Poland and the E.U. Climate Veto: All about Culture?

Poland has vetoed efforts in the European Union to develop climate milestones for future reductions in carbon emissions. The EU was trying to design climate goals for 2020, 2030, 2040, and 2050 and to coordinate activity in all the countries.  Negotiations have been lengthy and various arrangements have been made with countries wary about this agreement.  Poland, however, disrupted them entirely by vetoing the approach.

What is interesting about this is that extensive concessions were made on almost every point for Poland.   Jason Anderson of WWF commented that: “To date, the EU has bent over backwards to accommodate Polish interests by showing flexibility on targets, rules and funding”. In addition, Poland seems to be able to meet 2020 goals fairly easily by simply retiring old coal power plants with newer coal power plants: a strategy already planned.

So, the negotiation disruption is slightly abnormal: The pusher states are willing to provide significant concessions for other states, and it is not fear of meeting requirements that is stopping Poland from signing on to the agreement.  Why is this the case?

  1. Current and future money.  Poland has sizable coal reserves which it uses to supply the vast majority of its energy.  In addition, Europe gets about 1/3 of its energy from coal resources.  Although Poland does not export large amounts of coal, the coal industry is a powerful domestic interest group and, as noted before on this blog, they may be playing a future game rather than a current one.  However, Poland does possess some of the best wind resources in Eastern Europe, but without any interest group organized on its behalf, we shouldn’t be surprised with the approach taken by Poland.
  2. Lack of scientific consensus in Poland.  The Committee of Geological Sciences of the Polish Academy of Scientists is one of the only national scientific bodies to disagree with the IPCC findings.  High ranking politicians dispute the scientific findings of the IPCC.  In addition, Poland has the second lowest percentage of the population thinking that climate change is a significant problem (36%) according to a 2009 Pew study.  This follows the major meeting in Poznan in 2008, which bodes poorly for the ability to raise the profile of the problem in the country.
  3. Cultural Attachment.  An editorial from Warsaw made some provocative claims regarding why the Polish government vetoed progress on this issue.  The contention was that the climate negotiations were simply targeted at making coal extinct:

It is quite clear that the EU strategy is to eliminate coal as the heaviest carbon dioxide emitter. Coal energy is to be costlier than gas and even wind energy – that’s the meaning of the climate policy…the main line on which the EU is selling its climate policy is becoming independent from fossil fuels – oil, gas or col – extracted in politically unstable countries or ugly dictatorships. Putting aside the fact that this smells of 17th-century mercantilism and hypocrisy (China imports somehow don’t bother anyone too much), the argument is also completely off-the-mark in Poland’s case.

The contention seems to be then that European climate efforts are attacking coal, which is considered an essentially Polish good (while wind power is Danish and German).  Certainly, Poland has a lengthy and dramatic history with coal mining.  Similar issues develop in West Virginia in the United States where coal is invented as a necessary or positive product whose mining should not be disrupted.  It goes deeper than simply jobs and employment, as the tourist guide to West Virginia explains: “Maybe the biggest part of our West Virginia heritage, and one of the best, is our coal mining history.”

It seems to me that explaining Poland’s stark refusal may be explained by the strong impact of coal on the country’s employment, economy, etc.  Maybe part of it is also their hesitance to accept anthropogenic climate change.  Both of these seem to be adequate reasons for reticence to join, but only the deep heritage attachment to coal seems to truly capture the dynamics.

Climate change negotiations will confront many places who have developed around fossil fuel economies and attempts to restrict fossil fuels will be challenging the history of those places.  This got me thinking on an accommodation that might get us somewhere: recognize the role of coal.  Hold it up as an amazing material that people risked their lives daily to provide to the world and power industry for 300 years.  Include it as a cultural artifact that is deserving of respect.  Indeed, maybe even hold it up as a product whose importance and cultural value needs to be maintained and not degraded with a future of decline.  Let’s preserve coal heritage by putting it behind us.  Maybe this dual recognition of the importance of coal to our recent history and the need to now move beyond that can get us somewhere.  At least beyond vetoes.

A Polish mining song to play us off stage.


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