Climate Policy Energy 4 September, 2020 10:00 am   
COMMENTS: Jerzy Buzek

Buzek: the European Greed Deal is not the problem, Poland’s inaction is (INTERVIEW)

“If there is anything we should be afraid of it’s not that the European Green Deal is accelerating, it’s that Poland is completely alone and stuck,” believes professor Jerzy Buzek, former prime minister, President of the European Parliament, and current Chair of the ITRE Committee of the EP. It seems that the European Green Deal is accelerating. The compromise made by the Coal Committee in Germany could be an example here. It suggests a coal phase-out by 2038, but is now questioned by activists for being too conservative. Should Poland be concerned about this acceleration?

Jerzy Buzek: Let’s start with the fact that reducing the Green Deal to getting rid of coal – which is increasingly more visible in our public debate – is a huge simplification. It’s as if we are reducing all of the challenges and happy moments of parenthood spread over the years, to baby teeth eruption and childhood diseases. The Green Deal is a long-term strategy for developing and growing the entire Union, improving its innovation abilities and global competitiveness, creating new and attractive – also for young people – jobs in a new, eco-friendly economy. All of this is part and parcel of the EU goal to achieve climate neutrality by 2050 through a deep transition of the energy sector, but also transport, industry, construction and agriculture.

Coming back to Germany and 2038 – let’s take a wider look: Slovakia is to phase out coal in 2023, Greece and Hungary by 2030, Czechia is giving it a serious thought. Great Britain will do this by 2025, even though it is no longer part of the EU. Finland wants to become climate neutral in 2035, Austria in 2040, Sweden in 2045. In April, 17 states, including Malta, Latvia and Slovenia, signed a call for making the Green Deal a driver behind economic recovery after the coronavirus. So, if there is anything we should be afraid of it’s not that the European Green Deal is accelerating, it’s that Poland is completely alone and stuck.

In what sense?

We are the only member state that refused to participate in the EU climate neutrality goal twice during the European Council summits. The Law and Justice government agreed to pay for this by giving up the majority of money, which could, only in the coming seven years, be given to us to pay for the transition of coal mining regions. Instead of receiving over PLN 35 bn., Silesia, Zagłębie, Wałbszych, Turoszów, Konin or Bełchatów will probably get about 7.5 bn. This is drastically less money for fighting smog, lowering energy prices for Polish men and women, eco-friendly transport, transitioning the energy sector, improving the quality of life in run-down areas, or creating new jobs there. To say it is a catastrophe would be an understatement. At the European Parliament, we are trying to save this money for Poland, but the situation is more than difficult.

How are we prepared at the central and regional level to use the Just Transition Fund in Poland?
The messages I have received, for instance from local politicians, are not optimistic. It looks like the temptation to control, politicize and write everything from behind the proverbial desk in Warsaw is winning, and so, all consultations with local authorities, communities, businesses and NGOs are as perfunctory as possible. Also, I don’t think that the fight between ministries for competencies and influence, as well as tensions between coalition members caused by the government reshuffle are helping. And time is running out quickly.

Which investments in fossil fuels stand a chance at surviving the EU legislation that is drafted as a practical element of the European Green Deal – climate regulations, sustainable investments, taxonomy?

I hope that after all, those will be some kind of investments in gas infrastructure. In many states, including Poland, gas may become – for instance in heat generation – a transition fuel, which will make it possible to significantly lower CO2 emissions and, at the same time, substantially improve air quality and fight energy poverty. We are trying to spread this awareness in the European Parliament, but – completely unexpectedly – in recent times, growing problems have started to emerge among member states in the EU Council. And this is where we need to go back to the question about Poland’s position again. Supposedly the government is trying to build a coalition to support this particular matter, but when it comes to passing specific legislation we are completely alone yet again.

Should reforming the coal sector be about its gradual liquidation? What about other branches of the economy where Polish coal could be of use? What is the alternative to Silesia?

I think it’s difficult to deny that today our coal sector is undergoing a kind of a self-liquidation – it is collapsing under its own weight. Coal mines are generating losses to the tune of billions and dragging energy companies behind them, record-breaking amounts of coal are waiting on coal mounds, and at the same time record-breaking amounts of cheaper coal are brought in – mostly from Russia. Additionally, we are importing increasing amounts of energy and the participation of coal in its generation in Poland is at a historical low. There is no money for new investments, and in many mines the coal is running out. Moreover, there aren’t enough people who want to work in this sector – the JSW Group alone reported it had a shortage of about 2,000 employees! Miners can see this, but they rightly expect the government to treat them seriously and to honestly talk to them, as well as present a just and clear plan for the future, which is so important for the miners and their families.

Of course, coking coal is a separate issue, because as long as it is technically irreplaceable in the process of producing steel, it will have a future. Actually, the JSW Group will soon become the only producer of this kind of coal in the EU. This is why, just like three years ago, I am doing my best to convince the European Commission to keep it on the EU list of strategic resources. I talked about this numerous times, among others, with the EC Vice President Frans Timmermans and Commissioner Thierry Breton.

Regarding the alternatives for Silesia – they already exists. Contrary to the popular belief, mining is responsible for just 10 percent of revenue generated by the region’s industry. Whereas, for some time now, experts have been claiming that limiting the employment in coal mines may actually speed up the development of the region in the long run. However, this needs to be done wisely, which is why it is so important to prepare reliable territorial plans for a just transition we have already mentioned.

Interview by Wojciech Jakóbik