Poland is slowly saying goodbye to its reputation as the dirty man of Europe

This is the first part of a series about the measures that Poland is taking against environmental pollution and global warming. Tomorrow, part two will be devoted to the transition to electric buses in public transport.

The sight of the Belchatów brown coal power station is both forbidding and impressive. A huge hole several tens of meters deep and kilometers wide stretches out in front of the power station. The plant spits out thick clouds of smoke day and night. Everything in the hole is dead. Except for the gigantic trucks that are constantly driving back and forth between the quarry and the power station. The area around Belchatów is regularly shrouded in mist and the smell around the power station intensifies in winter thanks to the numerous households in the area that are still kept warm with old-fashioned multi-burners.

It should come as no surprise that the power station in Belchatów was regularly criticized at the climate summit in Katowice last year. Belchatów is the world’s largest brown coal power station. And it is the greatest, single emitter of carbon dioxide in the EU, with more than 38 million tonnes of CO2 per year. It is also one of the reasons why Poland is often called the dirty man of Europe.

The fact that Poland depends on coal and brown coal for almost 80% of its electricity is a thorn in the side of Brussels. Even worse, it is felt that Warsaw is also not prepared to abandon its dependence on coal. The furthest Poland has been willing to go so far, is to reduce its dependence on coal by roughly 50% by 2040. The government deems anything more than that to be too expensive. Poland therefore has declined to sign the EU protocol on the supply of CO2-neutral energy by 2050. Just as the Czech Republic, Estonia and Hungary are also refusing.

The Netherlands emits more CO2 than Poland

This intractable attitude towards Brussels could give the impression that nothing at all is happening in Poland with regard to improving the environment. But that is not true. In a series devoted to environmental and climate measures, Innovation Origins will show that Poland is even ahead of the rest of Europe in some respects.

Read also: Coal Curtain replaces the Iron Curtain

For a start, the figures reveal that we, as The Netherlands, ought to be cautious in our criticism. Because of its high energy consumption per capita, The Netherlands emits more CO2 than Poland does. In 2017, Poland accounted for 319 million tonnes and the Netherlands for 175 million tonnes. In per capita terms, that amounted to 8.4 tonnes of CO2 per Polish person and more than 10 tonnes for one Dutch person. So the situation in Poland is not that dire after all.

When multi-burners are used during winter, nitrogen oxide emissions rise in Polish villages and towns, particularly in the south. Photo Maurits Kuypers

Also, the right-wing populist government PiS party seems to be realizing that doing nothing about climate policy is no longer an option either. For example, the government recently announced that with Michal Kurtyka, a special minister for climate issues has been appointed. While the conservative pro-coal minister Krzysztof Tchorzewski has since vanished from the cabinet.

And last week, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said in Parliament: “Conventional energy sources will remain important for our energy system for a long time to come, but the situation is changing. There was a time when we couldn’t afford to invest in renewable energy sources. But now we can’t afford not to invest in them.”

Societal change

But the most important thing is that Polish society is changing. Nature and environmental policies are becoming increasingly important. The most noticeable change over the last few years was the increase in the number of protests against the extremely high levels of fine particles (smog) during winter months.

Last year, the European Environment Agency (EEA) estimated that 44,000 people in Poland die prematurely from poor air quality every year. Living in Warsaw for a year would be equivalent to smoking 1000 cigarettes. No wonder that the purchase of air masks was one of the biggest sales successes last year.

The response to this criticism is still a little slow at government level. The scheme to replace old multi-burners in houses with new ones is going rather sluggishly. Even though on paper as much as €25 billion has been made available for it.

Smog cities take steps towards banning multi-burners

The situation is different in municipalities and towns. In Krakow (long known as smog city number 1) multi-burners that emit too many fine particles and nitrogen oxide were banned this year. Other cities are also taking steps in this direction. Most experts therefore expect that the problem with the old polluting multi-burners – by far the most important cause of fine particles – should be solved in the not too distant future.

Another reason for optimism about air quality is the rapid deployment of electric buses. According to Solaris Bus & Coach (a local manufacturer of buses and trams from Bolechowo, a suburb in Poznan), there are already 16 cities with battery-operated buses. This is a win-win situation for Poland, as most of the E-buses come from their home country. In addition to Solaris, electric buses are also being manufactured in Poland by Volvo, Scania, MAN and Rafako E-Bus.

The Solaris factory, Photo Maurits Kuypers

Companies for a cleaner environment

Companies aren’t just standing still either. Press agency Reuters reported this month that 20 major companies have signed up to the EU targets for CO2 neutrality by 2050. In defiance of the Warsaw government. Among them are the PKN Orlen refinery and PKO Bank Polski, both state-owned. The Polish subsidiary of the ING Bank has also signed. As have subsidiaries of the French company Orange (telecom) and the German company Innogy (chemistry).

“Of course, we will not achieve the goal of climate neutrality overnight. However, it is important that we take immediate action,” says the Charter of the 20 companies. Deputy Director of ING Bank Śląski Joanna Erdman told Reuters that signing this document is a very natural step for the bank. ING was also one of the first lenders who refused to continue financing new coal projects.

Erdman: “At the moment, the discussion in Poland revolves around whether we ought to endorse the CO2 targets. When it should actually be about how we want to achieve that.”

As I said, this message from companies is slowly but surely beginning to resonate with the government in Warsaw. For instance, after parliamentary elections in October, the energy plan for 2040 has been partially amended in favor of the environment. For one thing, according to the old plans, all onshore windmills were supposed to disappear. That’s because they were considered too unsightly. Now the aim is to keep capacity at about the same level.

Onshore windmills are not very popular in Poland. Photo Expresselblag/Pixabay

Gigawatts on the rise

Warsaw wants to make a decisive leap forward as far as solar energy is concerned. This year, the 1 gigawatt threshold will be exceeded for the first time. A further 15 gigawatts will be needed over the coming 20 years. The VAT on solar panels has been reduced. And an incentive fund of € 235 million has been set up for private individuals as well.

The government foresees slightly slower development when it comes to offshore wind energy. Poland prefers to wait until this technology becomes cheaper before investing heavily in it. Expectations are that this will happen after 2025.

Lastly, Prime Minister Morawiecki sees an important role for “clean” nuclear energy as an alternative to coal. Poland is one of the few countries in Eastern Europe that does not yet have a nuclear power station. That will nevertheless have to change by 2033. Warsaw states that nuclear reactors are an important alternative to coal-fired power stations. This is because they are ‘adaptable’. Which basically means that they can be cranked up at night when the wind isn’t blowing. Or in winter when there is hardly any sun. That will ensure that there is never a shortage of electricity.

Independence from Russia

There is something that plays a role in the background to all these plans for 2040. And that’s the desire to become independent of energy from arch enemy Russia as soon as possible. Alongside nuclear energy, the import of liquid natural gas (LNG) serves as an alternative to Russian coal and gas.

The electricity plan for 2020 and 2040 currently looks like this:

The electricity plan for 2020 and 204020202040
Brown coal8,6 gigawatt3,4 gigawatt
Coal15,6 gigawatt7,6 gigawatt
Gas and cogeneration2,4 gigawatt12,4 gigawatt
Onshore windmills9,5 gigawatt9,8 gigawatt
Offshore windmills08 gigawatt
Solar panels1,3 gigawatt16 gigawatt
Nuclear energy04 gigawatt

 

European Commissioner Timmermans wants CO2 tax at the EU’s outer border

CO2 uitstoot schoorstenen

Dutch European Commissioner Frans Timmermans (who will be responsible for climate issues) wants to introduce a CO2 tax at the outer border of the European Union. This is in order to avoid products that have not been manufactured in a climate-neutral way. He announced this measure during his approval hearing at the European Parliament. There they are appointing the new European Commission which will take up office next month. According to Timmermans, this is the only way to get the European climate law passed which he is to present this spring. The exact date on which this border tax is to come into effect should be revealed in this climate law. It will apply to all Member States.

A 55% reduction by 2030

This climate law ought to include information on how the Member States will make their economies climate-neutral. CO2 emissions must be reduced by 55% by 2030, Timmermans announced. That is 10% more than what was originally agreed to. By 2050, CO2 emissions need to zero out on balance. With that commitment, in two weeks’ time he will start his mandate as European Commissioner for Climate Change. His most important task will be to deliver a so-called ‘Green Deal’. The new climate law is an important part of this. Along with that, he wants to overhaul legislation on greenhouse gas emissions and energy.

European Commissioner Frans Timmermans announces the CO2 border tax in the European Parliament Image: still live streaming

The problem is not that achieving CO2-neutral production is not technically possible, says Erik Klooster. He is managing director of VNPI, a Dutch association which brings together the major petrochemical companies (together with the chemical and metal industries, who are the main producers of CO2), such as Shell and Esso. “It is,” he states. The problem is that making the industry CO2-neutral makes manufacturing much more expensive. This makes the industry less competitive compared to industry in countries that are not implementing any climate measures. If there is no such border tax, European industry will be forced out of business. “Esso has been calling for this kind of carbon adjustment or carbon border tax for years,” says Klooster. “It is the only way to make Europe climate-neutral.”

A leading role

That is also what Commissioner Timmermans told the European Parliament, who will have to approve his new climate legislation next year. “We shouldn’t want to bring in products that are cheaper because they have not taken the environment into account. I think that such a CO2 border tax will be subject to an assessment from the WTO. If, for example, a country such as China or India also starts to produce in a CO2-neutral way, we will drop that tax on their products.”

Also read: Former Secretary of State of the United States: Quadruple the CO2 price and let the polluter pay

Empty gas fields

That’s also the purpose of such a levy, says Klooster. “The EU’s share in global CO2 emissions is relatively small. So we don’t have to do it for that sake.” The EU, and the Netherlands in particular, can play an important pioneering role by involving other countries in the world such (as India and China) in the production of clean energy. “Industry in the Netherlands is geographically close to each other. There are enough empty gas fields available in the next few decades for storing CO2 that has been emitted and captured. It is therefore cheaper to build a pipeline for CO2 transport to an empty gas field than it is in England, for example. Industry is scattered all over the country there.

Extracting CO2 from air

Another method of achieving CO2-neutral production is to capture the greenhouse gas and bind it to hydrogen via a chemical process. This creates a synthetic fuel that can be reused. This is also a way to ensure that aircraft that don’t fly electrically and therefore continue to emit CO2 will still be able to operate in a climate-neutral way, says Klooster. “You can extract the amount of CO2 that an aircraft produces out of the air, and then store or process it.”

Also read: Aviation industry to European Commission: ‘money is needed to develop zero-emission aircraft’

National Parliaments

The question is whether national parliaments are prepared to sign the climate legislation that Timmermans will be proposing. For example, the Polish Member of the European Parliament Anna Zalewska ( from the Conservatives and Reformists faction) said at the Timmermans hearing prior to his appointment as European Commissioner for Climate last month, that she feared it would destroy Polish industry. Much of it runs on coal. “Hundreds of billions of euros are needed to make the transition possible. We just don’t have that.”

Euro-parliamentarian Anna Zalewska, from the Conservatives and Reformists faction, says that Poland does not have enough money to abandon coal.

Money for Poland en Greece

Timmermans replied that money had to be sent to countries such as Poland and Greece because they are unable to pay for the energy transition themselves. “My grandparents were miners in Heerlen. When the mines were still open, Heerlen was the second richest city in the Netherlands. After the closure of the mines, Heerlen changed into one of the poorest municipalities in the Netherlands. We must make sure that we prevent this from happening in the European regions that are currently dependent on coal.”

Also read: BMW Director: ‘Make recharging electric cars as easy as recharging smartphones’

Timmermans stressed that there is absolutely no future for the coal industry. He wants to work together with national and local authorities, the European Investment Bank and make use of existing EU funds for this transition by diverting them towards making the EU climate-neutral.

Cost: 200 billion euros per year

An important part of the money needed to make poor, coal-dependent regions climate-neutral should come from richer EU countries such as The Netherlands and Germany. Their national parliaments must approve the new climate law, including the redistribution of financial resources. Commissioner Timmermans predicted that it would take in total €200 billion a year over the next five years to make the EU climate-neutral. “But the Member States are almost as stingy as the Dutch,” he said. “They have to open their wallets.”

Best read: How to live in a more climate-neutral way

Earth Overshoot Day fell on July the 29th this year. On that day, we had used up all the natural resources for this year that the earth is capable of providing in a single year. That means that from this day on, we are living off our planet’s reserves. As of now, 1.7 earths are needed in order to be able to replace everything we use. And if everyone would live like the average Dutch person, you would then need about 3.5 earths. In other words, it doesn’t look good. You can compensate for this by taking a shorter shower, grabbing your bike more often or by buying less products packaged in plastic.

Many scientists see cultured meat as a solution to the greenhouse gas problem caused by livestock. In theory, it should be possible to grow ten thousand kilos of cultured meat using just one cell. In his column last week, Auke Hoekstra discussed how cultured meat could make the earth a more wonderful place. It was our best read story of the week. Unfortunately for Hoekstra (and the rest of us), it is unlikely that we will be eating a leg of cultured lamb at Christmas next year. The best alternative at the moment is to just avoid meat. And if you really want to make an impact, you shouldn’t fly anywhere or go on winter sports anymore. You shouldn’t have children, you should sell your car and you could stop buying imported products.

The list of climatic sins is just getting longer. The latest addition: a bunch of flowers. The Dutch conservation group Milieu Centraal looked at the CO2 emissions from 19 types of cut flowers.They then sorted them by each month of the year. In doing this, the organization wants to provide insight into when you could buy certain flowers with a clear conscience. And how did that turn out? Approximately 33 % of the flowers surveyed are out of the question for climate-conscious citizens whatever the season. Producing a bunch of these flowers emits more than 4 kilos of CO2. This is even more than the 3.4 kilos of CO2 that a 100 gram beef steak produces.

Strictly abstaining from everything on the blacklist probably won’t really make your life any better. Innovation Origins likes to take a more constructive approach and is looking for alternatives that won’t make you feel guilty right off the bat. What can you do to live in a more climate-neutral way?

Maybe you’re already doing a good job. Check that here and calculate when Earth Overshoot Day would fall if everyone were to live like you.

No guilt-mongering

Marieke Reisinger, spokesperson for climate and mobility at Milieu Centraal explains that their figures are not intended to make people feel guilty. “We don’t want to point the finger all the time, that’s counter-productive. Nobody would listen to that. We just want to make it clear to people what they can do to live more consciously. It makes a big difference whether you put roses from Kenya on the table every weekend or get them from the Netherlands.”

The average Dutch person buys six pairs of shoes and about twenty new items of clothing every year. Just by buying three pieces of clothing less, you save about 57 kg of CO2 per year. (For your information: an average Dutch household emits 20.2 tons of CO2 per year. Clothing makes up 5 % of that total. According to data from Milieu Centraal). But what if you don’t want to live without all that new stuff yet still want to live more consciously? A good alternative to new clothes is a clothes library. Here you can ‘borrow’ clothes for a fixed amount per month. As a result, clothes are worn for a longer period of time and are less likely to end up in the wastebasket or an old closet. Production levels can be reduced because you don’t have to buy new clothes. That saves on CO2 emissions.

Suzanne Smulders from Lena Library, a clothes library in Amsterdam, reckons that the library will have saved on production of about 30,000 garments by the end of this year. “We’ve been keeping track of that since it was founded five years ago. Each pair of trousers borrowed by a member does not have to be bought. That saves on production. The average member borrows two items of clothing each month. However, we also have people who come by for special occasions.” All those trousers, dresses or jackets account for 20,000 kg of CO2 and 16 million liters of water. ” We have based our calculations on an average weight per garment and percentage of fabric. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be possible to make that sum.”

Lena Library in Amsterdam © Huib van Wersch

From conscious laundry to sustainable nutrition

What is more important to Smulders is that when people borrow clothes, they become more aware of other things. This is done in a few steps at a time, she explains. “That can start with how you do your laundry. You care about your clothes and want them to last as long as possible. But effective washing also saves water and energy. Since you are aware of this, it takes less effort to focus on your food or amount of waste, for example. Members also point out that they are more conscientious when buying stuff.”

The collection includes not only vintage looks that have been around for about 25 years, but also new items from young designers. They take quality and durability into account at the library. “The clothing from the sixties and seventies is made with qualitatively better fabrics than is currently the case with mass production. The finishing touches are incredibly meticulous. This means that you are still able to wear these clothes today.”

And does Smulders check where young designers get their fabrics from? “You can look at all kinds of aspects of sustainability. For instance, what kind of factory does the fabric come from? How is it made? Good fabrics are a big investment for young designers. We think it’s important that they do their production locally. And minimize residual waste by making good use of fabrics. This clothing is also sustainable because it is of good quality, which means that it will last longer. This also makes a difference when it comes to production.”