Holidays with smog
New challenges to Poland’s energy policy
The Polish energy policy is seeing further controversies. Alongside problems related to the war in Ukraine and support for refugees, rampant inflation and rising prices of products and services, the problem of finding an appropriate energy strategy for the forthcoming heating season is returning. In a regulation of 27 June 2022 (Journal of Laws 2022, item 1351), the Minister of Climate and the Environment, Anna Moskwa, allowed poor quality coal to be sold for 60 days by suspending the application of the higher quality requirements for solid fuels specified in the provisions of regulation of the Minister of Energy of 2018. In practice, this means that, up to 28 August, households are able to buy bituminous coal with a higher content of sulphur and mercury, as well as harmful mining waste, e.g. mining sludge, which have been prevented from being sold since 2018. This decision is already causing considerable controversy not only among climate activists, but also among voivodship (local) authorities that are implementing so-called anti-smog resolutions.
In addition, the European Commission has been looking at the next actions of the Polish government and the local authorities regarding climate policy. The further fate of the green transformation and realistic deadlines for achieving the goals of the European Green Deal are becoming questionable. The application of the regulation and the purchase of poorer quality coal over the holiday period may mean another heating season with smog fumes in later months. The Polish government’s strategy seems to create a conflict between energy sovereignty and ecological security.
The response to the crisis or the search for markets?
A provision was introduced into the Act on the fuel quality monitoring and control system of 2018 stipulating that, if extraordinary events take place on the market resulting in a change in the conditions of supply of solid fuels causing difficulties in complying with the quality requirements or threatening Poland’s energy security, the government may waive the application of the existing requirements for a period of no longer than 60 days, while taking into account the interests of consumers and the assurance of energy security. The Minister of Climate and the Environment based her latest decision of 27 June 2022 on the fact that coal prices have increased significantly because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the Polish government’s decision to stop importing fuels from Russia. This arises from a naturally higher ‘demand for coal, at the expense of natural gas, and the temporarily lower availability of the raw material arising from the need to secure coal supplies from countries other than Russia’. Furthermore, it was argued that ‘the current exceptional situation is directly affecting energy markets, which is creating a risk of citizens not being able to purchase heating coal, which can contribute to an increase in fuel poverty’. It was therefore acknowledged that the waiver of the quality requirements for solid fuels placed onto the market for use in the domestic and municipal sectors would be a short-term measure that significantly reduces the price and simultaneously improves the availability of coal for households. Critics of the Polish government’s strategy argue that this is a step backwards in the anti-smog policy while the effect of this decision will be to increase the PM10 concentration once again during the heating season. Consequently, the pollution of the air with harmful substances causing a direct threat to people suffering from respiratory diseases will increase significantly. Critics of this solution also claim that, although the admittance of poorer quality coal has become possible because of Russia’s aggression with respect to Ukraine, it is, in fact, a pretext to increase the market for the sale of inferior quality coal that has been stockpiled since 2018.
Purchasing – yes, burning – no
The regulation of the Minister of Climate and the Environment came into force just one day after it was enacted, but it has encountered a number of problems related to its application from the beginning. The first is that the regulation only allows for the purchase of coal but does not allow it to be burned. In fact, the latter lies within the discretion of the voivodship assemblies, which may or may not allow the poorer quality raw material to be burned. Therefore, it is hypothetically possible for a household to stock up with several tonnes of coal, only to then be unable to use it because of a decision made by the local authorities. The problem of using ‘dirty’ energy sources has returned to the voivodships which had already introduced restrictive anti-smog resolutions in earlier years. The Małopolskie Voivodship can be cited as an example. An intense discussion on the liberalization of the requirements introduced by the anti-smog resolution is currently taking place. It could transpire that, in the near future, the fight to adopt the existing anti-smog resolutions in the most polluted regions of the country, which have so far brought the expected results of improved air quality, will turn out to be a short-term triumph because of the exception introduced by the latest regulation, encompassing the forthcoming heating period that has been introduced.
One step forward, two steps back
It is noteworthy that the authorities in the Małopolskie Voivodship had already started work on extending the period for replacing ineligible (so called: classless) heaters even before the Minister of Climate and the Environment issued the regulation, which encountered an immediate reaction from the European Commission. A statement was posted on the social media of the profile of the EU Regional Policy in Poland, announcing that Małopolska risked losing EU funding which is being used to implement anti-smog resolutions and the ‘Clean Air’ programme by taking this step.
Two circumstances should be borne in mind in the context of these events. The first is the need for Poland to meet its obligations arising from the European Green Deal. Despite the war in Ukraine and the related energy problems, the European Union is still not backing down from its ambitious objective of achieving climate neutrality by 2050. However, after a meeting of the EU Energy Council, on 27 June 2022, the Polish Minister of Climate and the Environment stated that ‘we have reservations about the overly ambitious rate of change [in achieving the climate objectives – added by the author] which the European Commission is forcing on the Member States. Poland’s opinion is that this rate should be adapted to the capabilities of each country and take into account their specificities’. Furthermore, it should be recalled that the Court of Justice of the European Union ruled already in 2018 (C-336/16) that Poland failed to fulfil the obligations arising from Directive 2008/50/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 21 May 2008 on ambient air quality and cleaner air for Europe. The latest actions of the government in Warsaw allowing poorer quality coal onto the market can place a question mark over Poland’s ability and willingness to comply with the EU requirements. It cannot be ruled out that the Ministry of Climate and the Environment will extend the current 60-day purchasing period despite the start of the new ‘Clean Air +’ programme on 15 July 2022. It aims to support households in Poland by prefinancing of replacing classless heaters and insulating homes.
Poland’s energy policy seems to pursue two different directions. On the one hand, we can observe the efforts of local authorities towards improving air quality and creating the new tools to encouraging households to invest in new-generation heating systems and renewable energy sources. On the other hand, coal is still the main source in Poland’s energy mix with a more than 70 percent share in 2021, whereas at the same time, in Europe, the average oscillated around 14 percent. In this regard, the latest regulation allowing poorer quality coal to be sold may again lead to a dramatic increase of air pollution, causing health problems for many people. It can also result in number of climate-related lawsuits against the Polish government. In addition, the next serious dispute between Poland and the EU related to this problem is feasible. In a few months, we might come to find that the price for energy sovereignty based on coal and the lower costs of energy can be unfortunately significantly greater than the expected profits.
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