Walk away from coal? Poland and European climate policy

The Polish government does not agree with the new reform of the CO2 emission allowances system. This position is motivated by a desire to maintain the status quo within the coal industry and serves to help realize domestic political goals. Michał Olszewski explains.

Jaworzno coal-powered station releasing clouds of smoke

Coal is still king in Poland – heading for a collision with EU policy (Photo by Beemwej, edited, CC BY-SA 3.0)

On February 28th, environment ministers chose to adopt a common position on the reform of CO2 emission allowances. Immediately after, the Polish minister Prof. Jan Szyszko filed a complaint with the European Court of Justice. Let us remember that under this new agreement, the CO2 emission allowance will fall annually by 2.2% from 2021. A number of the European Union’s member states suggested more decisive action. The Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety (ENVI) also called for faster action. What prevailed, however, was the stance that the so-called allowances removal index should remain at the level set back in 2014.

This, though, is too much for Poland. The Law and Justice government would gladly remove the emission limits altogether, judging them to have nothing to do with climate policy and believing them to be only a tool in the brutal political fight between nations that do not base their energy systems on coal and those for whom it is the most important part of their energy mix. Such a radical stance would turn the foundations of the EU environmental policy on its head. At least for now, it has been met with no enthusiasm on the part of the majority of EU member states.

It’s hardly a secret that speeding up progress towards realizing environmental goals doesn’t suit Poland at the moment. There’s fierce in-fighting within domestic politics over each and every tonne of coal extracted – before the last elections, the Law and Justice party made a pledge to miners that not a single mine would be closed.

This pledge was taken very seriously, and because the situation in the mining industry is still very difficult, politicians are making desperate attempts at various levels to maintain the status quo. For example, shortly before the vote in Brussels, the long-awaited draft regulation from the Ministry of Energy on standards for solid fuels was revealed. This was an alleged response to the poor quality of air, which stifles Polish towns and villages during each heating period. Why “alleged”? The regulation attempts to square a circle by combatting smog while protecting the interests of the mining industry. In practice, this means allowing the sale of coal with 1.3% sulfur content to households. According to experts from the Polish Environmental Chamber (Polska Izba Ekologii), sulfur content should not exceed 1%, and it would be best if it were below 0.6%. The Ministry also wants to allow for the use of coal with high ash content (of up to 12%) even though experts say it should not exceed 8%.

This is one example that reveals a wider trend: coal still remains in the Polish national interest. This has not been changed by the colossal amounts of EU money spent on the modernization of the energy sector, as it was mostly spent on refurbishing coal-fired power plants. The law on RES, which has taken years to adopt, has been amended by the Law and Justice government in such a way that financially viable energy production in micro installations has been made impossible. One question remains: will Poland comply with its commitments on renewables? The rate of growth in the amount of equipment used for renewable energy production has fallen, larger investors are withdrawing, and politicians are seeking to cover their backs with the facilitation of biomass combustion (not for the first time).

The case at the European Court of Justice is therefore likely to take place. The ever smaller number of emission allowances and the doubling of “backloading” are a real problem for Poland. As is the answer to the question of what we have done since 2004 to prepare ourselves for these problems.


Michał Olszewski (born 1977) – journalist, reporter, writer. For more than twelve years he worked for Gazeta Wyborcza and Tygodnik Powszechny, where he concentrated mostly on environmental issues. He is engaged in a Krakow-based campaign against air pollution.


  1. Jura says

    Michał – I’m very much on the green side (permaculturist, hitcher, natural builder, so on & fan of your writings.)
    But as to the coal issue well…I believe ne need to peruse over it in a more diligent manner & give it a bit more time to be solved.
    The EU limits imposed now would have more harmful than beneficial impact
    When we look at the issue from a broader (the earth) perspective we may easily state our emissions levels are negligible in numbers.

    Having that in mind and knowing EU limitations can heavily hit polish industry while having negligible impact on Mother Earth & ppl well-being.

    If U look throuly enough U will find renewable at the moment stand just for a mirage..generally we find the renewable path good but in my opinion we are not facing energy crisis what we are facing is a overconsumption crisis.

    Our green renewables is just delegating the emissions to Asia where most of so called green equipment is produced.
    Taking under consideration the Asian industry is powered by electricity obtained (in much less efficient manner) from burning coal we may say we are just moving the problem to another part of the world.
    As to air quality situation in Kraków: I live close by and I’m also concerned.But..
    the EU imposed limits will not help to solve it. Banning the usage of open fire boxes within city limits together with an action of connecting housing to a central heating system would solve the issue
    together with unblocking the city fresh air corridors. but not the EU legislature .

    I’m a bit older but I dare to say U shall also remember times when directives from far away were not always the best solutions to the local problems (especially now when lobbying is legal)
    Being critical and considering an issue from many perspectives is our duty.

    The coal is far too precious mineral to be burnt. Future generation will not forgive us burning it anyway.

    We have data clearly showing that rising the coal price to a prohibiting level causes increase in emission as more ppl start burning trash when they can not afford buying even the low quality coal dust they use now.

    Systemic change is needed bot not the way the EU proposes.

    The coal is our precious possession.
    The high density source of energy (of relatively high EROI).
    Polish mining industry is doomed anyway due to availability of cheap coal from all over the world.
    but we don’t want to have another Miss Thatcher with her TINA and social problems caused by mass of ppl falling into poverty due to layouts.
    We may gradually transform and adopt our network to renewables while still converting the coal into the so much needed electricity (gasification processes).

    • Jonathan Maddox says

      “When we look at the issue from a broader (the earth) perspective we may easily state our emissions levels are negligible in numbers.”

      You sound just like an Australian!

      • Jura says

        @Jonathan Maddox

        “You sound just like an Australian”.
        I must admit I do not fully get what your words are supposed to mean.

        If most of Australins are of such opinion that means they remained some common sense in the world of political correctness.
        Western Europe has offshored most of their energy intensive processes to Asia thus cutting down their carbon footprint.
        Poland has not followed that path.

        As far as I know global climate change is g l o b a l so I do not unerstatnd how off shoring ones emisions to another place on Earth can decrease a global issue.

        I’m rationalist. I love number based predictions not preaching.
        I’m familiar with Energy /GDP function.
        But cutting the branch one sits on is not the best way for development.

  2. Summarising: killing the Polish population through air pollution caused by coal so coal miners can live. I thought Kafka was Cezch?

    • Jura says

      Well… I’m a chemist of with a specialization in fuels.
      If you think burning coal in home stoves is noxious .. you are right!

      But the coal itself is a precious high density energy resource.
      We can gasify and obtain energy or syngas in a clean way.

      Once (if?) there exists cheap renewable energy system with high EROEI and resolved intermittency issue we will probably turn into it. but so far…

      But at the moment it is not the case.
      We can not afford such high level of subsidies as Germany has.

      We also do not have nuclear plants and cheap uranium from mines in Niger as France does
      (nor have we got army that goes bombing anyone trying to overtake it)

      AFAIK the biggest spanish solar farm has turned out to be an economic failure.

      Do you think shutting down next industry in Poland branch would cause decrease in emissivity?
      No it would give an opposite result.

      Nowadays the most poisonous source is not industry nor traffic it so called “low emission”.
      Ie. emissions from a house districts whose inhabitants can not afford coal for heating and burn trash… due to low income.

      By closing the next industry branch we would counterintuitively increase the poisonous emissions.

      As I stated previously The Western Europe had gained a lot of in terms of economic development during the 60-00′ period due to a heavy industry that allowed them to become affluent enough.
      Now being affluent and having offshored their emission to Asia it tries to become praching teacher….gosh..

      Preach to the USA to stop the environmental masacre with tar sand and fracking not to mention China for burning the coal with high SO2 content in a most inefficient way possible..
      Consider the amount of CO2 released to the atmosphere during production process of cement used to erect the
      Three Gorges Dam. (which emits high numbers of methane.)

      Is there anyone preaching at USA & China?
      No.. Business As Usual keeps the hypocritic mouths closed.
      Not to mention the Niger delta ecological disaster.

      Come here try wear our shoes (living for 500 € (with EU prices level in an unheated house), face reality…

      if you are so worried about polish population I may ensure you more ppl dies due to permanent stress & necessity of eating junk food than air pollution (as our quality food market couldn’t compete and lost the battle with corpo food).

    • Jura says

      @Jeffrey Michel
      Thank you for the link.

      Exactly! all the resources shall be allocated for connecting households to a district heating networks.

      Once those well heeled aesthetics are shown Poland per Capita uses LESS coal based energy than Germany their eyes become even more round.
      That is what Niall Ferguson calls a myth. during the iron curtain times we used to call it propaganda.

      Germas have a good selling one.
      HArdly anyone knows the GDP is strongly correlated to the energy usage.
      Therefore Poland (at the moment ) can not afford closing mines.
      Once we reach EU affluence level we may give it a try.


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