Climate crisis: Poland knows coal's days are numbered - but it's determined to pursue energy transition on its own terms

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Coal will hang like a smog cloud over the COP26 climate summit, which starts in Glasgow this weekend, as world economies struggle to wean themselves off fossil fuel dependency.

The EU in particular has set ambitious energy goals, including a target of climate neutrality by 2050.

But some of the bloc's members have earned a reputation as energy reform laggards; most notably Poland - already at loggerheads with Brussels on a range of issues.

Around 70% of Poland's energy comes from coal, and there is a powerful coal lobby advocating furiously in the country.

Despite this, Warsaw knows coal's days are numbered. The government has plans for the state-controlled energy companies to pivot towards renewables, and include more gas in Poland's energy mix.

The state plans to build the country's first-ever nuclear plant by 2033.

But Poland is adamant that decarbonisation will be a difficult, long-term process, and it was a vocal opponent of aspects of the EU's Green Deal.

The controversy surrounding just one coal mine illustrates the Poles' determination to pursue an energy transition on its own terms, even if that means clashing with EU neighbours.

Close to the borders with Germany and the Czech Republic lies the Turow mine. In business since 1904, the mine churns out more than 27 million tonnes of lignite (brown coal) every year.

The coal feeds the nearby power plant that provides around 7% of Poland's electricity, and the government has extended its license to operate from 2026 to 2044.

As the mine, operated by the state-controlled Polska Grupa Energetyczna (PGE) power company, exploits the final reserves, it will creep closer and closer to the Czech border.

In the Czech village of Uhelna, the Turow mine is visible across the international frontier. Residents can see, hear and sometimes smell the place they say is threatening their water supply.

Milan Starec lives here with his family in a house built in 1772. He likes to tell his children their home is older than the United States of America.

There's a small well in the back garden that he says went dry around 40 years ago, the same time the Turow mine first started expanding towards the border.

"For about 200 years, this was the only water source for his house, and actually every house in the village had its own well", he says. "But now all of the wells are empty, and we are all depending on the one common water source, which only has seven metres left."

Uhelna's residents say their groundwater is being drained towards the Turow mine, and Mr Starec's activism on the issue helped pressure the Czech government to take action against Poland.

The European Court of Justice ordered the Poles to close down the mine until a final judgement is rendered. When Poland refused, the court fined the country €500,000 a day. Poland's government says the fine will go unpaid.

"It's a probability, not just a threat, that the whole village will lose water", says Milan. "All the houses will lose water."

But those claims are denied by PGE. Rafal Skorupinski, the chief engineer at the Turow mine, told Sky News that "our activity does not impact the water layer in question".

The company says Czech water issues are not caused by the mine's presence, and Rafal is keen to point out they've been engaging with the Czechs since 2015.

On the wider issue of Poland's coal dependency, Mr Skorupinski says: "It's what comes out of the chimney that matters, not what you put in the furnace. When you meet the [environmental] standards on harmful emissions, which we do, then you can continue using that fuel."

Echoing the Polish government line, he accepts a transition must come, but feels Poland's critics are demanding an unrealistic timetable.

Closing the mine would disrupt the power supply to millions of Polish households, he says. But it would also be felt further afield.

"The power plant currently works for the entire European electric energy system. For example, today, all our output is exported to… the Czech Republic."

Of course, the issue is not just about fuelling power stations. With around 100,000 people employed by the Polish coal industry, there are jobs and livelihoods at stake.

Bogatynia is the nearest Polish town to Turow. With a population of just 17,000, it doesn't take long to find people that depend on the coal mine for their income.

Ireneusz Hryniewski works for the PGE power plant that feeds off the mine's coal. He had heard about the European Court of Justice ruling and says it would be a disaster for the area if the mine shut down.

He claims that "between 60,000 and 80,000 people would lose their wages."

And he's dismissive of the Czechs' water claims. "It's not true their groundwater levels are falling", he says. "I've many friends there and it's not the case. They've just convinced themselves that it is."

We meet Jadwiga, a widow of a Turow coal miner. "I've heard about the [EU] ruling", she tells us. "We distraught by it around here. In a united Europe, we feel like the Czechs and the Germans are pushing us into a corner. They have so many mines and power plants, and they want us to get rid of our one, which supports the local community."

But she also holds a nuanced view about the mine's future - one that effectively paraphrases Poland's approach to the end of coal, as COP26 looms.

"We understand the ecology", Jadwiga says. "But we want the transition away from coal to be unhurried…and gradually as planned."

Should the mine and power plant shut down, she says the area's young people will migrate to work elsewhere in Europe, and it will be old people like her left behind.

"And", she adds, "that's how these towns will meet their death."

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