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Poland is in an energy bind

Heavily reliant on coal, Poland is facing pressure to switch to renewables while its facilities already need an upgrade.

Smoke bellows from the chimneys of Belchatow Power Station, Europe's largest biggest coal-fired power plant, on May 7, 2009 file photo. (Peter Andrews/Reuters)

KATOWICE, Poland — Carbon dioxide and global warming have an entirely different meaning when more than 90 percent of your electricity is generated from coal.

That is why Poland has become the leader of a coalition of European coal-burning countries determined to ensure that the costs of CO2 emissions mitigation is borne fairly by wealthy countries as well as poorer developing ones.

The latest fight is over the European Union’s proposal to spread the pain of reducing emissions so that poorer countries also do their share in cutting greenhouse gasses. Poland is adamant that any aid paid to poorer countries in the rest of the world should come mainly from the wealthiest nations of Europe.

“We do not believe that the poorer countries of Europe will help the poorer countries of the world on behalf of the richer European countries,” said Poland's Finance Minister Jacek Rostowski.

The issue is an acute one for Poland because coal is by far the country's main source of energy, and there is no sign of that situation ending in the foreseeable future.

A new plan that looks at the country’s energy needs to 2030, which was accepted by the government earlier in November, is frank about coal’s importance: “Eliminating coal from the portfolio of primary energy resources would worsen Poland’s energy security,” says the document.

The plan does make some concessions to environmental concerns. Energy derived from coal is to drop from 94 percent today to 60 percent in 2030, with the rest made up by a new nuclear plant, renewable energy and gas.

Poland’s current reliance on coal is making it a growing target of environmental groups. In the leadup to an EU summit last month, Donald Tusk, Poland’s prime minister, was portrayed as a green Frankenstein monster (next to a Nicolas Sarkozy Dracula, Angela Merkel skeleton and Gordon Brown witch) above a plea asking EU leaders to support a climate finance package.

But the pressure has not swayed Poland from its strategy. The country is gradually shifting to less polluting forms of energy under pressure from the EU, which has committed to its ambitious 20/20/20 program — producing 20 percent of the EU’s energy with renewables and a 20 percent reduction in CO2 emissions by 2020.

But for now coal continues to be king.