Many participants noticed the strange haze in the air in Katowice. COP24 was held in Poland’s coal mining region of Silesia, the source of the fossil fuel that produces some 80% of the nation’s energy. The declarations of the Polish government following the opening of the conference show that the host country is not ready to get rid of fossil fuel.
Polish President Andrzej Duda said that there was no contradiction between climate protection and coal use. “He also stated that Poland has coal reserves that will last for 200 more years,” condemned Eco, COP’s NGO newsletter, which awarded Poland with the Fossil of the Day Award for “trying to protect its one true love: coal — and not its people and environment, as well as for downplaying the urgency of climate action that we need to stay alive”.
Poland wants “solidarity” and a “just transition”
At COP24, Andrzej Duda emphasized the importance of social consensus as a condition for the success of environmental policies, and presented the Silesia Solidarity and Just Transition Declaration to the Heads of States and Governments meeting. Drafted by Poland itself, this declaration recognizes the challenges for cities, sectors, and local authorities that are dependent on fossil fuels and calls on governments to ensure a decent future for workers and communities affected by the transition to low carbon emissions — by protecting their rights and well-being.
“Public policies to reduce emissions will face social resistance and significant political risks for the governments implementing them if they are not accompanied by social security programmes for workers whose jobs will be lost or transformed. For these reasons, the issue of fair transition is a vital issue for governments, social partners and civil society organisations,” states the COP24 on its official website.
The new declaration was already signed by 49 countries including France, Germany and Canada. It is also supported by organizations such as Amnesty International who consider that “it is vital that as governments transition our economies away from fossil fuels, they account for the human rights impacts on everybody.”
“A just transition will not happen without the NGOs, without the communities,” explained a spokesperson from WWF Poland at COP24. “The discussion is very difficult because there are many conflict of interests,” she continued. Difficult, and full of emotions as everybody in Poland remembers the painful, unmanaged mine closures from the 1990s.
For the WWF, one of the solutions would be to encourage migration, to attract more people, especially young people and families, to these coal regions, whose population is aging.
What game was Poland playing at COP24?
The atmosphere in Katowice was not as hopeful and exciting as it was during the previous COP since the Paris Agreement was signed, and Poland’s position on coal was certainly one of the reasons. Domestically, the Polish government argued it needs to keep coal alive to protect workers. But according to some experts, Polish coal is expensive to extract, mines are unprofitable and closing, and coal-dependent utilities are struggling to make a profit while keeping energy prices for households within politically acceptable limits.
“This Declaration 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,” said Bankwatch’s Just Transition coordinator Alexandru Mustață.
The latest IPCC Report makes clear that if we want to avoid severe global warming, we will have to stay within a strict carbon budget. That means leaving fossil fuels in the ground. “As the world transitions away from coal, oil, and gas, fossil fuel CEOs and their political puppets are trying to keep us hooked. (…) Every ton of coal burned makes an immediate contribution to the quantity of CO2 in the atmosphere causing long term and irreversible climate change. We need to keep fossil fuels in the ground now to ensure that we stay below 1.5 degrees in order to avoid catastrophic environmental breakdown” explains Hoda Baraka, Global Communications Director, 350.org.
At COP24, Duda said there’s “no plan today to fully give up on coal.” For many observers, Poland’s message was clear: climate change must be tackled, but not at the expense of the coal workers who built the industrial city that was hosted this year’s COP24 summit. It’s a shame really, because the timing to work on this transition would be perfect. “The country’s low unemployment and shortage of labour present a good macroeconomic window of opportunity to smoothly transition a large workforce to other sectors,” said Izabela Zygmunt, Bankwatch’s national coordinator for Poland.