Opinion, Poland

Is Poland’s climate inaction being legitimized by the European Energy Union?

Belchatow power station

“The idea of creating the Energy Union came to life thanks to a Polish initiative. Now, the project is being carried out,” said Maroš Šefčovič, the vice-president of the European Commission and Commissioner for Energy Union, during his recent visit in Poland. Indeed, the concept was first voiced by Donald Tusk, the then Polish prime minister, in the context of common purchasing of gas for the European market. Since then, the Energy Union project has moved away from the initial proposal and developed in a broader – and for Poland, not always welcome – way, including a push for more efficiency and for making Europe a leader in renewables.

From the Polish government’s perspective, this is where problems start – because European solidarity in the area of energy is all well and good, until someone raises the dreaded subject of climate change. When it comes to commitments to decarbonization and shared responsibilities, the Polish call for more European solidarity, so prominent in the discussion about gas imports from Russia, suddenly disappears.

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In fact, Poland has often been the one working openly to weaken EU climate targets, recently in the context of the EU’s 2030 climate change agreement. Poland’s previous government had a track record of delaying transposition of EU climate and energy directives. It also continued to put the economic interests of an increasingly troubled coal mining sector above any and all environmental and health concerns.

Poland’s hope for a low-carbon development has long been paralyzed by the inability of successive governments to deal with a hard coal-mining sector that is constantly on the verge of insolvency, as well as the increasingly obsolete coal-burning industries inherited from Poland’s communist era.

Even key national strategic documents and policies, in particular the recently published Energy Policy 2050, mostly reflect present political interests, especially those of the powerful coal mining lobby. The external costs of pursuing a carbon-intensive business-as-usual are being ignored. Renewable energy is portrayed as a burden imposed on the country by Brussels bureaucrats and not as an opportunity to pursue the long-term interests of the country, its economy and its citizens.

Unearned praise and skewed priorities

In light of this, the Energy Union, as an EU-wide policy and legal framework, could be an important opportunity to set a clear agenda for the transformation of the Polish energy system. With a lack of political will at the national level, the new Law and Justice government likely to bring even more conservative ideas about energy and climate, we need the push to come from the EU.

Yet, in light of the European Commission’s recent Energy Union assessment for Poland, the hope for change is quickly disappearing. The document praises Poland for being on track to meet its 2020 energy and climate targets but a closer look makes it hard to be excited about that. Since 2000, Poland’s greenhouse gas emissions have remained more or less constant, at around 85% below 1990 levels – and this has happened without much extra effort, as the bulk of the reduction took place in the 1990s as a result of the transformation to a post-communist economy. Moreover, Poland was actually allowed to increase its emissions not included in the EU’s Emissions Trading System by 14% above the 2005 baseline.

Another Europe 2020 target obligates Poland to reach a 15% share of renewable energy sources in gross final energy consumption. With the current 11.3%, Poland indeed seems on track to reaching it. Except what counts as ‘renewables’ is a different question. In Poland, almost 45% of the so-called renewable energy is produced through co-firing – the simultaneous burning of coal and biomass.

With regards to transposing the EU Renewable Energy Directive, the Energy Union assessment reads: “Poland engaged in a long-term process of reforming its support system for renewables and reducing administrative barriers to market entry for renewables.” This is one way of saying that Poland was almost five years late in adopting a dedicated renewables law and reforming a dysfunctional support system based on green certificates. Due to this outdated system co-firing consumed almost 40% of the already meagre public subsidies to renewable energy between 2005 and 2012.

But the true danger of the Energy Union assessment of Poland lies not in the unearned praises but in framing energy security only as stable and diversified gas supplies and increased interconnection capacity – which, in the case of Poland, is mostly related to coal power plants. This necessarily implies perpetuating the country’s dependence on fossil fuels.

Energy security, particularly in the context of Russian gas imports, has become a hot topic in Polish public discourse. The prevalent response is to shun any restrictions on the use of indigenous energy resources, such as coal and shale gas. But we cannot discuss security of supply without honestly addressing the worsening situation on the hard coal market and the adverse impacts and external costs of fossil fuel mining and burning.

The missing points: energy efficiency and renewables

Even more so, we cannot discuss supply without first addressing demand – and prioritizing energy efficiency measures over new generation and transmission projects is missing from the Commission’s assessment. Poland’s economy remains one of the most energy-consuming in Europe, with energy intensity more than double than the EU average. Energy poverty remains a widespread problem, with more than 20% of Poles not able to afford comfortable temperature at home during winter, mainly due to the poor energy standard of residential buildings.

As the Commission’s assessment points out, the Energy Union strategy must indeed help Poland “strengthen the targeted use of financial instruments for increased investments [in energy efficiency]”, but simply throwing money at Poland is not going to be enough. Investments in energy efficiency across all sectors, particularly in the housing sector, are indeed urgently needed – but to be effective they must be based on clear and focused strategies and a solid legal framework, not least the long overdue transposition of the EU energy efficiency directive.

Something else is conspicuously absent from the Energy Union assessment of Poland – and that is renewable energy. The Commission’s review quietly overlooks both the huge potential for the production of clean energy, particularly in small, decentralized sources, and the fact that political support for the development of renewable energy sources is almost non-existent. Investments in wind, solar and small biogas are lagging because of the unstable and often outright unfavourable investment environment. The previous government openly opposed renewables and has been actively trying to dilute provisions to introduce feed-in-tariffs for micro-installations in the recently adopted renewables law, even before they take effect in 2016.

In the official discourse, renewables continue to be depicted not as an opportunity for innovation, sustainable growth and green jobs, but as a risk to the stability of the power grid and a financial burden to end consumers. In its silence, the Commission’s assessment is a lost opportunity to change this discussion.

Clean coal appeasement

One sentence by Šefčovič, during the Polish stop on his Energy Union tour, captures the Brussels method of dealing with Poland. “Coal should stay in the national energy mix, but it must be clean,” said the Commissioner, making sure not to antagonize his hosts.

In fact, echoing official Polish rhetoric, which has repeatedly pushed coal under the umbrella of sustainable energy solutions, this could well fall under the Energy Union’s “Research and Innovation” pillar. For Polish policy-makers, clean energy often means more efficient and modern coal burning, upgraded smart grids which would minimize transmission losses from coal burning, and coal-based district heating as a solution to air pollution.

The Energy Union concept might have originated in Poland and the idea of common gas purchasing, but ultimately it is the myth of “clean coal” which could become Poland’s true imprint on the shape of the Energy Union. The final decision on a country’s energy mix remains its own – but there is a clear and urgent need for the Energy Union strategy to put more emphasis on transforming the energy system in Poland, shifting focus from security of supply to decarbonization, moving towards small-scale, decentralized renewables and greater energy efficiency.


Expert in the field of renewable energy sources and energy efficiency. Member of the Monitoring Committee of the Infrastructure and Environment Operational Programme 2014-2020.