Today, 70.2% of Poland’s primary energy production comes from its coal. This includes the burning of the ore by thermal power stations or directly by households. The country is therefore heavily dependent on this energy. This dependence on “the dirtiest of fossil fuels” is creating major environmental and climate problems, as well as public health problems: pollution caused by coal combustion is responsible for tens of thousands of premature deaths every year. What’s more, using coal as an energy source obviously goes against the country’s commitments to carbon neutrality such as the European Green Deal.
The question of the energy transition to cleaner forms of energy is therefore at the heart of the public debate in Poland. But this is not an easy task: such a transition requires several economic and social factors to be considered, in a country that has long been built around the exploitation of this resource.
The heavy economic and social impact of coal mining
Coal mining developed particularly strongly in Poland in the 20th century, and for a long time the country was one of the world’s top 5 coal producers. This was particularly the case after the Second World War, when the country gained certain coal-rich territories such as Silesia, which had previously been under German control. This was done under pressure from the USSR, which used its influence to take control of Polish mining, to secure supplies of coal at very low prices by introducing high production quotas.
As a result, miners gained a strong influence in the political life of the country, being a pivotal profession for the national economy. Today, the coal industry is not as important as it used to be, with 90,000 employees in 2020 compared with 390,000 in 1990. However, miners still carry a certain amount of political and electoral weight and are respected by Polish society in general.
For these reasons, politicians avoided considering a transition to other forms of energy, which would involve closing the mines. The conservative PiS government preferred to reject these initiatives by advocating the defence of miners in order to secure the electoral support of miners and their communities. In 2020, the government finally accepted a plan to close the mines by 2049, but the energy crisis that followed led it to shelve these initiatives and even to reopen new mines.
In addition to the issue of the future of the miners, there is the question of how to support households in the energy transition. Coal remains the cheapest source of energy for the least wealthy households. The cost of new energy sources will be difficult for many to bear, not to mention the cost of the installations needed in every home .
Polish society is nonetheless aware of the need for change in the energy sector and is showing a real determination to adapt.
The winds of change reasserting the need for transition
Initiatives are emerging to reconcile this need of changing the energy sector with the social issues at stake. For example, climate activists have been able to make contact with miners’ unions and form collectives aimed at achieving a “just transition”, i.e. the development of a green economy while taking workers into account.
There are also training programmes for miners put in place, so that they can be re-employed in new sectors once the mines are closed, such as wind farms. The Joint ressearch Council of the EU also highlights the similarities between the mining and geothermal energy sectors, suggesting that there may be scope for adaptation.
Finally, there has also been a shift in the country’s political stance, following the 2023 parliamentary elections in which the conservative right-wing PiS party lost its majority. This turnaround seems to favour a revival of the country’s energy transition. Indeed, there is every reason to hope that Donald Tusk’s new centrist coalition, which has been in power in Poland for almost a month now, will speed up the abandonment of coal mines. His administration has already stated that it wants to increase the proportion of renewable energy in the energy mix to 68% by 2030.
This dynamic will be supported by the European Union, which has announced the release of recovery funds, in particular the REpowerEU funds to support the energy transition. These funds, representing around €60 million, had previously been frozen by Brussels due to the worrying state of the rule of law in Poland, particularly regarding the independence of the judiciary. Donald Tusk’s commitment to re-establishing the separation of powers in Poland enabled the release of funds, and €5 million has already been paid at the end of 2023 .
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