Poland threatens to block EU climate change vote

Poland threatens to block EU climate change vote
Poland's Belchatow is "the most climate-damaging power plant in the European Union", according to the EU Commission.
By Wojciech Kosc in Warsaw September 30, 2016

Poland could emerge on September 30 as the lone obstacle preventing the EU from ratifying a breakthrough international treaty to help tackle climate change before a crucial UN climate summit in November.

The 28 environment ministers from the member states of the European Union are meeting on the morning of September 30 in Brussels to give the green light to the ratification of the Paris Agreement. The agreement aims to cut greenhouse gases emissions so as to limit the rise in the Earth's temperature. It was negotiated last year after some 20 years of difficult talks and is hailed as a breakthrough in efforts to contain global warming. 

What it takes now for the agreement to enter into force is that it is ratified by at least 55 countries responsible for at least 55% of global emissions of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas. As of September 27, 61 countries responsible for 48% of emissions have ratified it, including the US and China, long considered most unwilling to do so.

The EU, with its 12% share in global emissions, could push the Paris Agreement over the line if it agrees to ratify it on September 30, which is what Brussels has been pushing for very strongly. For the EU, fast ratification is a highly prestigious issue because the bloc has been one of the strongest proponents of the global agreement, long before the US or China conceded it was necessary.

But the EU might face a major embarrassment if one of its member states - Poland - blocks the plan to agree to ratify the Paris Agreement under a special fast-track procedure.

Brussels proposed the fast-track procedure so as not to wait for each member state to ratify the Paris deal separately, possibly a protracted process. The EU is rushing to ensure ratification ahead of the UN climate change conference in Morocco on November 7. That would give the first post-Paris climate summit a new momentum, as countries still face tough negotations on how to implement the Paris Agreement.

Poland's plan

Poland appears to have its own plan, however. In a letter circulating in Brussels since earlier this week, Poland said it would only agree to the fast ratification of the Paris treaty by the EU if “the specificity of the Polish economy” is taken into account.

“Poland’s interests need to be secured in the context of the ratification of the Paris Agreement by the European Union,” Poland’s Environment Minister Jan Szyszko wrote in the letter.

Poland’s interests are related to the fact that the country gets more than 80% of its power from coal-fired plants. Warsaw likes to boast that under the previous international accord on fighting climate change, the Kyoto Protocol, it had reduced its emissions by more than it had to. 

However, Warsaw typically fails to attribute the reduction to the overall slump in industrial activity that followed the transition from Communism, rather than to any deliberate policy.

It is clear, however, that in 2016 - nearly three decades after Communism - Poland has simply chosen not to invest in power generation that is less emissions-intensive. Coal’s share in power generation is nearly as high as it was in the 1990s, while efforts to build a strong renewable energy sector have been feeble. 

Instead of discussing straightforward emission cuts, Poland prefers to talk of investing in “clean coal technologies” or using forests as sinks for carbon dioxide. During subsequent climate summits of the EU, Warsaw has fought for concessions to minimise - critics say to avoid completely - the need to adapt its energy policy to the requirement to combat climate change. Statements undermining the findings of climate science are not uncommon in Polish political circles.

Recently, the PiS government has intensified work to keep coal as the dominating fuel for power generation, while passing laws that have put renewables in limbo.

“Poland is a country rich in energy sources and its energy security, based on its own resources, that is hard coal and lignite, is the foundation of Poland’s economy and sustainable development,” Szyszko wrote in the letter.

Earlier, Poland demanded from the European Commission guarantees for the construction of new coal-fired power generation capacity in return for turning a more favourable eye to climate diplomacy.

“It is laughable,” one energy policy expert tells bne IntelliNews. “Poland agreed to the EU’s own climate policy measures that bind member states to reduce emissions to the same degree as the Paris Agreement asks for. All it could gain now by blocking Paris is international embarrassment.”

Poland's government reportedly okayed speeding up the domestic ratification process of the Paris Agreement, Bloomberg reported on September 29. This might be Poland's way of applying some more pressure on Brussels by displaying readiness to ratify, as long as the EU grants Poland concessions.

Some believe Poland’s positon is not strong, however. “Poland is isolated and it seems unlikely it could gain anything more than marginal concessions for not blocking today’s agreement to ratification,” Wendel Trio, director of Climate Action Network in Brussels, tells bne IntelliNews.

That may well be a scenario Poland has been after all along. Warsaw's relationship with the EU has seen a lot of posturing in recent months, for example over the refugee crisis or the spat over the Constitutional Tribunal. The authorities like to present that as building strong position in the EU, but it appears more like playing to the gallery. Any gains from the meeting in Brussels today would be perfect for that purpose.