silesia the mirage of a future that will never happen, Eastern Wielkopolska is energetically building a new foundation for the development of the region: it will continue producing energy, but from now on – clean one. And this is the only approach that deserves to be called a just transition. 

This text was originally published in Polish by daily Rzezcpospolita. Translated from Polish by Alina Pogoda.