Climate Policy Environment 9 April, 2020 10:00 am   

Kohut: Poland needs to decide when to phase out coal (INTERVIEW)

The just transition in Silesia is at high risk because of the government which, and this needs to be stated clearly, is putting the region and the coal sector in harm’s way. The experience of other coal regions proves that in order to have a successful just transition one needs a well thought-out plan with a specific deadline for coal phase-out – says Łukasz Kochut, MEP from Robet Biedroń’s Spring party, in an interview with You were born in Katowice, you are Spring’s leader in the Silesian voivodeship and since 2019 you’ve been a Member of the European Parliament. How do you see Silesia’s future in times of an energy transformation? Is a just transition possible?

Łukasz Kohut: Most of all we need to specify what a just transition means because I am under the impression that quite often we define this term differently, which is why we have more public disputes on this topic than we need to. In my opinion the essential elements of a just energy transition in Silesia are: supporting employees in mining and the coal-based economy who will lose their jobs, including the opinions and interests of local communities in the entire transition process, making decisions together with social partners and, of course, protecting climate and the environment. After all, an energy transition is not a whim, or a project that can be postponed – it is an answer to facts: the climate disaster and depletion of fossil fuels.
Is it possible to make such a just transition in Silesia? Of course it is. However, it is at a high risk because of the of government which, and this needs to be stated clearly, is putting the region and the coal sector in harm’s way. The experience of other coal regions proves that in order to have a successful just transition one needs a well thought-out plan with a specific deadline for coal phase-out. Because, and I stress this once again, coal will run out regardless of our wishful thinking. The government doesn’t see this, or pretends that it doesn’t see this. It seems the current administration believes that a just transition means to subsidize unprofitable coal mines as long as possible, which has a huge human, economic and environmental cost. In result, it is drafting a coal phase-out scenario in a very chaotic and unprepared way, which has a detrimental social impact. Additionally, as a true-born Silesian I cannot agree to a transition that does not produce new jobs in Silesia. When it comes to this issue all Silesian politicians from all sides of the political spectrum agree. For decades Silesia has been the driving force behind Poland’s economy and I don’t want it to become a third-category region or Europe’s slum.

What are your solutions for the coal industry? Energy transition may be expensive…

There is no doubt it will be expensive. We should talk about this loud and clear because, as I have already said, in order for the just transition to be successful we have to be honest and transparent about what we are doing at all levels. The transformation needs large funds both from the EU and from the state budget. The European Just Transition Mechanism that will cost over EUR 100 billion is a good step in this direction. Another important issue is the region’s identity, Silesia’s identity. This is a job for Silesia’s regionalists, creators of arts and culture and academics. They should make sure the ethos and the appreciation of the people involved in the industry are not forgotten, despite the coal phase-out. However, this bit is something I am not concerned about because the Silesian and regional identity, the relation to the hajmat – these are actually the strongest elements of the entire process. Poland doesn’t know Silesia and sometimes I am under the impression it is still afraid of it, it is high time we changed this and started a discussion on Silesia’s complicated history. It is high time to recognize the Silesian language as a regional language and Silesians as an ethnic minority. It is very important to many of us.

Is the European Green Deal a real answer to climate change?

Yes, I believe the Green Deal is a good and realistic project. It connects the necessary climate targets (I use the word “necessary” instead of “ambitious” on purpose, because the climate disaster is a fact and improving the situation is not an ambition, but a necessity) with a promising financing scheme, as well as the necessary ideas that will redefine the current overexploitation, e.g. the idea of a circular economy and “farm-to-table”. Of course, the European Commission has not yet presented all of its propositions with regard to the Green Deal and the discussion on its final shape is still ahead of us. However, at this moment I can confirm I believe this is a good project.

At the beginning of March you argued that the national energy and climate plans (NECP) for 2021-2030 should be analyzed. Why? What does their role look like today and what should it look like?

In an article for The Parliament Magazine, which I wrote in order to stress the importance of coordinating actions between EU member states and between them and EU institutions in the area of energy and climate policy, I pointed out the importance of the so-called national energy and climate plans (NECP) for 2021-2030. If we are to achieve climate neutrality by 2050, our current and future actions have to be driven by this goal, they need to be consistent. And this is the perspective from which the NECPs should be analyzed. We also have to verify whether they converge with each other – member states start from various positions, they are either less or more advanced when it comes to green energy. EU projects, including financial plans, have to take that into consideration. Additionally, obviously enough member states will also differ when it comes to their desired, final green energy mix. To sum up – NECPs should be a coherent road map for the EU-27 on its way to climate neutrality.

Will the pandemic impact the EU’s ability to achieve climate neutrality and energy transition? How to support the energy sector during the pandemic?

Yes, this situation is really without precedent – the COVID-19 pandemic will have a devastating impact on the economy. The situation is dynamic, but we already know that the energy sector will take a blow – when the economy comes to a grinding halt, power consumption goes down and coal mines and energy companies lose a lot of revenue. Of course, in this case, just like in other sectors, emergency assistance from the state, financial assistance is needed. But those needs – the “here and now” needs in various sectors and of course in healthcare, should not be mistaken for a long-term policy. The “here and now” help is of course a priority and limiting it, in the name of any long-term project would be absurd. When there is a fire, we need to put it out without wondering whether the water fulfills the required specifications. And I am hoping this fire of a pandemic can be put out as soon as possible, so that we can move on to the rebuilding phase. The incoming economic disaster is prompting calls for huge cash injections into European economies and a new Marshall Plan, which is why, some claim, the Green Deal should be postponed. I do not support this last conclusion. First, the reasons why we are working on the Green Deal have not changed: climate is changing disastrously, coal deposits are running out. And the pandemic has not changed this. Secondly, and this is especially important, we do need a new Marshall Plan, we do need a lot of money to sustain and kick-start our economies. We need huge public investments, And these investments could go to green sectors and thus connect climate and economic goals. This definitely forces us to look at the Green Deal from the perspective of the impact of the pandemic, but the goal is to see the economic potential in this situation instead of pursuing the Deal’s goals for their own sake.

Interview by Patrycja Rapacka