With 30 operating coal mines, Poland ranks high on the list of environmental NGOs' most toxic European countries.
Aside from high levels of CO2 and fine particles emissions caused by coal fired power plants, the widespread domestic use of coal is causing drastic air pollution, way above European standards.
The European Environment Agency estimated that air pollution kills some 50,000 people each year in Poland.
Poland also hosts 5 of the 30 coal fired plants listed as the dirtiest and top CO2 emitting in Europe.
The host of the COP24 is also Europe’s second biggest coal producer, after Germany, and Europe’s black sheep when it comes to conforming to the 2015 Paris agreement. While coal accounts for 80% of the country’s electricity generation, experts have estimated that the share of coal in Poland’s energy mix should fall to 39% by 2030, for it to reach the 2% global warming target set for 2100. Yet the Polish government’s latest energy programme plans still aims at a 60% threshold for coal by 2030.
Warsaw is also opposed to the EU’s decision to increase CO2 reduction aims, and decarbonisation plans for 2050. A stance reflecting the position of the country’s powerful coal industry, but also it’s long lasting love affair with coal, in a country where coal miners, according to a recent survey, are more respected than doctors and teachers.
Europe's biggest coal mine
On the outskirts of Katowice in Poland, lies the biggest hard coal mine in Europe. Employing some 3,500 workers, it is one of the symbols of a region long described as Poland’s kingdom of coal. Coal mining here is not just an industry, but the essence of Silesia’s identity. It’s a hard and dangerous job says Radek, but he couldn’t think of doing anything else.
"I have seen this mine from my window my entire life. My father was a miner, my grandfathers worked in the mines. This is a tradition transmitted from generation to generation. It’s hard to explain why, but something draws me to it, and I keep working in this mine," said coal miner Radek Wojnar.
In a country where coal accounts for 80% of electricity generation, the European Union’s climate and energy targets, which include phasing out of fossil fuels, do not go down well with an industry which employs some 85,000 people.
And adding the high energy consuming industries, like steel and metal works, half a million jobs depend on the coal sector, says the regional head of Poland’s Solidarity union.
Dominik Kolorz, head of the Solidarnośc Union regional board in Silesia: “If this process of decarbonisation happens as fast as the European Union wants it to, we will not be able to survive it, economically and socially.”
The Polish coal mining sector has already gone through deep restructuring in the past decades. The transition was not always successful.
The city of Walbrzych, in lower Silesia, has still not recovered from the closure of all the mines in the vicinity.
After losing his job as a miner nearly 2 decades ago, Roman traveled across Europe to find work, only to return penniless. He lives from odd jobs, and occasionally, from the so-called poverty pits, illegal mines dug in the outskirts of the city
Police crackdowns have increased. But this won’t deter those who, says Roman, have no other option to make a living.
Former coal miner Roman Janiscek said: “The authorities will come, they will fill the holes. But people form the poverty pits will keep digging anyway. Because coal was, is and will always be needed.”
“Far from the high level talks in Katowice, considerations on climate change remain a distant luxury in the eyes of those like Roman, for whom the decline of coal has meant nothing but sorrow,” says Euronews correspondent Valerie Gauriat.