Low-carbon drive can’t ignore coal, says Poland

14 November 2013
By Edd Gent
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Smoke billows from the chimneys of Belchatow Power Station in Poland, Europe's largest coal-fired power plant

Smoke billows from the chimneys of Belchatow Power Station in Poland, Europe's largest coal-fired power plant

Poland says governments cannot ignore coal when considering how to move to a low-carbon economy.

The country has angered environmentalists and put the United Nations in a quandary by planning a coal industry summit next week on the sidelines of the 11-22 November UN talks among 200 nations seeking ways to slow global warming being hosted in Warsaw.

But the government says countries must find ways to cut emissions from coal, a cheap and often highly polluting energy source that generates 40 per cent of world electricity, and not pretend that it will simply wither away in favour of greener energies.

"Coal is still the basic source of energy in many countries in the world. So a transition period is needed," deputy environment minister Beata Jaczewska said of the 18-19 November meeting organised by the World Coal Association (WCA) and Poland's economy ministry.

Environmentalists say coal distracts from a UN drive to restructure the world economy around cleaner options, from hydropower to geothermal power, and some also object to efforts to capture and bury the carbon emissions from coal.

"Coal is not the solution," said Martin Kaiser of Greenpeace. He called the coal talks a "slap in the face" to developing nations that are suffering extreme weather and want rich countries to take the lead in phasing out fossil fuels.

Coal-fired power plants are the biggest single source of manmade greenhouse gas emissions blamed by a UN panel of climate scientists for pushing up temperatures and causing more heatwaves, droughts and rising sea levels.

But Milton Catelin, head of the WCA, told Reuters that the coal meeting was a "constructive contribution" towards a UN deal, meant to be agreed in 2015, to slow global warming.

"We can burn coal more cleanly. It's not science fiction," he said.

He added that raising the overall efficiency of the world's coal-fired power stations to the standards of a modern plant would cut global carbon dioxide emissions by about 2.4 billion tonnes, roughly the equivalent of India's total emissions.

Poland generates 90 per cent of its electricity from coal. Among European Union members, it has been one of the most reluctant to toughen the existing goal of cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 20 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020.

Christiana Figueres, the UN's climate chief who says the world should aim to eliminate net carbon emissions by the second half of the century, rejected an appeal by environmentalists to cancel plans to attend the coal meeting.

"I will speak to the coal industry to show them that they can and must immediately deploy policies and technologies to lower their industry's carbon footprint more swiftly and urgently," she said.

She said, however, that she would not endorse a communique at the summit that Catelin of the WCA said he hoped Figueres would sign, that calls for immediate use of "high-efficiency low-emissions coal combustion technologies" and urges development banks to step up lending for coal projects even though the World Bank and others are cutting back.

As head of a UN group, "I would not be involved in any communiques by external groups", she said in an email.

Poland is among nations planning investments in coal and has also sought to develop cleaner-burning shale gas, which has helped the USA cut its greenhouse gas emissions. The nation's plans include construction of a 1.08GW coal plant by 2017 by the country's third-biggest power producer, Enea, in Kozienice, central Poland.

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