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


Backstory: Coal Curtain replaces the Iron Curtain, but there is hope on the horizon

Interim targets have been set for 2020 and 2030 in the run-up to 2050 European climate targets. The member states must specify their intentions for achieving these targets in a national climate and energy plan. Hungary is not exactly at the forefront when it comes to these proposals. Recently, the country was even partly responsible for thwarting a European climate agreement. In spite of this, experts see sufficient opportunities for a sustainable future. Not only for Hungary, but also for the rest of the region.

European climate and energy plans

In order to pave the way for the energy transition in Europe, all 28 member states were asked to submit a national Energy and Climate Plan by 31 December 2018 with concrete proposals for phasing out their coal-fired power plants and for the reduction of CO2 emissions through energy-saving measures, sustainable mobility and the use of renewable energy sources. After an assessment of these provisional plans, the member states must submit a definite, updated version by the 31st of December this year at the latest.

Not only was Hungary two months late in delivering its initial plan, but the plan was more or less rejected on all points by the European Commission. In one example, Hungary estimates that the proportion of their renewable energy sources will reach a mere 20% by 2030, while the minimum is set at 32%. It remains to be seen whether any notable improvements can be expected in the short term in Hungary. This also applies to the other central European countries.

As such, Hungary is certainly not at the top of the class when it comes to combating climate change and working towards the energy transition. On the contrary, together with Poland, the Czech Republic and Estonia, the country even managed to prevent the signing of a European climate agreement last June.

Hungarian officials and state media are in the habit of downplaying and ridiculing climate concerns. For example, in an interview with President János Áder in the run-up to the Climate Summit in Chile, the presenter from the state-run Híradó Rádió spoke of ‘climate hysteria’. Áder himself dismissed Hungary’s accountability for CO2 emissions as ‘negligible.’ As well as that of the annual European proportion of CO2 emissions, which was purported to be as much as China has on a single day. A major gaffe, according to the independent online publication 444.hu. In fact, this ratio is not 365 times as much, instead it is just three times as much.

Low energy costs

As in other Central European countries, global warming is still seen as being far removed from daily life in Hungary. In a region with a rapidly ageing population and low levels of prosperity, public health is seen as the primary focal point.

A curious rationale. All the more so because of the air pollution caused by the burning of coal and solid fuels in traditional wood-burning stoves poses an enormous health risk. Especially since it is still the most important form of heat supply in the Hungarian countryside. That’s in Hungary. But even more so in a traditional coal country like Poland, where 70% of the population still uses coal. And where, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), 36 of the 50 European cities with the worst air pollution are located.

Yet the main reason for clinging to fossil resources has to do with the low energy prices. Which, by the way, are being kept low artificially. It is claimed that investments in the energy transition would drive up monthly costs for the population. Plus, in such populist-ruled countries, it’s easy to score with low-energy bills. Especially during elections. Regardless of what the long-term consequences are for the population. And aside from the question why they can keep prices down for coal but can’t seem to do that for sustainable sources.

Coal Curtain instead of Iron Curtain

Compared to the northern and western parts of Europe, Central European countries are still more or less dependent on fossil resources, according to the report titled ‘The Energy Transition in Central and Eastern Europe: The business case for a higher ambition’ by the renowned Prince of Wales Corporate Leaders Group from the Institute for Sustainability Leadership at the University of Cambridge.

After all, besides being consumers, Poland and the Czech Republic are also producers of coal. The Czech Republic is an exporter as well. Although Hungary still has only one coal-fired power station left, Mátra Erömü, but this one is linked to Orbán’s faithful childhood friend, the number one Hungarian oligarch, Lörinc Mészáros. The closure of the plant is, therefore, out of the question, although the Hungarian government claims that this is purely and entirely to do with the jobs involved.

The Mátrai Erömü coal-fired power station Photo Wikipedia Commons

On balance, 30 years later, Europe is now at risk of being split in two by a Coal Curtain instead of an Iron Curtain.

Green alternatives

Out of concern about these developments, various ‘green’ organizations, companies and NGOs from the so-named Visegrad countries of Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary, along with neighboring Austria, have recently joined forces to form the Visegrad+ Platform. The aim is to initiate energy transition in the region as an alternative to the official state policy. One of the initiators is Energiaklub, a Hungarian NGO that focuses on spreading scientific understanding of environmental and climate issues and energy transition.

Experts from this Energiaklub, together with those from the Hungarian sustainable mobility company Mobilissimus, the Hungarian think tank Városkutatás and the European think tank E3G, all provided input as well for the previously mentioned report – ‘The Energy Transition in Central and Eastern Europe’ – in March last year.

This report not only draws alarming conclusions, but at the same time proposes solutions too. For example, the report states that buildings in the former Eastern Bloc countries in Central Europe are responsible for a significant share of energy demand. The outdated public transport network from the socialist era also leaves a lot to be desired. But according to the authors, this is also the solution to this problem. After all, with regard to both energy efficiency in the built-up environment and sustainable mobility, much-needed investments and effective measures could yield considerable benefits. For example, the typical prefabricated flats from the Eastern Bloc period can be renovated in a sustainable manner using standardized solutions. These are fairly simple to implement. And existing initiatives such as electric vehicles and bicycle and car-sharing programs could be expanded even further.

Earnings from renewable energy

Furthermore, the energy transition could be accelerated by the use of renewable energy sources. For instance, solar PV is an excellent option for Hungary, just as it is for Romania and Bulgaria. Countries with a coastline such as Poland and the Baltic States would be able to make a lot of money from onshore and offshore wind farms. Also, Slovenia and the Czech Republic would be able to generate their own electricity from hydroelectric power stations thanks to their mountain rivers. Lastly, the possibilities with geothermal energy are worth exploring, as well as lesser-known renewable energy sources such as tidal and wave energy.

With the appointment of a ‘green’ mayor to the Hungarian capital city of Budapest, who is not affiliated with the governing party of Fidesz, at least there will be some fresh winds blowing through the eastern part of Europe. All the more so because, in his victory speech on 13 October, the brand new mayor promised not only to commit himself to a ‘green and free Budapest’, but also to strive for closer ties to Europe.