Energy 26 May, 2020 10:00 am   
COMMENTS: Jerzy Buzek

Buzek: Poland is standing in a “draught” regarding the discussion on climate neutrality (INTERVIEW)

Even though Poland has not yet agreed to support the EU climate neutrality goal, the legislation whose goal is to reach the target is already binding for us. This means we are standing in some kind of a nightmarish “draught”, which never ends well – warns professor Jerzy Buzek, Poland’s former prime minister and a current member of the European Parliament’s ITRE Committee. How can the Just Transition Fund (JTF) take into account the differences between member states?

Jerzy Buzek: The fact that a proposition to set up a JTF even appeared means that we managed to build awareness in the EU that such differences exist. Some believe this is obvious, but it has not always been like this. When two years ago I chaired the European Parliament’s Committee on Industry, Research and Energy (ITRE) I put forward an idea to create such a fund, but many of my colleagues from the EP had reservations. Additionally, back then we were discussing the new multiannual EU budget, which did not provide a single Euro for implementing this idea, and member states did not acknowledge it for a long time either. Yet we did not give up – we worked, we argued, we explained. Today nobody questions anymore the fact that sometimes the starting points for different countries and regions on their road to climate neutrality vary when it comes to the level of their development and access to resources. And most importantly, there is understanding that nobody can reach the goal if one country trips over during this journey. This is why the Just Transition Fund has become a pillar of the European Commission’s latest flagship strategy – the European Green Deal.

What are the opportunities the JTF offers to states reliant on coal? Does it give privileges only to those countries that are ahead when it comes to the energy transition?

We are still working on the JTF, I participate in the works as a rapporteur for the ITRE Committee. Last week I presented the Committee’s draft position on the Fund, which said that 80% of its budget should be spent on areas where hard coal and lignite are used or extracted, but that are slowly departing from this industry. In Poland those regions are not only Silesia and the Dąbrowa Basin (aka Zaglembie), but also, for instance, Wałbrzych and Konin. Moreover, I think more emphasis should be put on the index that shows the number of jobs in the mining industry when awarding the aid. An ambitious climate policy is the biggest challenge for the people who live in coal regions and they should receive help first.

When it comes to the opportunities, I believe they exist in territorial plans for a just transition – to receive support from the JTF the plans need to be prepared. This is why the key is to include all local government officials in the regions, as well as representatives of trade unions, the industry and the energy sector in drafting the plans. Then and only then the money from the Fund will get the opportunity to be spent efficiently, and the transition to be implemented responsibly, cohesively and in a way that is socially accepted. This is the path to a successful transition.

As a person familiar with the discussions surrounding the JTF, what do you think will be the result of negotiations on the 2050 climate neutrality goal on the European Council summit in June?

First of all, I am not sure what we want to negotiate as last December all states, including Poland, supported the EU climate neutrality goal. The Polish government did announce it was not ready to co-fund this goal, but nevertheless we are not exempt from the legislation designed by the EU to achieve neutrality. I am talking about, for instance, the EU climate law and the new CO2 emissions reduction goal for 2030, and there is talk to increase the target to 65%, which for me is unacceptable. This means we are standing in a “nightmarish” draught, which never ends well.

Secondly, Poland’s position has been criticized from day one as extremely egoistic, myopic and harmful, as well as bad for the Polish national interest and future generations, but also for the European solidarity. Today, during the pandemic, it will be even more difficult for Italians, Spaniards, Bulgarians and Greeks to understand why Poles should be treated exceptionally.
And finally, Poland’s ruling party promised that postponing this issue by half a year had nothing to do with the presidential elections that were to take place in May. Now it has a chance to prove it – the summit will be held on 18 and 19 June and the elections will definitely be later.

How to design a sustainable financing policy for the energy sector during the coronavirus pandemic? Should we increase or decrease our ambition and consequently the pressure put on member states?

Paradoxically the pressure has never been stronger. The coronavirus made everybody realize what a real, physical crisis that threatens human life, health and everyday existence means. And the one initiated by global warming will be a lot worse, as in some places it will cause droughts, fires, shortages of drinking water and in others there will be floods and whole areas of land will go under water forever. Additionally, hundreds of thousands of people will die in the EU because of smog. Moreover, the recent weeks have shown how ignoring scientists ends – it is no coincidence that the same people who question climate change conspicuously brushed off COVID-19. The most striking example is president Trump and the current dramatic situation in the USA.

But obviously the coronavirus is also an occasion to rethink our ambitions. Especially that the existing crisis is definitely not the last one we will have to face before 2050. So, we should not give up on the climate neutrality goal itself, but we should approach it in a smart way. The first steps and the 2030 goal I have already mentioned will be most important. Anything above 50% seems impossible if we want the EU economy to be competitive and maintain jobs and, most of all, encourage the entire world to follow us.

How can the JTF support member states’ policies so that they will really transform their energy industries, instead of just throwing money down the drain?

Since the beginning I have been stressing that the Fund needs to stay, with a separate and adequate financing, in the future multiannual EU budgets, at least until 2050. However, whether it will happen depends to a large degree on the Fund’s beneficiaries, including Poland. In the coming years the net payer countries need to be shown that this money really helps us to introduce energy transition, that we are decreasing CO2 emissions and dependency on coal, instead of greenwashing, i.e. pulling eco-friendly wool over their eyes. To achieve that. we will need to set precise goals and priorities and implement them consequently and transparently. The territorial plans for a just transition, which I have already mentioned, will be definitely helpful. They need to be consistent with the national plans on climate and energy, as well as with important strategies, for instance with regard to promoting prosumer energy, or the fight against smog and energy poverty.

On the other hand, how will the JTF support energy security, an issue still important for member states?

It is absolutely essential to make sure the Fund is designed in a way that will not cause the energy transition to undermine energy security. I have clearly stressed that in the draft position of the ITRE Committee. I am fighting for this money to support both investments in renewable energy sources and in gas infrastructure and state-of-the-art heating systems, which is also very important for Poland. This will not only help to lower CO2 emissions as gas emissions are lower by 60% than coal’s, but it will also help to lead a successful fight against air pollution and energy poverty. This last problem pertains to even 4.6 million Polish men and women! I have difficult negotiations ahead, some political groups in the Parliament, mostly the Greens, do not want to hear about financing gas. However, in the recent years I have fought, often hand in hand with MEPs from the Green Party, for greater security of supply and solidarity on the EU gas market, as well as for fully applying the EU antitrust regulations to Gazprom and for LNG deliveries from the United States. And I was engaged in these matters also because I have noticed the potential role this raw material may play as a transition fuel in the energy transition process.

Which innovative sectors may use the JTF to develop?

On the one hand, I would like to see investments in hydrogen, alternative fuels for transport, new technologies related to the widely-understood sustainable development, and on the other – in digitization, including 5G networks, intelligent energy networks and solutions for precision agriculture. I hope there will be a lot of sectors like these.

Interview by Wojciech Jakóbik